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

Posts Tagged civil politics

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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Green Economics that Values Liberalism and Conservatism

Paul Krugman’s recent article on climate change in the NYT Sunday magazine has what one would expect from the Nobel Prize-winning economist and pundit: forceful writing grounded in economic analysis along with sharp-elbowed partisanship.*  After reading it, I started thinking how an article on green economics would be written by someone committed to the yin-yang position that conservative as well as liberal perspectives will have value in moving us forward on the climate change issue.  

A starting point for a yin-yang approach is valuing the emotion-laden moral foundations of both sides.   Support by liberals for limiting carbon emissions has visceral grounds–“deniers are deluded!”; “this is the great cause of our era!”; “the environment is sacred!”–that are likely far more important for most advocates than a cool calculation of costs and benefits.  Similarly, resistance to carbon controls by conservatives is likely based on foundations much more visceral than neoclassical economics–“don’t regulate!”; “America first!”; “what the liberals think is right is wrong!”  The strong feelings on matters such as fairness, freedom, and loyalty that animate both supporters and opponents of carbon controls are rooted in defensible moral principles; neither side has a monopoly on virtue at that broad level.

A next step in a yin-yang analysis–an important one if the analysis is to have real potential to affect policy proposals as well as to enhance empathy–is to examine the efforts of both sides to support their moral intuitions with rational arguments.  A green economics article along those lines would acknowledge the value of the basic position taken by Krugman in favor of political action to lower carbon emissions.  Economically sophisticated liberals are right to be concerned that carbon emissions are associated with significant negative externalities–that is, costs to third parties not directly borne by emitters, notably the costs of warmer temperatures.  Carbon consumers bear the costs collectively, but not as the result of their own individual consumption, and hence have an incentive to overconsume carbon.

At the same time, a yin-yang green economics article would also acknowledge the value of the basic position taken by Jim Manzi against a carbon tax or cap and trade in his articles for the National Review, the National Review Online, the Cato Institute, and the American Scene blog.  Economically sophisticated conservatives like Manzi are right to worry that for people in wealthy and developing nations to incur high costs in the present to lower carbon levels in a much wealthier future is economically and ethically questionable.  Manzi is also logically right in his argument that for policy purposes the negative externalities of carbon use need to be balanced against the positive externalities–the benefits not captured by users.  Taking into account the positive externalities of transportation, heating, and cooling, it is logically possible that the market will overprice rather than underprice carbon.  Carbon may in fact be underpriced as Krugman maintains—but that is an empirical question rather than a matter of economic logic.

The same point about both sides having a rational logic applies to the “insurance policy” issue of how to respond to the possibility of a catastrophic increase in global temperatures.   Both Krugman’s case for increasing carbon taxes and Manzi’s case for a more limited effort to foster geo-engineering and other emergency responses have merit at the broad level of rational calculation of costs and benefits.

My personal take at a yin-yang analysis that draws from both the liberal/Krugman and conservative/Manzi arguments would go like this: First, Manzi’s analysis, not just Krugman’s, suggests that we should try harder than we are now doing to insure against the chance, slim or not, of climate catastrophe.   In that sense, the liberal side of the debate is right, and we should at the very least be offering large prizes for innovation, along the lines of Manzi’s suggestion of a billion-dollar reward for a successful carbon-reducing technology that does not have market potential. 

Second, twentieth century affluence in all the nations that achieved it went along with home and office heating and cooling, extensive highway systems, large-scale private ownership of cars, and the large-scale use of trucking, all fueled largely by carbon.  True, all of these benefits can in theory be attained through an infrastructure based on substances other than carbon–but carbon is what has actually worked, and may well be all that will realistically work in the coming decades for China, India, and other developing nations.  Given that, Krugman’s argument in favor of tariffs on imported goods from China, India, Brazil, or other nations that refuse to control carbon emissions is dubious, even apart from its potential to provoke a trade war.  But so is the conservative argument against any unilateral action by the U.S. or other wealthy nations.   Some wealthy country actions—if we follow Manzi, prize funds and other well-thought out incentives for green innovation–make sense whether or not developing nations join in.

Another person committed to yin-yang green economics might come up with quite a different account from mine—an epistemic sympathy for both the liberal and conservative sides does not equate with a “both sides are equally right” stance, nor with one particular reaction as to the way forward.  It does suggest that progress on global warming is likely to result from a back-and-forth between liberal and conservative sides that both have merit, with both sides refining their positions and proposals to accommodate the best parts of the other side, rather than through the forces of enlightenment slaying the dragons of ignorance and reaction. 

Would a yin-yang analysis of green economics make as punchy a piece as those by Krugman and Manzi?  Krugman’s and Manzi’s articles are lively as well as thoughtful and useful pieces of work.  Yin-yang analyses may equal or even exceed their work on the thoughtfulness dimension–but whether they can be accessible and useful in the way that global warming arguments on behalf of liberals and conservatives are is another matter.  It would be very nice indeed if yin-yang analyses can be made popularly accessible rather than being the property of a small number of people–but in any case, they are worth doing.  Along with the constantly roaring streams of liberal and conservative advocacy, we need a quieter, more reflective, more empathetic yin-yang stream.**

*For example, Krugman asserts that recent climate change models based on current trends “cluster around” a 9oF increase in world temperature from 2000-2100.  That’s a bold assertion, given that only the very highest estimates of CO2 levels in 2100 in the Stern Report and the 2007 IPCC report are associated with that high a temperature increase.

**Is a yin-yang stream on climate change already flowing?  If defined in terms of work that directly tries to take into account the value of both liberal and conservative arguments such as Krugman’s and Manzi’s, I didn’t see any clear evidence of it in a recent series of Google searches.   I found a limited body of work that sympathetically considers cultural and political disagreement over climate change, notably climatologist Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, and a large body of work, such as that by Willam Nordhaus, that tries to engage in cost-benefit analysis without either Krugman’s liberal tilt or Manzi’s conservative-libertarian tilt.  But I didn’t turn up work that uses both liberal and conservative advocacy on climate change to try to come up with a rationally persuasive synthesis.

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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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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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