Libya as a moral war (except for libertarians)

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 conservativeslibertarians were unaffected by moral framing.  Interestingly, moderates were also unmoved by moral framing.

Libya as a Moral War

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



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