In an attempt to popularize psychological theories such as idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction, I sometimes use the term hypermoral to describe why ostensibly good people (e.g. non-psychopaths), can be led to do terrible things for ostensibly moral reasons. Research suggests that much of the violence that exists in the world can be attributed to an excess of morality, not to a deficit.
Violence can occur in many forms. War and terrorism may be more obvious forms of violence that are readily characterized as idealistic, but the current willingness by many to risk the fate of the world's economy in order to achieve some moral end could be thought of as a form of hypermoralism as well. Since such an event has never happened before, it may be uncertain what would happen if the US debt ceiling negotiations do not produce a result, but anybody who has convinced themselves that they know that that raising the debt ceiling will not create a catastrophe is clearly engaging in speculation (and likely moral confabulation) beyond their experience (since no such actual knowledge of this hypothetical event exists) and contrary to the vast majority of experts/economists of all political persuasions. Psychology studies, especially experiments, often show what can happen, in some controlled setting where variables are more easily isolated. But sometimes it's useful to look to evidence from the real world to see what does happen. I would argue that the below quotes show hypermoralism in action, in that individuals are willing to cause damage to innocent others (via the American economy) in order to achieve some moral end.
Some view the risk to the economy as a means toward promoting the protestant work ethic and self-reliance:
"It is not a bad thing for a society to have a cultural and moral bias in favor of productive work and to sanction the easy acceptance of charity and welfare payment when these are not necessary and when one can provide for oneself." - Robert Sirico in the National Review
"The welfare state seems to be corrupting some of our core moral principles....This moral corruption is eminently on display in the increasingly common, and increasingly loud, protests over cuts in state budgets, and we will soon see it in the looming fight over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling...To be specific: The welfare state encourages people to ignore, to violate--even to pretend does not exist--the moral principle that it is wrong to live at other people's expense." - James Otteson of Forbes.com
Some view the risk to the economy as a lesser evil, compared to the risk of leaving debt to our children:
"It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily." - John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House
On the left, some would risk the economy because they feel that it is morally unfair that the rich are not asked to pay more:
"The Republicans have been absolutely determined to make certain that the rich and large corporations not contribute one penny for deficit reduction, and that all of the sacrifice comes from the middle class and working families ....I cannot support legislation like the Reid proposal which balances the budget on the backs of struggling Americans while not requiring one penny of sacrifice from the wealthiest people in our country. That is not only grotesquely immoral, it is bad economic policy." - Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
Some view any talk of compromise as disloyalty to one's partisan team:
Mitch McConnell is right now talking about making a historic capitulation...Consider sending McConnell a weasel as testament to his treachery. - Erick Erickson of RedState.com
Budgets are moral documents, and so it is unsurprising that politicians have strong moral feelings about them. Reasonable people will disagree about what is or is not a moral way to run society, and that is exactly why we shouldn't give politicians the ability to do immoral things, like holding the economy hostage, to get their way. Reasonable people may do unreasonable things, when confronted with a strong moral issue, and politicians are inherently moralistic individuals who constantly deal with moral questions. We shouldn't give them tools like the debt ceiling, that allow them to threaten to hurt others in service of some ostensibly larger moral end.
- Ravi Iyer
Many people believe that war and violence are inherently immoral, and some psychologists have begun to explore the idea that celebrating heroism is an antidote to the problem of evil. In contrast, other psychologists have highlighted the dark side of moral conviction (Skitka & Mullen, 2002) and the notion of idealistic evil (Baumeister, 1997) to explain how moral motivations might actually lead to increased violence. I sometimes call this being hypermoral, not because I have any great further insight, but simply because I think it has a better chance of catching on as a pop culture meme.
President Obama started military action against Libya, following his belief in the concept of a “just war”, suggesting that Libya might be a useful example of morally motivated violence. This was somewhat informed by the fact that I personally support intervention in Libya on moral grounds, meaning that I see no gain for the US or myself, but rather would like to help those who are attempting to gain their freedom. Unfortunately, that requires violence. While I may see this as 'good', others likely see this as evil, and I do see the unfortunate parallel with violent actions anywhere, in that I could see a suicide bomber having a very similar thought process, even as they kill many innocent people in an act that I would term evil. The point of this research is to divorce normative judgments about which kinds of violence are good or evil from the more general psychological process, and simply to show that at least in this case, violence is often morally motivated, rather than being indicative of a person who is amoral.
As such, I conducted an experiment where participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about Libyan military intervention in terms of what is morally right or what is in the national interest. For example, one question read "Considering what is (morally right/in the US national interest), I support the recent American intervention in Libya."
Results are shown in the graph below, broken down by ideological group, and indicated that many individuals are indeed more supportive of intervention when framed in terms of what is morally right. Liberals (p<.05) exhibited significantly greater support for Libyan intervention, framed in moral terms. Conservatives exhibited a marginally significant effect (p=.06), though the magnitude of the difference is greater, so I likely just need to survey more conservative participants, who are a minority in this sample. Consistent with our research on libertarian morality, whereby libertarians are not moved by the typical moral concerns of liberals and conservatives, libertarians were unaffected by moral framing. Interestingly, moderates were also unmoved by moral framing.
