Reason Roundup

Our Moral Judgments Affect Our Perception of COVID Risk

Plus: Wired is wrong about Section 230, the Democratic disagreement over a SALT deduction cap, and more...


Church and protests are safe, beaches and parties are not? Two new studies showcase a tendency on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic: People perceive as less risky the activities they condone or see as important and more risky those they do not, even if the logistics—and actual risk—of the two activities are similar.

In other words, "risk judgments are sensitive to factors unrelated to the objective risks of infection," as study authors Cailin O'Connor, Daniel P. Relihan, Ashley Thomas, Peter H. Ditto, Kyle Stanford, and James O. Weatherall write in a draft paper on their research. "In particular, activities that are morally justified are perceived as safer while those that might subject people to blame, or culpability, are seen as riskier."

Their paper—"Moral Judgments Impact Perceived Risks From COVID-19 Exposure"—opens by noting inconsistent advice from public officials when it came to coronavirus exposure and risk:

In July of 2020 the Texas Medical Association released an infographic communicating COVID-19 risks for various activities. The infographic categorizes activities into risk levels in order to help readers make informed decisions about their own behaviors. But some of the rankings seem to be at odds with our best medical and scientific knowledge about COVID-19 transmission. In the infographic, going to the beach is ranked as riskier than going to the library, museum, or a doctor's waiting room, despite the fact that outdoor spaces have been widely found to be safer than indoor ones. Playing basketball is ranked as riskier than spending a week working in an office building, again despite the fact that basketball is often an outdoor activity, and one that is relatively short-lived. Other such infographics display similar trends: outdoor recreational activities such as going to the pool or playground are often ranked as riskier than indoor activities like grocery shopping. Seeing a doctor is routinely ranked as a low risk activity, despite the fact that it occurs indoors and involves exposure to individuals who see many (possibly sick) patients on a daily basis. One such infographic from Nebraska Medicine rates a doctor's visit as less risky than getting gas.

They theorized that the reasons for these discrepancies went beyond mere confusion or difficulty in assessing relative risk:

It seems that rather than reflecting a purely actuarial assessment of the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from various types of activities, these risk judgments may actually reflect wider judgments about whether or not an individual ought to engage in a behavior.

In two experiments, they set out to test whether people respond "to whether or not an individual is culpable for engaging in the activity that potentially exposes them or others" when assessing COVID-19 risk. Specifically, they looked at three factors that might influence assessments: "the moral valence of an activity, its importance, and whether or not an individual intended to engage in it."

Study participants were presented with hypothetical scenarios of pandemic behavior. In these vignettes, risk factors were consistent but intentions and context varied. For instance, in one vignette, "Joe" got stuck in an elevator with maskless people in order to mail "a crucial work document"; in another, he got stuck in the elevator on his way to go buy cocaine.

"We expected subjects to judge actions as less risky when individuals exposed themselves for morally positive reasons, while engaged in important actions, or unintentionally," the authors explain.

Two of their predictions held up: that people judged as less risky the behavior they saw as morally good and that they saw as unintentional.

The relationship between risk assessment and the perceived importance of an activity proved less clear:

We found that judgments about whether a behavior was important were correlated with judgments about how risky it was. Upon controlling for judgments about the morality of the behavior, however, we found only minimal evidence that perceived importance independently influences risk judgments. Conversely, risk judgments were affected by moral judgments even after controlling for the importance of the activity.

"This follows previous work finding that moral judgment impacts risk judgment," noted O'Connor on Twitter. Prior research has found "that people think children are at greater risk of harm when their parents leave them alone intentionally (yoga) vs unintentionally (hit by a car)."

O'Connor pointed to "possible implications for public health messaging," including that "messaging should track real risk, not morality, and…(maybe) focus on morally good activities like going to church or protests."


