Moralization of Covid-19 health response: Asymmetry intolerance for human costs

Abstract

We hypothesized that because Covid-19 (C19) remains an urgent and visible threat, efforts to combat its negative health consequences have become moralized. This moralization of health-based efforts may generate asymmetries in judgment, whereby harmful by-products of those efforts (i.e., instrumental harm) are perceived as more acceptable than harm resulting from non-C19 efforts, such as prioritizing the economy or non-C19 issues. We tested our predictions in two experimental studies. In Study 1, American participants evaluated the same costs (public shaming, deaths and illnesses, and police abuse of power) as more acceptable when they resulted from efforts to minimize C19’s health impacts, than when they resulted from non-health C19 efforts (e.g., prioritizing economic costs) or efforts unrelated to C19 (e.g., reducing traffic deaths). In Study 2, New Zealand participants less favorably evaluated the quality of a research proposal empirically questioning continuing a C19 elimination strategy in NZ than one questioning abandoning an elimination strategy, although both proposals contained the same amount of methodology information. This finding suggests questioning elimination approaches is morally condemned, a similar response to that found when sacred values are questioned. In both studies, condition effects were mediated by lowered moral outrage in response to costs resulting from pursuing health-minded C19 efforts. Follow-up analyses revealed that both heightened personal concern over contracting C19 and liberal ideology were associated with greater asymmetries in human cost evaluation. Altogether, results suggest reducing or eliminating C19 have become moralized, generating asymmetries in evaluations of human suffering.

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