This is one specific case and one specific study on a very specific sample, so there are certainly limitations in the conclusions one can make, as with most any social science research. However, this does suggest that for many people, the case of Libya is a concrete example of morally motivated violence. I'm hopeful that thinking about violence and war as morally motivated, divorced from whether you think the ends are good or evil, will be a useful paradigm for reducing violence and conflict more generally. Perhaps violence will actually be reduced if people become less moral and instead more tolerant of other people's views and actions.
- Ravi Iyer
Recently, an unprecedented study was done in Oregon where (due to budgetary, not research reasons) a lottery was held to randomly decide which applicants for Medicaid would actually receive the opportunity to receive Medicaid. There has never been an opportunity to randomly assign people to have access to a program like Medicaid, and so this represents a unique opportunity to learn something about the effects of Medicaid, especially considering the large sample size. The results were recently published and while there are multiple news reports about the article, none had the depth (or graphs) to satisfy me, hence this post as an excuse to dig deeper.
There is a psychological point to be made here too, about partisan motivated reasoning. The results of the study are intuitive to most people who are not so ideological. Of course increased access to health care leads to greater psychological and physical well-being for the insured as well as greater cost to society. I have to admit that as a liberal, I'm tempted by arguments that the benefits of preventative medicine and reduced use of expensive emergency rooms means that increased health care for the poor will be essentially cost neutral. While Obama touts improving health care access as a deficit reducing measure and liberal pundits minimize costs, the reality is likely that insuring everyone will cost significant money. At the same time, arguments that state that medicaid doesn't improve poor people's health or that minimize the effect, seem psychologically motivated as well. Indeed, the fairest summary of the results of the study would be this fairly obvious sounding ABC News headline which reads, "Medicaid makes poor healthier and states poorer". To add something to the numerous articles out there, I made the following graphs to summarize results:
People who received medicaid (in red) felt happier ("very happy" or "pretty happy" as opposed to "not too happy"), healthier, and less depressed (using this measure) than the control group (in blue).
People who received medicaid (in red) used more preventative services than control group (in blue) (yearly results for just women).
People who received medicaid (in red) used more medical services overall than control group (in blue), costing taxpayers more money, without any decrease in ER visits (yearly numbers, extrapolated from 6 month numbers in article - costs used per event in article, based on previous studies, are in parentheses).
Partisans will surely see it through partisan eyes, as one man's enormous gain in outcomes is another man's modest increase. The National Review had a fairly detailed critique, but I can't help but feel that statements like "supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies" ring hollow unless advocates are forcefully pushing for those policies on the grounds of improving the health of the poor. It has the same feel as liberal arguments that taxing the wealthy will actually stimulate the economy. Both groups don't like to make tradeoffs, even obvious ones, but the reality is that expanding health coverage will both cost money and improve health.
Is it an unaffordable amount of money or a trivial amount? The other neat thing about the study is that it actually translated health usage into actual dollars spent per year. The control group still spent money on health care, which was presumably taken care of through existing services, charities, or emergency rooms. The marginal cost of insuring the poor could be seen to be the difference between the experimental and control groups or the total cost of the experimental group. Under medicaid, the government would pay all those costs, but there may be savings on what government is already spending on emergency room visits to public hospitals and other like societal costs. In comparison, I found these links for the yearly cost of educating a child or incarcerating a prisoner in Oregon.
Of course, the above graph is perhaps misleading as there are far more school children than prisoners, so perhaps multiplying the total cost of care by the 213,000 medicaid eligible uninsured individuals or by the almost 650,000 total uninsured (numbers from statehealthfacts.org), and comparing it to the overall Oregon budget might put the cost of expanding coverage dramatically in context. Below are yearly Oregon state budget items compared to extrapolated medicaid costs. Note that the cost of insuring all uninsured is likely lower due to many uninsured being young working adults. However, there is likely overhead and administrative costs to the program that are not taken into account as well, so perhaps this balances out.
I learned something from this exercise. My liberal intuition was that expanding coverage to all the uninsured would not be that large a cost for a state. In reality, it looks like expanding Medicaid in Oregon would be roughly equivalent to the entire budget of the Oregon University system or at least the community college system, depending on whether you count the entire cost of medicaid health care or just the marginal cost of increased usage. Either way, it is a significant cost. At the same time, providing health coverage to all the uninsured is not fiscally impossible. It costs a fraction of the overall state budget and would cost a fraction of the Oregon health and human services budget. Behind all the reactions to such studies is the attempt by both liberals and conservatives use motivated reasoning to avoid a hard choice between a costly government program and failing to provide health care for our nation's poor. There is a cost, in terms of money or well-being, to either position.
- Ravi Iyer