Hypermoral Debt Ceiling Quotes

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



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