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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Azim Shariff, Moral Psychology


Moral Psychology

Azim Shariff


Azim Shariff is an Associate Professor and Canada 150 Research Chair of Moral Psychology at the University of British Columbia, where he directs the Centre for Applied Moral Psychology. His research on morality, religion, and technology has appeared in top academic journals. He has written for media outlets and has spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival and World Science Festival in New York. 

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Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

One of the positive aspects of this might be that it even though it exacerbates poverty and inequality, it might shift our attitudes towards those things in a way that ultimately might have more of a positive effect. Across the world, there’s great variation in terms of how people attribute the causes of poverty. How they balance attributions towards dispositional causes, that poverty is due to bad decision making or laziness, something internal to the person or to situational causes, exogenous causes, situations, bad luck, lack of opportunity. Since the pandemic has been such a great, and obvious example of an exogenous shock, something that’s out of people’s immediate personal control, it looks like it has changed people’s general attitude towards the causes of poverty, not just their specific recognition that the pandemic has made the economic hardship of the poor worse, but that, in general, the causes of economic hardship for the poor, tend to be these situational things. There is some data that we have  and it showed that the shift that people have towards recognizing that poverty is more the consequence of the situational rather than dispositional causes, drives more sympathy for the poor. And as a result, more support for redistributive policies. We’ve already seen that in the political sphere with a resurgence of a discussion of a universal basic income, something that’s being taken more seriously now than it ever has before. The lasting positive legacy, of the pandemic might be a greater recognition of the unfair challenges that many of the people in our society face. And that’s a commitment to a more egalitarian, collective approach to these challenges.

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

We’re already seeing part of it in people’s psychological changes here, their openness to these policies, to just recognize that, like we’ve all seen during this time, many of us are just one bad day away from needing each other’s help.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

One of the most negative is related to one of the more positive, and that has to do with the plight of the poor. Both in terms of absolute poverty, as well as inequality, this has been bad. We’ve made tremendous progress over the last decades in terms of reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world, a lot of that progress has been set back by the economic fallout of the pandemic. And that’s tragic. In North America, we’re likely to see that inequality trends, which have already been going in the wrong direction, are likely to be exacerbated by this. One of the reasons why is because of the unequal educational opportunities. So in the best of times, elementary and high school kids tend to see what we call a summer learning loss, which is that over the summer months, a lot of what they’ve learned during the school year regresses, both in terms of their mathematical ability and their verbal ability. But unfortunately, that’s bad enough, it’s not equally distributed among the economic spectrum. The richest kids actually see a boost because they go back to a home environment that’s actually quite enriched. School tends to be the equalizer. But when the students go back to their homes, they go back to very different environments, the poorer students go back to the least enriched environments, have the least opportunities for this enrichment, and as a result, they see the steepest declines in their learning. Now, one of the worst things about this is that those inequalities accumulate over the years, which leads ultimately to a substantial achievement gap between the rich and poor, caused predominantly by what happens when they’re out of school, rather than differences when they’re in school. What this pandemic has brought is that on steroids. First of all, the summer period, when students were out of school was much longer, twice as long and it might continue. Furthermore, there was some expectation that students were supposed to learn remotely or at home, or get school taught, those opportunities were not equally distributed as well, due to unequal access to technology or parents having different abilities to homeschool given their work schedules. As a result, we’re likely to see stark inequalities that may last for decades, we’ve already seen some preliminary data in terms of these abilities sliding and sliding at different pitches. If they accumulate, which they likely will with the rest of the summer learning losses, we might see certain students falling behind for the rest of their lives.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

We are living in a world where we have to make compromises, and we have to make compromises about things that matter to us a lot. 20 years ago, Phil Tetlock created this taxonomy of when things which are considered to be sacred, sacred values, things that hold a lot of important meaning that their values are incalculable, are pitted against either other sacred values or against secular values- secular values are something like money. When a sacred value is pitted against a secular, that’s called a taboo trade off. I think a lot of the decisions that people are facing now, but then mistake to be taboo trade offs, when they’re actually the other category, sacred values versus other sacred values. A lot of the things that we’re facing now a lot of the difficult moral decisions are about meaningful things in both categories, trading safety, grandparents lives against things like reopening schools for children’s lives, restarting the economy to save the livelihoods of everybody protesting in order to fight for justice. These are all sacred values, not secular values. And so the decisions that we’re actually making are difficult ones. I think the simple act of deliberation has become moralized. The fact that people are actually considering these decisions is seen as morally gross and I think that’s a level of ungenerousness to the challenges that other people are facing.
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