Questions to be addressed:
- Can universal moral values be identified?
- Attitudes towards social policy: Is there a role for universal moral values?
Core participants: Gulyás Attila, Janky Béla, Lakatos Zoltán, Szabari Vera, Szakadát István
First meeting, 30 September 2016
On the research proposal
Presenter: Tardos Róbert
From the proposal
Judging the poor: The key role of the concept of ‘deservingness’
Researches on justice beliefs in sociology have explored the structure of moral considerations in recent decades (Jasso 1979, 2006, Örkény & Székelyi 2010). However, it is an age-old question that where do non-selfish, or ideological considerations in welfare preferences come from? A recent line of research points to ‘deservingness’ as a key concept in voters’ minds: Individuals support policies which compensate for hardship due to bad luck, but oppose measures which, as they perceive, relieve distress stemming from lack of effort (Fong et al. 2005, Slothuus 2007, Petersen et al. 2011, Petersen et al. 2012). A great many findings of polls also indicate the explicit concern for deservingness (e.g., Gilens 1999, Lepianka et al. 2009).
Some of the most prominent analyses using this concept focus on the issues of poverty assistance and intragenerational redistribution (Gilens 1999, Fong et al. 2005). Note, however, that deservingness is also used to interpret attitudes towards transfers inducing intergenerational redistribution (Lepianka et al. 2009). Nonetheless, there are limits to generalization. For instance, theories focusing on deservingness are still to be reconciled with some sociological theories on moral considerations behind justice beliefs (c.f. Jasso 1979, Örkény & Székelyi 2010).
Deservingness and general theories about human action
On the one hand, the concept of deservingness builds upon models about social preferences, which assume that humans have a general tendency to pursue fairness and reciprocity in their interactions with other humans (Fehr & Schmidt 1999, Gintis 2000). Principles of fairness and reciprocity indicate that welfare transfers are judged not only on recipients’ needs but also their efforts to minimize their dependency on public assistance (Fong et al. 2005). Those assumptions can be used to account for other types of policy preferences as well, but have been cited mainly in relation with attitudes towards poverty assistance so far.
On the other hand, the concept of deservingness also builds upon the logic of attribution theory, a psychological model which assumes that individuals always seek for responsibility before deciding about the right action to take (Weiner 1995). This model predicts that before forming opinions on welfare transfers, individuals have to update their beliefs about the responsibility for recipients’ material distress. The key question is whether the locus of control is external or internal. In other words, whether the poor persons have had any opportunity to escape poverty. Note that attribution theory, similarly to the models of social preferences, is a general theory about human actions and could be applied to any domain of social life (Weiner 1995).
A reviewer's critique
My biggest problem with the concept is that it interprets the field of moral judgments on welfare beneficiaries in a very narrow way. The key moral category of the concept on welfare distribution is ‘deservingness’, while other very important moral principles such as fairness, deserts, equity, equality, need, reciprocity, solidarity, human dignity, impartiality, or trust are missing from the analytical framework. I do not believe that a single moral category such as ‘deservingness’ helps to understand the complex patterns of the everyday thinking and justice judgements of the ordinary people. The public discourse, the elite influence, the framing, the political communication, and media effects also cannot be reduced to this single aspect. The moral frame how welfare policies and ideologies gain or lose legitimacy among people or by social institutions is a much more complex and multidimensional issue. Another problem of the research concept is, that the attitudes concerning to welfare beneficiaries is narrowed to one particular focus, namely to the poverty assistance. This is a narrow and unilateral approach. Social and moral attitudes for the poor people cannot be separated from the attitudes for other disadvantaged groups. I miss in the research project examining group situations such as Roma poverty, refugees, immigrants, elderly people, big families, children living in deprived social milieu, homeless or disabled people, or other disadvantageous population.
Robert's opinion is in line with the reviewer's critque. Major suggestions (about the study of general moral values):
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