Covid19 and Moral Revolutions – Part 1

Saturday May 2nd I was on a panel with John DanaherAnders Sandberg, and David Wood on whether Covid19 will cause any enduring changes to morality. John Danaher has been doing some great blogging and podcasting at the intersection of Covid19 and philosophy for the last couple of months, for example on the ethics of healthcare prioritization and how Covid19 might justify ongoing surveillance measures.

Panel on Covid 19 and Moral revolutions with me, John Danaher, David Wood and Anders Sandberg

In John’s April 21st blog he talks about 8 possible moral revolutions that could come out of this pandemic: hyperutilitarianism, the end of work, a renegotiated social contract, the new death of privacy, the uncertain fate of universalism and cosmopolitanism, a return of disgust based morality, an increase in concern about animal ethics and an increased concern with existential risk. In our conversation, John specified that moral revolutions don’t necessarily mean societies are becoming more progressive, moral or civilized; Moral revolutions can cut both ways. 

Sudden progressive changes in moral ideals are pretty rare. When they do happen it’s because the change in morality conferred some status, reputational or economic benefit, or at least prevented punishment from a high status moral minority. Civil rights for Black people in America was a moral revolution and the acceptance of gay marriage, gay relationships and trans identity was a much faster American moral revolution. But, in part because meat eating is so normal and animals (especially farm animals hidden from view) are not generally capable of conferring  a moral revolution for animals has really never taken off, as I describe in a forthcoming chapter (and I’ll be writing a few blogs on this chapter). 

So, is Covid19 going to have an effect on morality? Here are my thoughts about the intersection of Covid19 and a popular idea in evolutionary psychology, the parasite stress theory. I conclude by discussing the possibility that Covid19 will change our susceptibility to existential risk. There are two follow up blogs, one on how Covid19 might change attitudes towards animals and another on how Covid19 might change our attitudes to government and work.

A Narrower Moral Outlook

The expanding moral circle retracts easily and becomes more fragile as it widens. The universalism, cosmopolitanism, concern for those immediately outside your family and kin group and especially concern for people you will never meet (like millions of people suffering in other countries and the people making up future generations) are cognitive luxuries that we can afford when basic needs are met. Living in the USA where, for example, the majority of people below the poverty line have cable television, a refrigerator and more than enough daily calories is a form of moral luck. But something that we less often consider as a form of affluence is lack of disease. While most of us in the developed world have at least a fleeting acquaintance with being cold, hungry, poor or threatened by other people, very few of us know what it’s like to live somewhere rife with parasites and infectious disease. This is a major reason that terrible diseases like schistosomiasis are neglected in the wealthy west.

What follows is my thinking through of whether Covid19 will impact morality above and beyond the stress and threat that it represents and, as an infectious disease, make societies much more conservative and less progressive.

In the last decade there has been a lot of research on how infectious disease influences moral and political attitudes. Fincher and Thornhill have done some of the best known work on what is known as the parasite stress theory of values and sociality.

Because of the benefits afforded by adaptations for reducing the fitness costs of infectious disease, humans have a behavioral immune system that regulates behaviors aimed at avoiding infection (and perhaps behaviors aimed at managing the costs of infection via social support). The parasite-stress theory makes a grand claim. Because of geographical variation in infectious disease, the behavioral immune system causes geographical variation in a broad range of psychological variables and human affairs: xenophobia, ethnocentrism, dispersal, collectivism, family relations, mating systems, mate choice, sexual behavior, personality, interpersonal violence, religiosity, systems of government, and war. In addition, parasite stress might also cause geographical variation in cognitive abilities (and, therefore, in economic behavior and wealth), diversity in language and religion, and scientific innovation…. Support for the theory consists mostly of correlations between measures of regional levels of parasite stress and the hypothesized outcomes. Clearly, further research is needed to rule out confounds, seek triangulation via different research methods, and test alternative proximate processes – (van Leeuwen, 2016)