When did Wired get so pro-censorship? Once a publication that celebrated innovation, the democratizing effects of technology, and an internet free from excessive regulation, Wired has become a disappointing morass of regurgitated, status quo thinking on tech policy issues. "The latest example is a big cover story by reporter Gilad Edelman, basically arguing that people who support Section 230 are 'wrong' and holding the law up as a 'false idol.' The piece is behind a paywall, because of course it is," Mike Masnick writes for TechDirt.

While presented as a news piece with thorough reporting and fact checking, it is clearly narrative driven.…The framing of the article is that "everything you've heard about Section 230 is wrong" (that's literally the title), but that's not how the article actually goes. Instead, it comes across as "everyone who supports 230 is wrong." It starts off by talking about "the Big Lie" and the fact that Trumpist cable news—namely Newsmax, One America, and Fox News—repeatedly presented blatantly false information regarding voting technology made by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic. It notes that the voting companies sued the news channels, and all of them have been much more circumspect since then about repeating those lies. Edelman then contrasts that with the world of social media:

As some commentators noted, one group was conspicuously absent from the cast of defendants accused of amplifying the voting machine myth: social media companies. Unlike traditional publishers and broadcasters, which can be sued for publishing a defamatory claim, neither Facebook nor YouTube nor Parler nor Gab had to fear any legal jeopardy for their role in helping the lie spread. For that, they have one law to thank: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

This statement is inaccurate on multiple levels. First of all, it's comparing apples to oranges. Traditional publishers and broadcasters face liability because they choose what limited content to publish. Note that while you can sue Fox News for defamation, no one is suing, say, Dish Network for offering Fox News. That's because liability should apply to those responsible for the speech. With Fox News, it's Fox News. They choose what goes on the air. With social media, they don't. They're more like the "Dish Network" in this scenario. The liability is not on them, but the speakers. If Dominion and Smartmatic wanted, they could have gone after the actual speakers on those social media networks for defamation, just as they chose to go after Fox and not Dish.

It's all about the proper application of liability to those actually doing the speaking. But you wouldn't get that message if you read this article.

More here.

Meanwhile, in the U.K.:


A cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions is causing a rift between Democrats. Once upon a time, people who itemized their federal taxes could deduct the full amount they paid to state and local governments. In 2017, the Trump administration put a cap of $10,000 on this deduction. Democrats in Congress have made repealing the SALT deduction cap a must have for passing the $2.25 trillion "infrastructure" package. But not all Democrats are on board with repealing the cap, which could lead to $88.7 billion in lost federal tax revenue (according to the Joint Committee on Taxation) and would largely benefit wealthy Americans. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) told Axios that repealing the SALT deduction cap "sends a terrible, terrible message…You can't be on the side of the wealthy and the powerful if you're gonna really fight for working families."

For more on the SALT deductions debate, see these 2018 and 2019 Reason posts. As Eric Boehm wrote in the latter: "Democrats are trying to sell the repeal of the SALT caps as a middle-class tax break, but historical evidence shows that it almost exclusively benefits high-earning homeowners who live in parts of the country where you must pay high taxes."


• New research finds that "organizations affiliated with law enforcement constitute the most significant lobbying force fueling the unprecedented number of anti-protest bills introduced by state lawmakers this year."

• Anthony Fauci said the time to relax face mask rules may be upon us:

Sunday on ABC News, Fauci was asked whether it's time to start relaxing indoor masks requirements. Fauci replied, "I think so, and I think you're going to probably be seeing that as we go along, and as more people get vaccinated."

• More evidence that the Food and Drug Administration's "pause" of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine contributed to vaccine hesitancy.

On religious freedom, LGBTQ rights, and compromise.

• Huntsville, Alabama, police officer William Darby has been convicted of murdering a suicidal man.

• History professor Alaina E. Roberts explores the complicated racial history of Oklahoma, which included Native American tribes owning thousands of enslaved black people. "Owning slaves was a part of their strategy to assimilate into American society and it allowed them to be seen as different from other Native people and as more civilized," Roberts told CNN. "It's not the happy narrative that we sometimes want to think about. I think that if we want to come together today and form interracial coalition…in a powerful and honest way, we need to acknowledge the past and the issues that we've had there."