Secondhand Smoke, Moral Sanctions, and How We Should Respond to COVID-19

Article by Barry Schwartz: “How did we get from that day to this one, with widespread smoking bans in public places? The answer, I believe, was the discovery of the effects of secondhand smoke. When I smoked, it harmed innocent bystanders. It harmed children, including my own. The research on secondhand smoke began in the 1960s, showing negative effects on lab animals. As the work continued, it left no doubt that secondhand smoke contributes to asthma, cardiovascular disease, many types of cancer, stroke, cognitive impairment, and countless other maladies. These sorts of findings empowered people to demand, not request, that others put out their cigarettes. The secondhand smoke research led eventually to all the regulation that we now take for granted.

Why did this research change public attitudes and change them so fast—in a single generation? The answer, I think, is that research on secondhand smoke took an individual (perhaps foolish) choice and moralized it, by emphasizing its effects on others. It was no longer simply dumb to smoke; it was immoral. And that changed everything.

Psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the process of moralization. When activities get moralized, they move from being matters of individual discretion to being matters of obligation. Smoking went from being an individual consumer decision to being a transgression. And the process of moralization can go in the other direction, as we have seen, for most people, in the case of sexuality. In recent years, homosexuality has been “demoralized,” and moral sanctions against it have slowly been melting away….(More)”.