I’m not going to delve into the rationale for all of these (and some of them are rather speculative, IMO), but check out Fincher and Thornhill’s book for more info. The basic idea here is that if you live in an environment with high infectious disease risk the likelihood of facing certain adaptive problems is very different than if you live in an environment with low infectious disease risk. These environmental cues move behavior in an adaptive direction with regard to this fitness landscape. Cultural values, your attitudes towards kin and ingroup versus strangers and the outgroup are altered when you are getting infectious disease cues from the environment that indicate you might be disabled by disease or that you might not live that long. For example, if you might soon die of infectious disease, you probably want to follow cultural models of how to prepare food and fulfill social roles more closely because these cultural norms evolve, in part, to mitigate disease risk. If you might soon die of infectious disease you’ll want to prioritize caring for relatives and people in your ingroup or ethnicity because they are more likely to help you or take care of your family if you die.

One popular hypothesis among evolutionary researchers was that we might be wary of outgroup members because they are more likely to carry novel infectious diseases that you and your ingroup would have no immunity to. I thought this idea was pretty compelling myself, but it’s not well supported (eg and eg). There’s a lot of discussion about racism and antiracism in the last several years but I was shocked that very few people in the West seem concerned that an infectious disease was ravaging China in the early part of this year. Perhaps it was because it was out of sight and out of mind. But to me the initial reaction around the world outside of China to Covid 19 was more similar to the kind of reaction I would expect if a closely related hominid species was suffering from an infection rather than other members of our same species. I don’t think that’s racism but I do think it says something about how humans conceptualize who is human.

The parasite stress theory is a sort of new “Guns, Germs and Steel” model of worlwide variation (as you can see with this pun) that is popular, like Jared Diamond’s classic, because it avoids sticky issues of whether there might be genetic or innate psychological differences between ethnic groups that could cause regional differences in culture and ideology. It’s also getting a lot of traction because of the confidence and prolificity of Fincher and Thornhill and because many cross-country analyses have borne out correlations between these variables.

Parasite-stress theory implicitly make a great effective altruism case for reducing infectious disease risk worldwide as it would not only mean fewer people suffering today, but changes in psychology that could facilitate greater global coordination towards mitigating existential risk and solving other enduring problems, as Powell Clarke & Savulescu (2012) put beautifully here in their response to Fincher & Thornhill:

If Fincher & Thornhill’s (F&T’s) thesis is correct, there should be significant changes to the priorities of global health institutions, as well as a substantial increase in the overall global investment in health care. The link between parasite-stress and complex social psychological dispositions implies that the ethical, social, economic, and political benefits that are likely to flow from public health interventions that reduce rates….infectious disease are far greater than have traditionally been thought.

All major conceptions of morality and justice view impartiality as a core moral ideal (Hauser 2006). Moral progress since the Enlightenment is characterized by an expanding circle of moral concern encompassing not just members of one’s ethnic, political, or religious group, but also wider humanity and even some nonhuman animals (Singer 1981). The principle of equality that drives this moral expansion underpins the liberal political institutions that characterize modern constitutional democracy and the rule of law. It requires that individuals be treated equally and be afforded the same basic rights, privileges, and access to social resources. Perhaps the greatest challenge to implementing the impartial moral standpoint comes from strong biopsychological dispositions toward in-group partiality and out-group apathy or antagonism, which create a social-psychological climate in which it is difficult for democratic values and institutions to take root. Moreover, solving the most pressing problems of the 21st century, including global poverty, climate change, and terrorism, will require enhanced levels of intergroup cooperation that historically have been hampered by the restricted altruism and negative intergroup dispositions that characterize strong assortative sociality. We therefore have weighty moral, prudential, and economic reasons for altering ecological conditions that are conducive to the acquisition and perpetuation of such biases, and for assigning these interventions a high priority in the allocation of scarce resources.

So, if parasite stress theory is right we might expect that Covid19 would make societies more conservative and less cosmopolitan, more religious and less secular, more communal and less individualistic and potentially more xenophobic and ethnocentric.

