Moralization: How we, as a society, decide what’s right and what’s wrong

Q: What do marine biologist Rachel Carson, civil rights activist Malcolm X, evangelist Jerry Falwell, and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler all have in common?
A. Each of them is, or was, an expert in moralization, the cultural process of changing people’s beliefs about right and wrong.

It seems to me that few topics are more essential to understanding how the world works than figuring out the processes underlying the great social movements of our time, whether we endorse the causes they’re promoting or abhor them. One of these processes is moralization. I’ve recently written a paper on the topic, and while it goes off to the journals for peer review, I’m planning to share the gist of it here.

How does moralization work? My model has four elements:
1. Identify a valued domain. This could be the integrity and well-being of our country, or human health, or wilderness protection – anything one might identify with, care about, and want to take action to protect.
2. Show that the domain is threatened and vulnerable to some form of harm or wrong.
3. Establish a source of moral knowledge that can tell us how to act in this context – how to do the right thing.
4. Appeal to the emotionally powerful concept of purity, both as a motivation to act and a standard to try to meet.

Let’s take a classic example: cigarette smoking.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been working on projects to improve the methods available to people who want to quit tobacco, and I’m fairly well acquainted with both the scientific literature and the ways people talk about their experiences with tobacco. One psychologist, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a lot of research on food and morality, and he’s also written a bit about the moralization of smoking, which is how I first learned about the concept.

Fifty years or so ago, smoking was considered a reasonable lifestyle choice – watch the old black-and-white classic films, and it’s pretty much taken for granted that cigarettes and glamour go hand in hand. About half of all American men, and a third of the women, were smokers. Then, of course, people started noticing the relationship between smoking and lung disease, and many people began trying to quit smoking, although the personal freedom of others not to quit was generally respected too. It wasn’t until second-hand smoke became a public health issue that moralization became commonplace. Now, practically everyone knows “you shouldn’t smoke,” or at least, “you shouldn’t smoke around others.”

Which domain is valued here? Human health.
What kind of harm or wrong is threatened? Death or major loss in quality of life, mostly; also people’s right to enjoy clean air.
How do we know what to do? Medical science is the primary authority referred to, but aesthetic factors (our immediate sensory reaction to being around tobacco) also play a part.

When purity comes into the picture, this is where it gets interesting. You can easily make a case that smoking is “wrong” or “bad” without ever talking about purity, but because the ideas associated with purity are so powerful, they inevitably get brought in anyway whenever people are trying to convince others to change their values.

One of the main ways to evoke purity in an argument is by setting it up as a standard and showing that conditions are actually the opposite: contaminated, dirty, disgusting. Smoking is now often described as a “filthy habit,” and indeed, the idea that innocent, helpless children were being exposed to carcinogens and other toxins was probably what most clinched the case against second-hand smoke. Then, as public policies expanded to forbid smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and even many outdoor locations, the moral associations of smoking have spread from the behavior itself to the people involved. A recent Canadian study interviewing current and ex-smokers described the way that smokers have become stigmatized, with such disapproval that a smoker can be shamed and made to feel like a “bad person,” and this experience is probably widespread throughout North America at a minimum.

Sometimes when purity appears in moral discussions it refers to the sacred. Since the authority behind arguments for tobacco control is the medical profession rather than religion, sacredness is unlikely to appear in anti-smoking campaigns. Its opposite, however, does make an appearance. On the home page of the QuitNet website, one of the most popular online quitting programs, visitors are invited to “Beat the Nicodemon at his own game.” Participants on our own website, for smokeless tobacco users, described nicotine as a demon, a devil, and even a vampire. This kind of metaphor is essentially an “anti-sacredness,” with the same emotional punch as the sacred but in the opposite direction.

Yet another way that purity features in public discussions of smoking and tobacco use is in debates among health care professionals. One camp insists that the goal for every tobacco user should be complete abstinence, and that for doctors to accept any less is a betrayal of their responsibilities; the other camp contends that not everyone is willing or able to quit, and the goal should really be to optimize everyone’s health, regardless of whether or not they’re smoking. The second group might try to encourage people to cut back on their smoking, or to switch to a safer form of tobacco or a non-tobacco form of nicotine delivery. This “harm reduction” approach is the same general idea as a needle exchange for hardcore drug users – not everyone’s going to quit, but let’s at least help them be as healthy as possible anyway. If this controversy reminds you of the debate over teaching high school kids about safe sex vs. abstinence only, or the fat acceptance movement and the health at every size campaign, it should. They’re all examples of one side favoring a simple, purity-oriented standard, and the other maintaining that there’s more to be gained by taking a more complex and nuanced view of things.

In my next post on this topic, I think I’ll describe the four elements of my moralization model in greater depth. Later, I’m planning to write about other examples, like environmentalism, in-group loyalty, and even genocide, which relies on the very same types of moral arguments. Or let me know what you’d like to hear more about!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to Moralization: How we, as a society, decide what’s right and what’s wrong

  1. Pingback: What Moral Foundation Theory gets wrong | Living In Dialogue

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