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Sam Harris’ TED video and the danger of liberal atheist moral absolutism

A fellow graduate student recently shared the below Sam Harris TED video with me and I was quite surprised at the premise of the talk. In it, Sam Harris gives a spirited defense of moral absolutism, the idea that there are objective truths about what we should and should not value. Below is the video.

Harris correctly observes that “the only people who seem to generally agree with me (Harris) and who think that there are right or wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues, of one form or another, and of course they think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind, not because they made an intelligent analysis of the conditions of human and animal well-being…the demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of moral values.”

His conception of morality is remarkably close to the construct of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, measured on the YourMorals.org site using agreement to statements like “Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to ‘rightness’” with agreement indicating more absolutism and disagreement indicating relativism. Harris also states that “It is possible for whole cultures to care about the wrong things….that reliably lead to human suffering.” The graphs I show below show that he is correct that moral absolutism among these groups does lead to human suffering…but it also leads to suffering when moral absolutism is supported by liberals and atheists.

Harris then spends much of the rest of the talk detailing how terrible things occur as a result of cultures that do not share his values. I am generally liberal and likely agree with Harris’ values, specifically the idea that morality is mostly about promoting the well-being of people. However, I do not believe that my values should be the values of other people as well. I have two main counters to this idea:

- Even the most liberal person can be made to consider ideas of morality outside of the idea of the greatest well-being possible.  For example, liberals believe in equity too, such that some people deserve more well-being than others. Jon Haidt’s brother-sister incest dilemma confounds both liberals and conservatives meaning that there is a universal ability to moralize disgust, even if it is less developed in some than others. Harm and well-being are not the only considerations.

- Moral absolutism generally leads to more human suffering, not less, as people fight great wars to enforce their vision of morality on others.  Consider the below 2 graphs of yourmorals data relating moral relativism, the opposite of absolutism, and attitudes toward war.

Moral Absolutism relates to Support for War across Religions

Moral Absolutism is related to Support for War – Across Political Groups

Moral absolutism is not just dangerous for the groups that Harris dislikes, but also for the liberal and atheist groups that he likely subscribes to as the slope of the regression line is negative in all cases, indicating that moral absolutism is positively related to support for war for liberals and conservatives, atheists and christians.

It may be easier to think of groups that cause wars out of excessive group orientation (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis) or excessive authoritarianism (e.g. Nazis)…but there are also groups that caused harm out of excessive concern for others’ well-being (e.g. The Weather Underground) or out of an excessive desire for social equality (e.g. the communist Khmer Rouge). Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles. Human beings are already good at believing that our moral system is superior, with war sometimes as the consequence….instead or narrowing our conceptions of morality, we should be working to expand our moral imaginations.

- Ravi Iyer

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Should We Tell Our Students That We Think Both Liberalism and Conservatism Are Valuable?

For the past few years, I’ve been assigning “Planet of the Durkheimians,” an article on liberalism and conservatism by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, in my MBA business ethics courses at Rutgers.

In one class in particular, I went into depth explaining the article’s vision of an alternative world in which communitarian traditionalists control the academy and find liberalism psychologically deviant.   In doing so, I made it clear to my students that I believed in the complementarity of liberalism and conservatism as contrasting positions that together have great value in creating a well-functioning social system.

Most semesters, though, I’ve taken more of a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.  I focus on Haidt and Graham’s data on differences between liberals and conservatives, raise questions as to whether either side is really committed to foundational principles (are conservatives communitarian and traditionalist given their support of markets?; are liberals skeptics about loyalty given their support of unionism?), and pose the question of whether both liberalism and conservatism have value as an open one to which negative as well as positive answers are possible.

Recently, I drew on my teaching experiences to write “Modeling Moral Education about Political Ideology” for the Society for Business Ethics conference this summer in Montreal.   The paper uses hypothetical teacher-student dialogues and game theory to reflect on a number of questions, including whether it makes sense for a teacher to use Haidt and Graham and other research as a springboard for the teacher to assert a personal belief in the value of both liberalism and conservatism and of mutual respect between the sides.

Readers interested in additional substantive issues associated with teaching about political ideology–for example, how does teaching John Jost’s theory of conservatism as system justification differ from teaching Haidt and Graham?–as well as in the game-theoretic nuances–one-shot versus repeat games, accounting for altruistic preferences, the calculation of Nash equilibria, etc.–are invited to check out the paper and the 2 x 2 matrices in the style of my college professor Thomas  Schelling.   Here, I’ll focus on the major themes rather than the nuances.

