Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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The Psychology of the JournoList “Scandal”: Mirror Image Stereotypes

As a regular reader of political blogs, I could not help but notice that a number of my favorite sites were writing about the same thing, specifically, their participation in a discussion group called JournoList, which included numerous media members such as Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight and Politico writer Ben Smith, both of whom I read with some regularity. These posts were prompted by the publication of numerous emails from this largely liberal group by a conservative blog, the Daily Caller, which recently ran this story (one of many on this topic):

On Journolist, there was rarely such thing as an honorable political disagreement between the left and right, though there were many disagreements on the left. In the view of many who’ve posted to the list-serv, conservatives aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. And while journalists are trained never to presume motive, Journolist members tend to assume that the other side is acting out of the darkest and most dishonorable motives.

Reading other people’s private emails evokes an embodied moral reaction in me. Maybe it’s motivated reasoning as a liberal myself, but I would hope that I’d find it similarly distasteful for a business to make money by posting the private emails of conservatives. Still, I think that the above paragraph is likely correct for some (not all) members of the list, along the lines of this wonderful post by Peter Ditto of UC-Irvine, concerning the ways that liberals and conservatives mirror each other in their negative attributions.  In it, he notes that a “mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations.” The idea is that when you find these mirror image perceptions, they are often more a function of partisanship and group conflict than reality.

It’s not hard to find quotes from conservatives that mirror the above observation of journolist members.  Consider this article entitled “Why does Obama hate America so badly?” My guess is that Democrats don’t hate the economy and Republicans don’t hate poor people, yet these mirror image negative attributions of malicious intent exist.

Here is the same story in graph form, using our data, where liberals and conservatives rate both republicans and democrats on “warmth”…

and on “competence”….

Hardly surprising, but liberals think Republicans are cold and incompetent, while conservatives think Democrats are cold and incompetent.  (strangely, we generally think that we ourselves are both more warm and more competent than the average member of either party..:))

I’m sure that cherry picking any person’s email archive would lead to embarrassing material, but I would agree with Andrew Sullivan’s take on JournoList:

The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption. It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism – but it is nonetheless corrupt…….

…..I’m glad Journo-list is over. It should never have been begun. I know many of its members are good and decent and fair-minded writers. But socialized groupthink is not the answer to what’s wrong with the media. It’s what’s already wrong with the media.

These mirror image negative perceptions are an inevitable part of intergroup conflict, so rather than morally judging the individuals involved for behavior that is likely quite common, I prefer to take this as a cautionary tale for all who want better policy. On both sides of the aisle, we should be seeking to recognize and reduce these biases, not amplify them through ideologically homogeneous discussions, such as what appeared to occur on JournoList.

- Ravi Iyer

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On the Morality of Torture & Utilitarianism

I personally do not believe in torture, but I have to admit that when I think of it, my mind prototypically thinks of the potential harm that might befall an innocent person caught by an unscrupulous policeman who is all too sure of his moral superiority. What would I do if I knew with 100% certainty that torture of a known murderer/rapist would save countless lives, including the lives of many people I knew and loved?

Is support for torture restricted to the evil among us (e.g. liberals who think that Dick Cheney = Darth Vader)? When individuals say that they are torturing an evil few in order to save many innocents (an argument based in Utilitarianism), are they lying about their noble goals? A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that individuals may not be honest about their utilitarian motives. From the abstract:

The use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects is typically justified on utilitarian grounds. The present research suggests, however, that those who support such techniques are fuelled by retributive motives.

This is a very well done experimental study, which illustrates an important point about other potential motives for torture, specifically a desire for retribution or vengeance. However, it may be nitpicking or splitting hairs, but I might instead have written “those who support such techniques may also be fuelled by retributive motives.” Indeed, in the study itself, there is an increase in support for severe interrogation techniques when there is a greater likelihood that the suspect is withholding information that may save lives, especially among Republicans, the group most likely to be “those who support such techniques.” The fact that retributive motives exist, does not necessarily mean that utilitarian motives do not. One could probably design a study that shows the opposite, where utilitarian motives dominate, given the total control one has in a lab environment.

Our data suggests that utilitarian motives are indeed important in predicting attitudes toward torture. There are a number of measures that tap utilitarian thinking, but the most convincing to me are the classic moral dilemmas that ask people if they are willing to take some action (e.g. flipping a switch) to save 5 innocent people at the cost of 1 innocent life. They are convincing because they are generally free of any political content or judgment about the worth or guilt of individuals.  Below is a graph relating responses to these dilemmas to attitudes toward torture.  Higher scores on the Y axis indicate more willingness to sacrifice 1 life for 5.  Higher scores on the X axis indicate willingness to support torture in more situations.

Torture and Utilitarian Moral Judgments are positively correlated

There is a fairly robust positive correlation between utilitarian judgments on these dilemmas and support for torture (the dip on the far right for liberals is likely due to there being such a small number of liberals who think torture is often justified).

If I look at other utilitarian measures such as moral idealism (using the Ethics Position Questionnaire – e.g. “The existence of potential harm to others is always wrong, irrespective of the benefits to be gained.”, r=-.35) or moral maximizing (using an adapted version of Schwartz’s maximizing-satisficing scale – e.g. “In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morallyimperfect action.”, r=-.15), you find the same relationship. Controlling for political affiliation and beliefs about punishment and disposition toward vengeance, one still finds significant relationships between utilitarianism and support for torture.

My take home. Part of promoting civil politics is to take people at their word for their motives, rather than questioning them. There may indeed be some vengeful motive behind torture…but there are utilitarian motives as well and those of us who dislike torture might actually get further confronting torture on utilitarian grounds rather than attempting to question the motives of those who believe in torture.

- Ravi Iyer

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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 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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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.