Sociologists of culture think a lot about morality—about where our judgments come from and how those judgments shape our actions. Two approaches commonly lead the way: Bourdieusian practice theory, which argues that acquired cultural dispositions guide our judgments quickly, automatically, and without conscious awareness, and Swidler’s (1986) toolkit theory, which suggests people consciously use cultural repertoires to construct strategies of action.
About a decade ago, Vaisey (2009) reformulated these theories in light of Jonathan Haidt’s (2001) social intuitionist model of cognition: Type I is hot, fast, and unconscious (thus Bourdieusian); Type II is slow, deliberate, and explicit (Swidlerian, but as post-hoc rationale). A wealth of research in our subfield has since shown how unconsciously held moral schemas shape self-reported behaviors across countries and social groups, as implicit Type I value commitments drive thinking about action, while explicit Type II thinking emerges after-the-fact, justifying our choices.
At least, that’s how we think morality works in normal times.
These are not normal times. Nearly 5 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 300,000 people have died. There are temporary morgues in American cities. We are struggling, as a society, to save the ill and protect the well. As I write, there are places in the world where there aren’t enough hospital beds or respirators to allow all patients to receive adequate medical care. In the U.S., states are scrambling to devise plans to determine how life-saving medical treatment ought to be rationed. One plan suggests prioritizing the young and front-line health workers (Emanuel et al. 2020). Another developed a scale to calculate a patient’s life-expectancy given pre-existing conditions and likelihood of surviving hospitalization (White 2020). Still another proposes limiting support for persons with neurological disorders and complications (Silverman 2020). Meanwhile, hospitals are considering adopting do-not-resuscitate orders for coronavirus patients because of the risks standard life-saving efforts might pose to hospital staff. How do we make moral judgments now?
The sociology of culture can help. Specifically, it shows us that in novel and challenging situations where the obvious answer isn’t clear, our gut feelings and conscious reasonings dialogue with each other. This is what is otherwise known as the dual camera model of cognition (Greene 2014). In normal times, Type I cognition drives judgment like the preset mode of a camera. We see something, point, and shoot. But in times of crisis and uncertainty, characterized by Swidler as unsettled, our intuitions are insufficient because the cultural scaffolding around us has collapsed. We thus shift to “manual mode” as we strive to make sense of the world anew and determine a course of action (Luft 2020).
In these moments, we turn to trusted friends, family, reference groups, and public leaders. We talk, seek their advice, observe them, and learn from their behaviors (Ermakoff 2008). Is it any wonder that emerging research is already showing how political partisanship influences our behavioral responses to governors’ orders to shelter in place (e.g., Gadarian et al. 2020)? Our moral judgments are always influenced by our social relationships, but, in times of crisis and uncertainty, when each decision is so very fraught, this pull toward our small, trusted circle of guides and information sources is particularly strong. We prioritize those to whom we feel close and make choices that will benefit us and them, even when they might harm others.
Paradoxically, then, as we hunker down and “socially distance,” it is imperative that we fight these tendencies and broaden our universe of moral obligation instead. We are confronting countless moments of moral decision-making — decisions that were once insignificant, such as how many cleaning supplies to buy — and, guided by both intuitive and informed reasoning, we would be wise to select actions that attend to the needs of the more vulnerable among us. This includes not only the elderly and medically compromised, but the homeless, the incarcerated, the undocumented, and the poor. Though few of us will personally make choices about who will live and who will die, everything we do (and don’t do) now shapes how many of those gut-wrenching decisions doctors and nurses will have to make. Our judgments of right and wrong directly bear on theirs.
As the months wear on and second and third waves of infection inevitably come, as new and surprising areas of scarcity arise, and as the collateral damage of economic deprivation spreads, we will face new moments of moral choice. This is not a temporary, but an extended crisis — a time of collective, global trauma — and how we feel about good or bad is always fuzzier when we’re in unfamiliar territory. Cultural sociology has an important role to play as we wade through these uncharted waters. It compels us to recognize how our relationships shape our moral judgments in times of uncertainty and just how important it is that, as we grow physically further apart, we recognize our shared fate and strive to socially come closer together.
Author’s note: I am grateful to Letta Page and Jared McBride for their helpful feedback on this essay.