At the beginning of any crisis, it is impossible to predict the final outcome. Every step we take to prevent catastrophe can carry unexpected consequences.
The current hysteria over the H1N1 pandemic may come with a particularly surprising side effect—fear of the flu may be paving the way for gay marriage.
Just how could a pathogen 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair be accomplishing a political task that until recently seemed impossible?
The answer lies in something innocuous and even virtuous: hand-washing.
Everyone from the World Health Organization to President Obama has begged us to wash our hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. Even Randy Cohen, resident ethicist of the New York Times, has argued that washing your hands is, in times like these, a moral obligation.
A new poll by the Harvard School of Public Health reports that two-thirds of Americans are soaping up more often to ward off the flu. All that hand-washing should slow down the spread of the flu virus—a consequence that is both predictable and positive.
But even actions as simple as washing your hands can have unintended consequences. Case in point: A 2008 study published in Psychological Science found that washing your hands makes you less morally judgmental about other people’s behavior.
Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom asked participants to evaluate a range of morally suspect actions, such as keeping the money in a found wallet, killing a terminally ill plane crash survivor to avoid starvation, and engaging in a deviant sex act. Half were asked to wash their hands before rating the scenarios. These participants rated all of the behaviors as less “wrong” than did the participants with less pure hands.
The connection between clean hands and a forgiving heart was not logical but emotional. Hand-washing reduced participants’ feelings of disgust. That change in emotion tempered participants’ willingness to throw the first stone.
Why would a change in the physical feeling of disgust dampen moral outrage about other people’s actions? Psychologists now believe that many moral judgments are based on feelings, not rational decisions. We use emotions—including disgust—to quickly “know” whether something is right or wrong. We then try to rationalize our feelings by developing a logical explanation.
This may be especially true for political positions that are colored by moral judgments. Opposition to same-sex marriage is often emotional and rooted in a visceral discomfort with homosexuality. Rational discourse on civil rights and the definition of marriage comes later. A study published just this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to use instinctive feelings about “purity” and “sanctity” as the basis for moral judgments.
Changing a person’s views on such matters may be less about logical argument and more about changing that underlying feeling of disgust. In other words: you’re your mouth shut, but carry hand sanitizer.
This leaves us with an improbable but theoretically possible consequence of the H1N1 pandemic. Look around: same-sex marriage legislation is marching forward with far less outrage than conservatives or liberals would have predicted just one month ago.
Gay marriage may not feel right to you yet, but it is starting to look inevitable. So let me be the first to pass the soap and pump the sanitizer. You’ll feel better, and the CDC will thank you.
Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist. September 8 2006. Science, Vol 313, 1451-2.
Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Jess Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek. May 2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 96, 1029-46.