It’s difficult to disentangle exactly what we mean by “cues of disease” or “disease threat”. What is necessary or sufficient to increase conservatism (broadly construed)? In the literature testing this topic sometimes participants are disgusted with images, sometimes they’re told there is a disease threat and sometimes researchers correlate political attitudes with disgust sensitivity (which is also measured a few different ways). I think that if we think of response to infectious disease as a program the inputs would need to be reliably associated with infectious disease.

Compared to somewhat common tropical diseases – like those that precipitate oozing pustules, copious phlegm or shitting your guts out (diarrheal disease is how millions of people die per year, especially children), or compared to basically any macroparasitic disease, a dry cough and some difficulty breathing is not very disgusting. Moreover, the majority of people aren’t going to see something like intubation first hand. Sure, we might expect that any threat economic or otherwise would cause people to prioritize differently. But, in my view, we shouldn’t expect this period of time to change human psychology in a special way related to infectious disease because Covid19 isn’t very disgusting. If there is a special change in psychology that happens in contexts of ubiquitous disease it won’t “come online” without disgust cues because those would have never, ancestrally, been uncoupled with disease threat. In place that aren’t WEIRD where people are actually interacting with sick people personally and handling their dead, things could be quite different (you see how I just made it sound like the whole world was WEIRD up to this point? I’m such a hypocrite).

A few papers are starting to come out examining the impact of Covid19 on conservatism and this paper by Rosenfeld and Tomiyama on American participants used the following rationale:

Threats may be particularly likely to promote conservatism when they include uncertainty, fear of death, instability of social systems, and the potential to evoke disgust (Jost et al., 2003). This last element—disgust—presents a notable element intertwined with the COVID19 pandemic, setting it apart psychologically from many other types of disaster. Unlike the turmoil that results from a natural disaster (e.g., hurricane, earthquake, flood) or a terrorist attack, a pandemic carries with it a ubiquitous sense of pathogen threat. Individuals during the COVID19 pandemic faced not only instability and uncertainty of social order but also threat of contracting the COVID-19 virus from their surrounding social and physical environments. Thus, this pandemic presented a unique scenario in which people were chronically primed with an exponentially growing pathogen threat—a prime that likely activated disgust to motivate pathogen avoidance.

This study showed that participants were more likely and conform to traditional gender roles and endorse traditional gender role stereotypes.  Maybe you, like me, believe that gender roles exist because of innate personality differences that make these roles easier for men and women to fulfill on average, or, you might believe gender roles are inflicted through socialization. Either way it takes effort to go against these stereotypes, effort we have less of during the pandemic. People in lockdown probably settle into what they are good at in the domestic sphere, regardless of why you think they’re good at those particular things. But, I doubt this has anything to do with infectious disease in particular. And these authors didn’t find a change in political ideology over time, which is what you would expect based on the parasite stress model.

Some other interesting studies have come out on the influence of this pandemic on political ideology

  • This Polish study showing that both Americans and Poles endorse more right wing candidates when Covid19 was more salient to them, but importantly, these candidates are also incumbents, representing the status quo. Endorsing the status quo under uncertainty is a very common finding so it’s unclear if people are moving right or just sticking with what they know. Anders talked in the panel about how Swedes are moving towards the Swedish Social Democratic party and away from the more right wing Sweden Democrats as evidence that under the pandemic threat people are more likely to move towards the status quo than necessarily to the right.
  • This study looked at prejudice against a variety of different groups in British and Polish participants. Participants were asked about nationalities with differing exposure to Covid19 (e.g. Hungarians, Italians, Chinese, Mongolians). The study essentially found that increasing news consumption led to slightly higher prejudice against all groups, regardless of where they came from in both participant groups.
  • This preprint examines why conservatives are less concerned with Covid19 than liberals even though conservatives have been found in several studies to be more  threat conscious and disgust sensitive. Unsurprisingly- conservatives are downplaying the pandemic because they don’t want it used as a justification for increased government regulation, and perhaps because they have been less directly influenced by the virus in comparison to liberals. It seems that signaling of core political values is more important that disgust sensitivity or threat sensitivity in this context. However, there is some evidence that the more someone has been directly affected by the virus, the less their opinion is based on signaling.