The first key point in the game-theoretic analysis is that a student as well as the teacher makes a decision.  Just as the teacher decides whether to avow his or her belief in complementarity, the student assigned the pro-complementarity Haidt and Graham article decides whether or not to commit to the article.  Commitment involves not only reading the material but also attempting to absorb its argument and to take that argument seriously–a process that may lead to success but that may also be attended by failure at one step or another.   Noncommitment by contrast involves avoidance of engagement–the student may be able to answer questions about Haidt and Graham’s data and argument entirely competently, but chooses not to be absorbed by the article and the theme of complementarity.

The second key game-theoretic point is that the psychic rewards for both the teacher and the student depend to a great degree on what the other does.   If the teacher goes “all in” by committing and the student does likewise, there is an inspiring if also uncertain prospect that the sacred fire of knowledge will burn at its brightest–but if the student avoids commitment, there is an unpleasant clash between the values of the “all in” teacher and the “just the facts” student that can be reasonably described as the worst outcome for both.

The key to the solution of the game between a teacher and a student who both choose whether to commit or not lies in the shared incentive of both sides to avoid the clash of values outcome.   For his or her part, a teacher worried about that happening has a strong reason to avoid “all in” in favor of backing off and taking a “just the facts” approach.  Similarly, a student concerned about avoiding the breakdown outcome has a good reason to overcome work aversion and risk aversion in favor of committing to the reading and its theme of complementarity.

In the game, neither the teacher nor the student has a dominant strategy, which means that both should play a randomized strategy.   With the payoff numbers I assigned, the teacher should follow a “just the facts” approach 5/6 of the time, while the student should commit to the material 3/4 of the time.  Randomized commitment sounds odd and unrealistic–but the 1/6 figure for the teacher going “all in” corresponds pretty closely to the proportion of the time I’ve wound up avowing my own belief in complementarity between liberalism and conservatism.

The take-away: It makes sense in terms of game theory and its tough-minded rational choice assumptions as well as in terms of civility for a teacher and a student to generally accommodate the feelings of the other—the teacher by rarely pushing a personal belief that both liberalism and conservatism are valuable, and the students by most of the time trying to grasp that position anyway.

A final note: I’d like to believe the 3/4 figure for students committing corresponds well to the proportion of my business ethics students who sincerely try to absorb the complementarity position in Haidt and Graham, whether or not they ultimately succeed in doing so–there however I must admit to lacking the data to know how well the game-theoretic model of moral education corresponds to real-life student behavior!

-Wayne Eastman

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The Psychology of Aggression and the Ugliness of the Health Care Reform Debate

Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, there are high costs involved for a member of a species to kill other members of it’s own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I’m guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It’s usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.

There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram’s obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I’m wrong about this and I’ll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif’s classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights’s ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn’t necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.

A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others “for the greater good”, which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman’s wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.

I don’t have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call ‘hypermoralism’, I created a small educational website that I thought I’d use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.

Reasons to support violence against civilians

As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral (“They were amoral, having no moral standards.” or “They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.”) most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral (“They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.”) as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival (“They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.”) was a distant third motivation.

In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.

Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It’s not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.

In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior.  Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it’s worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn’t enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman’s home are a small price to pay.

Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have ‘won’ this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don’t go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to “stop big corporations from taking over our democracy”, a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives “won”. Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads….ugliness.

- Ravi Iyer

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Incivility’s victims: Evan Bayh, and a functioning Senate

We can’t know all the reasons why centrist Democrat Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) decided not to run for re-election, but his recent op-ed essay in the New York Times was a stunning indictment of the incivility and dysfunction of the U.S. Senate:

There are many causes for the dysfunction: strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.

In the rest of the essay, Bayh points to two of the main causes that we at CivilPolitics have been discussing. First, the necessity of strengthening interpersonal relationships BEFORE discussing areas of disagreement. As Bayh says:

When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home. Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise. Any improvement must begin by changing the personal chemistry among senators. More interaction in a non-adversarial atmosphere would help.

Second, Bayh advocates a variety of structural and institutional reforms which would change the dynamic among Senators and facilitate cooperation. He specifically mentions campaign finance reform and other ways to allow Senators to spend less time fundraising; and reducing the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster from 60 to 55 (just as the number was reduced from 67 to 60 in 1975).

So much of the rise in partisan rancor has been due to the “big sort” that began in the 1970s as conservative democrats moved to the Republican party, and as liberal or even moderate Republicans got voted out everywhere but the extreme Northeast and Northwest corners of the country. The two parties are now relatively ideologically pure, which makes party into a more perfectly moral divide. The loss of any of the few remaining centrist politicians is a blow to civility and a loss to the nation.

—Jon Haidt

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