Is Water Disgusting?

Is Water Disgusting?

Wet feces are more disgusting than dry ones. Suppurating wounds are more disgusting than non-suppurating wounds. Blood is disgusting, so is urine, so is saliva. The waterier something is the more disgusting it becomes. It is hard to think of dry things that are disgusting. Liquidity makes for disgustingness. One would think, then, that water is a disgust trigger, since it contributes to disgust. But it isn’t. True, stagnant or polluted water is disgusting, as is peculiar-tasting water, or muddy water; but water itself, pure water, is not generally found disgusting. Odd: oughtn’t it to be a potent source of disgust? Isn’t it the salient ingredient of objects of disgust? Remove water from the world and disgust is abolished, pretty much (even dry corpses are much less disgusting than moist ones). The slug, the fish, the slimy, the clammy—these are the animals most disgusting to us (not so the dry cat or elephant). Aren’t these things disgusting in virtue (partly) of their wateriness? And yet water itself is strangely non-disgusting—we even drink it! If water were not something we drink and bathe in, would we find it as non-disgusting as we do? Are we just habituated to its disgustingness? Compare fear: many people are aquaphobic and everyone knows the dangers of water. Hence, we are ambivalent about water: we like it and we are afraid of it (with good reason). Water can contain invisible microbes dangerous to health, so why don’t we exhibit a healthy ambivalence towards it—why isn’t it regarded as a potential disgust object? Disgust is close to fear (though not the same), but we don’t seem to have any disgust reaction to water as such. We fear rivers, lakes, and oceans, but we are not disgusted by them, even though the presence of water in other things occasions extreme disgust reactions (most liquids are made of water). A bowl of spit is regarded as highly disgusting, yet it is made mostly of water; if the water was distilled out, you could drink it (so long as you don’t know its salivary history). Dirty water is repellent; not so much the water in it, or even the dirt when dried out. This is puzzling, like so much about the emotion of disgust. What is going on?

As I say, habituation may be a factor, but it is hard to believe it is the whole truth. After all, we are intimately acquainted with feces, but their disgust value doesn’t diminish; we are not habituated to shit. The truth, I suspect, is that we are more disgusted by water than we think, but we need it to live, so we accept the bargain. Notice how temperature makes a difference: lukewarm water is often perceived as mildly disgusting, to drink or bathe in. Cold water is “refreshing”, while hot water is “cleansing”; body-temperature water is too close to blood and spit and urine. People don’t thirst for a nice glass of lukewarm water, or look forward to a tepid bath. If you are not thirsty at all, drinking lukewarm water is pretty unpleasant; in fact, it is rather disgusting. Apparently, pregnant women often develop a distaste for water, especially at body temperature. Children often hate pure water, craving more taste in their liquid intake. It wouldn’t take much conditioning to get people to be repelled by water—just dwell on microbes and dirty pipes and suchlike. Even bottled water could be propagandized: all the bacteria in the earth, recycled plastic bottles, etc. We are not far from a general repulsion towards water; many people already can’t drink it at room temperature, and an outbreak of water-borne disease could turn people against water (suppose no such disease could be carried by Coca Cola). We think water is good for us in its pure flavorless form, so we force it down, but we could become persuaded that it is somehow contaminated and not good for us, triggering widespread revulsion. Can’t we imagine aliens who find water repulsive to drink and won’t go near it? Disgustingness is in the eye of the beholder to some extent, so we could become more disgusted by water than we are now. In future centuries we might wonder how our primitive ancestors could bear to drink it or wash with the stuff. Even today no one really likes water—the taste, the texture; it is a cheap thirst quencher not something to enjoy for its own sake. It would not be difficult to develop an aversion to water, say by a near drowning or being waterboarded. Our attitudes towards water are complicated and ambivalent; the balance could easily be tipped against water. People today don’t want to drink blood, finding the very idea repellent, even though their ancestors did it from necessity, and even relished it. The seeds of disgust might already be present in water. It certainly has one property closely interwoven into human disgust reactions: it straddles the life and death divide.[1] Water is essential to life, manifest in living things; but it is in itself lifeless, a mere chemical combination found in places unconnected to life (e.g., asteroids). Water is intrinsically lifeless and yet integral to life; thus, it partakes of both, like the corpse or excrement or spilt blood or toenails. Warm water is especially close to life while being intrinsically dead, because of the temperature of the body, so it can occasion thoughts of creaturely mortality. The vampire drinks warm blood and absorbs life; we drink warm water and feel our own organic warmth. We are 60% warm water, so drinking the stuff is uncomfortably close to our mortal nature. Water stirs deep (if suppressed) emotions of a discomforting kind. So, is water disgusting? A little bit, a little bit. It is more disgusting than diamonds, say, or empty space. It has its own quantum of disgust.[2]

[1] I discuss this in The Meaning of Disgust (2011).

[2] Water is essential to life, but it has no nutritional value: it is not a result of photosynthesis, like food in general. Can you think of anything else of which this is true that you willingly consume? Not pills or medicines (salt, perhaps, but not in large quantities). It is tasteless in pure form, so does nothing for the taste buds, and tasteless food is generally found inedible. It is surprising that we don’t jib at it more. The whole bottled water industry is an attempt to reconcile us to water consumption. We keep ourselves “hydrated”, but we don’t really enjoy the experience. We need water, but we don’t really desire it. We are reconciled to water, but we don’t love it. It’s like air except that we have to take it into our stomach. And it makes us into chronic urinators, which has its own disgust profile.

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4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    It is interesting that wetness is typically accompanied by an unpleasant valence, while water in its pure state is typically considered pure. Does earth contaminate pure water to make mud, or is it the water that is muddying the earth?

    Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        Tangential your post, but prompted by your reply: I have felt for some time that chemistry contains a wealth of phenomena and structure that would be of interest to philosophers of science, and perhaps philosophy more generally. Take the role of water in organic chemistry. What are the abstract principles at play, which must be precursors for life, that allow the creation, propagation and self-reproduction of information bearing entities? The liquid form – solvency, chemical reactivity, stability all seem relevant. Presumably these (and other) concepts have a deeper meaning than what may be associated with mere technical terms.

        Reply

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