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 knowthat 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.
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.
President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed recently and I’ve witnessed an array of emotions. Some view it in partisan terms, wondering if it will benefit Obama. Many are celebrating, which is understandable, but some people also understandably feel uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating death, even the death of someone responsible for the murder of thousands. Personally, I’ve felt both emotions. Bin Laden was actively plotting more attacks and caused the death of someone I cared about. If nothing else, the closure that it brings her family is something to feel good about. Still, reflection and sadness about the circumstance in it’s entirety seems fitting as well. I can identify with this Wall Street Journal article which details the reaction of someone who lost a brother, saying “my satisfaction with justice tonight is of course mixed with very sad feelings about my younger brother and that justice for him is something he will never of course be able to appreciate.”
Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed. Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism). However, competitive framing and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives. We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides. If there is anything that the killer’s reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.
As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”. The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.
Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates. In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives. However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.
As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices. Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price. But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy? Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.
Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues. Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction. You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans. It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.
Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing. Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions. Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand. However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days. Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.
Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk. The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences. The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.
I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event. I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends. It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side. However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too. For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’. And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.
Today’s lead story from Politico, The Age of Rage, probably summarizes a lot of what people think is wrong with politics. Rather than make good policy, politicians and media are more concerned with scoring points for their political ideology (hyperpartisanship). However, as the Politico article points out, their actions are largely driven by the general populace. Politicians and media reflect what people respond to, which happens to be hyperpartisanship, rather than causing the incivility we see.
…there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s lots more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.
Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.
If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.
Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president’s State of the Union speech. “The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.
Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.
We reward politicians and news organizations, with our attention and our money, that engage in the very incivility that makes politics so ugly. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
At the recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Linda Skitka gave a talk which puts a lot of this in perspective for me. Her lab studies the dark side of moral conviction, which I call hypermoralism in the hope that the term catches on. Roy Baumeister studies a similar concept, idealistic evil. In Skitka’s talk, she demonstrates in a Chinese sample that political intolerance (e.g. “people with different positions than your own about this issue should be allowed to have their phones tapped by the Chinese government”) and social intolerance (e.g. “How willing would you be to have someone who did not share your views on this issue as a close personal friend?”) were best predicted by moral conviction (e.g. “To what extent are your feelings about this issue or policy based on your fundamental beliefs about right and wrong?”). When controlling for moral conviction, all other variables (e.g. demographics, political position, attitude importance, and attitude strength) were all insignificant predictors of social and political intolerance. I look forward to seeing how this replicates on a US sample and how political intolerance is operationalized. Perhaps something along the lines of liberal consideration of censoring Fox news or conservative publication of what many would consider private discussion would make good operationalizations of political intolerance as they mirror what we see in reality, where considerations of privacy, context, and free speech are considered secondary to partisanship. Moral conviction may underlie the hyperpartisanship that Politico talks about.
As Ms. Barrett notes, modern life surrounds us with supernormal stimuli. An example: Humans evolved strong tastes for fats and sweets, tastes that conferred a reproductive advantage in the days when starvation was common. But these tastes can be a burden when we’re confronted with such supernormal stimuli as the 400-calorie Frappuccino at Starbucks. An evolutionary adaptation that once promised survival is more likely nowadays to produce Type 2 diabetes.
Ms. Barrett pushes her thesis too far at times, but her plain-spoken disquisition makes a strong case that supernormal stimuli “can help us understand the problems of modern civilization.”
One might even argue that supernormal stimuli—or perhaps our reactions to them—are the biggest problems faced by affluent societies.
If anybody has ideas on how to escape this cycle, I would love to hear them. Humanizing and getting to know the opposition, along the lines of intergroup contact theory, is an idea. Perhaps moral emotions can be activated against hyperpartisanship itself, rather than against individual ideologies. Or maybe with greater understanding, we can all learn to recognize supernormal moral stimuli and give them less power in our lives. Ideas welcome and I’m open to operationalizing particularly promising ideas as studies to be run on yourmorals.org.
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.
Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes very little sense for a species to kill 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.
One of the professors at my university co-authored a recent meta-analysis which found that there is a relatively robust correlation between religiosity and racism. It’s hard to dispute the methodology of the study, which included 55 studies with over 20,000 people. Still, I can’t help but cringe at what take home message people might get from reading about this study. I can see non-religious schadenfreude and religious defensiveness resulting from a simplistic assumption that correlation equals causality.
Religion does not cause racism, or at least that’s my contention. My hypothesis is that the reason they are correlated is that some people who are naturally group oriented gravitate towards religion. Other people who are group oriented gravitate towards racism. There are a large number of things that being group oriented will lead one to gravitate towards….sports teams, the military, marching bands, boy scouts, etc.. Sometimes people who are group oriented will gravitate towards more than one of these groups and so it is not so surprising that we will see a correlation between racism and membership in any of these groups.
I cannot test this hypothesis directly, but I do have some evidence for this. In their paper, they state that “In our meta-analytic review, the paradox of religious racism was traced to the group-oriented motives that underlie religiosity.” From a moral foundation theory perspective, we would expect endorsement of the moral principles of Ingroup Loyalty and Authority to correspond to these group-oriented motives. In our yourmorals.org dataset, we don’t have measures of racism, but we do have measures of a related construct, social dominance orientation, which concerns agreement to items like “Inferior groups should stay in their place.”
In our data, there is indeed a relationship between higher social dominance orientation scores and being Christian (most of the paper’s studies used Christians as their religious group). However, when I control for moral foundation questionnaire scores on the Ingroup Loyalty and Authority dimensions, there is no difference between Christians and Atheists on social dominance orientation. It is hard to visualize regression results which ‘control’ for other variables, but perhaps the below 2 graphs illustrate this point. Basically, one can see that Christians and Atheists have very similar patterns of social dominance orientation at corresponding levels of group level moral concern. The lines more or less overlap.
If there were a main effect of religious group, we would see the blue line consistently above the green line, indicating that at similar levels of group based moral concern, religious people are still higher on social dominance orientation.
Another way to look at the effect of religion is by self reported religious attendance. Again, if we look at the simple relationship, there is a significant positive (Beta=.098) relationship between religious attendance and social dominance orientation. However, if we control for moral foundation questionnaire scores, the relationship actually becomes negative (Beta=-.040, p=.005), indicating that at similar levels of group level moral concern, religious attendance is actually negatively related to social dominance orientation.
How real are these effects? Will they replicate? Our sample is not necessarily representative of the whole world and social dominance is perhaps a poor proxy for actual racism…but at least in this data set, there does seem to be support for the idea that group level morality explains all of the effects of religion on group level dominance, such that we might find similar effects between any cohesive group and racist attitudes, purely as a function of a desire for group cohesion. All moral concerns are double edged swords and can be virtues (patriotic donations of blood after 9/11) or vices when hypermoralized (e.g. racism toward Middle Easterners after 9/11). From this perspective, the fact that group cohesion and the hypermoralization of group cohesion co-occur is perhaps to be expected.
Some people believe that immoral acts are caused by amoral individuals. However, very few people are truly immoral (~1% of individuals are psychopaths). The idea of the term, hypermoralism, is to popularize the idea that morality can actually cause people to be immoral, rather than prevent them from being immoral (e.g. see this post). It’s very close to the idea of idealistic evil, except that I think the use of ‘evil’ makes it harder for people to see it in themselves. It’s easier to accept that one might engage in hypermoralism from time to time rather than idealistic evil. But it’s basically the same concept, couched in non-judgmental terms.
I hope to explore the idea of hypermoralism in a series of blog posts.