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

Posts Tagged yourmorals.org

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 yourmorals.org 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 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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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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