In January of 2021, AIER Authors Corner host Ethan Yang interviewed Dr. Maja Graso, a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, one of New Zealand’s top universities. Dr. Graso was the lead researcher on a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Physiology. The study was titled, “Moralization of Covid-19 health response: Asymmetry in tolerance for human costs” which outlined how people’s perceptions of Covid-19 could alter their ability to make an objective cost-benefit analysis. A summary published by AIER can be found here. The study demonstrated that Covid-19 has been turned into a moral issue rather than a policy issue, which brings a level of vitriol and passion that is atypical for most issues in society that have not been moralized.
In the interview, Ethan and Dr. Graso discuss why the topic of moralization is worth studying, examples of moralized behavior regarding Covid-19, the results of the study, what it means to have asymmetric tolerances for human cost, and viewing moralization in the context of history.
For example, when discussing transportation policy, something that is not usually viewed through a moral lens, people would be concerned about the most cost-effective and efficient way of getting everyone from point A to point B. All proposals would likely be weighed with a steady hand and an open mind.
An example of a moral issue would be slavery. In a conversation about slavery, people would not be interested in cost-benefit analysis and discussion. Slavery would and should be condemned without any further consideration. The proposal that recommends slavery should on its face be viewed as flawed and society should do its best to be as anti-slavery as possible without any consideration for its benefits.
The results of the study are unsurprising, especially if you simply pay attention to the way people act in regards to Covid-19 and lockdowns. Questioning lockdowns, masks, and the public health experts in power, no matter how reasonable, is frowned upon. Despite all the obvious damage to society that the past year has brought, questioning many of the prevailing narratives is often met with hostility. This looks nothing like a reasonable cost-benefit analysis and more like a religion where merit is received by showing one’s unwavering devotion. In this case, that would be a commitment to sacrificing basic societal functions and reason in exchange for some abstract feeling of morality.
One part of the study had subjects react to a series of hypothetical situations such as the public shaming of a health expert. The study found that subjects viewed attacks on the health expert to be more civil if the expert was advocating against lockdowns than if the expert was pro-lockdown.
The second part of the study had subjects rate the quality and accuracy of hypothetical studies that were virtually identical in structure except they reached different conclusions on lockdowns. Despite the studies being similar in structure and intentionally crafted to be of equal quality, people tended to view the studies that questioned lockdowns lower on all factors. The study further disaggregates answers by Liberal and Conservative political affiliation. Liberals tended to favor the lockdown study while Conservatives favored the anti-lockdown study. However, the study found that the Liberals exhibited far more extreme biases towards the pro-lockdown study whereas the Conservatives tended to view both studies as equal quality with only a slight inclination towards the anti-lockdown studies as higher quality. To reiterate, both studies were of equal quality and structure.
The moralization of Covid-19 is a long-established phenomenon, and at this point, there is no hope in turning back the clock. It is why it seems to be perfectly acceptable for people to yell at one another on the street, support censorship of dissent, and engage in vitriolic slander in the media. The researchers themselves take no stance on whether moralization is a bad or good thing; they simply wish to point out that it has happened and there are consequences. With this in mind and with the carnage of 2020 hopefully behind us, Dr. Graso’s research should be useful not as a tool to support a particular viewpoint but as a critical insight on why history played out the way it did. In fact, it would likely be impossible to explain our behavior as a society without considering the impact of moralization.