Some concluding thoughts on conservatism and Covid19:

  • In Western rich and industrialized countries there will be threat based but not disease based changes in psychology. I didn’t really get into racism/xenophobia/ethnocentrism here but I think the virus isn’t going to have long-term impacts on how individuals perceive others from a specific region, but might make all of us more wary of foreigners generally (this is excluding the influence of the propaganda wars between certain countries). On average I think Europeans or Americans lack the ability to discriminate between outgroup people who look somewhat alike, e.g. Chinese and Mongolians
  • It would be interesting to look at how this virus is influencing political ideology in places where people are less shielded from the cues of disease because there isn’t the infrastructure to separate the sick from the healthy. In these countries/regions you might expect significant psychological changes.
  • If there was a pandemic that had more disgusting physical manifestations, like pox, swellings, vomiting or diarrhea, I believe it would have a more pronounced influence on political ideology here in the West.
  • There hasn’t been that much research on how people change when they suffer from a bad bout of a virus or other severe illness. If a large minority of people are going to be seriously ill for a period of time that will probably have a bigger effect than the indirect “pathogen threat”. People who have a bad bout of Covid19 probaby will become more introverted, risk averse and disgust sensitive. This could have small political implications.

Existential Risk

Some people have speculated that Covid19 would make people more concerned about pandemics and existential risk more generally. Toby Ord wrote this very hopeful and thoughtful piece:

[Covid19] reminds us that for all our progress, humanity remains vulnerable. We are vulnerable to world-shaking catastrophes like this, and even to existential risks. 

COVID-19 is not itself an existential risk. But how it unfolds, and how the world responds, is deeply relevant to such risks. It should make us more concerned about the possibility of engineered pandemics, our increasing ability to make pathogens more deadly or infectious than those that occur in nature, and the risks these pose through biowarfare or accidents during legitimate research.

A crisis on this scale could indirectly increase our existential risk by compromising some of the features of our civilisation that offer the best protection against other threats — if it causes nations to be less cooperative; if it allows flawed ideologies to take hold; if it damages our trust in governments or experts. By weakening our defenses, it could leave us more exposed to the next threat, be it an engineered pandemic or something else entirely.

However, I see just as many grounds for optimism. It is possible that humanity will emerge from this ordeal stronger and better prepared for the risks of the next century: more informed, more experienced, more willing to act. And it is in our power to ensure that it does. Being confronted by the weaknesses of our society is distressing, but it should not be disempowering. It is a call to action.

Ord concludes with some evolutionary psychology:

And it is not just our existing institutions that are ill-equipped to deal with risks on this scale. So too are our intuitions. Our intuitive sense of fear evolved to protect us from risks on the scale of an individual human life. We have trouble understanding challenges that go far beyond this, such as the exponential spread of COVID-19, where in the next week more people will die than in the entire pandemic so far — and so on for every new week until we reach the end of this phase of the pandemic.

Our intuitions are even less accustomed to the risk of catastrophes that cannot be allowed to happen even once over thousands of years, in a world containing billions of people. Evolution and cultural adaptation have led to fairly well-tuned judgments for when a risk is too high to be acceptable in our day-to-day lives, but they are barely able to cope with risks that threaten hundreds of people, let alone those that threaten billions and the very future of humanity.

I don’t think that Covid19 is going to make the average person more concerned with existential risks, or even future pandemics. Everyday people have finances to manage, families to care for and new difficulties they did not have before. Fear and anxiety move people towards the status quo, and unfortunately longtermism isn’t the status quo at all. Covid19 has shown me how fragile many of our societal gains really are when we don’t have the moral luck of health. We can only hope that a few people with influence, who have cognitive breathing room to take these issues seriously can help steer us in the right directions.



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