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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 conservatives, libertarians 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

Why should the US lead in Libya? Liberal-Conservative Value Differences.

Why should the US lead in Libya?  This is a question I’ve been asking myself a number of times as I’ve heard one common criticism of Obama and our actions in Libya, specifically that we aren’t demonstrating leadership.  Personally, I would like Gaddafi stopped and perhaps most importantly, I’d like us to save lives when possible with minimal risk and cost, but I don’t necessarily understand why it is important if we lead the effort.  In fact, as a taxpayer, I would love it if France decided to bear the cost of the endeavor or better yet, an Arab country that is less likely to cause reactance in the population.  And if they would like our help, I would be happy for us to follow.

In contrast, Sarah Palin was perturbed that “We get in the back of the bus and wait for NATO, we wait for the French.”  Newt Gingrich said that when Obama stated that Gaddafi has to go, “he pitted the prestige and power of the United States against a dictator who’s been anti-American for over 40 years.”   Conservative Charles Krauthammer believes that Obama is “overly modest about his country” at a time when “the world is hungry for America to lead“.

Does it really matter if we are perceived to be leading or following and does every desire the President expresses have to come true, lest we are diminished?  A belief certainly isn’t wrong just because I don’t share it.  There are many things that people value more than me (e.g. etiquette or aesthetics) that are nevertheless important in the world.  However, what puzzles me about calls for the US to lead in Libya is that I don’t necessarily understand the underlying value differences that drive this.  What do we get for being the “leader” in Libya?  Would it be so bad to let the French bear the cost and risk involved?

I don’t have a good empirical answer for this, but I did examine some value differences in our yourmorals dataset that I wanted to share, in part because certain hypotheses I had are demonstrably wrong.  Below is a graph of how much conservatives, liberals, and libertarians value humility, influence, social power, and authority from the Schwartz Values scale in our dataset.  The overall average bars are the average across all values on the scale, indicating that none of these values overly important in any group.  Still, these differences may play a role in the underlying psychology of geo-political leadership.

Perhaps blinded by my liberal bias, I thought one possibility was that liberals believe in humility more than conservatives and/or perhaps conservatives have a greater desire to be influential.  Surprisingly, though probably not to conservative readers, some of whom likely share Krauthammer’s belief that liberals are immodest, conservatives in our dataset value humility more than liberals and both groups value being influential fairly evenly.  The belief that the US should lead does not appear to be a function of conservatives lacking modesty about our country or wanting to wield influence in the world.

Conservatives do report valuing being in positions of authority and having social power more than liberals.  One hypothesis that is possible,  is that conservatives might believe that it would be a bad thing if the US had less power and authority in the world, as these are things which they value more than liberals.  Some people may get a sense of power and authority from being associated with a powerful and authoritative country.  From that perspective, it might make sense to want the US to take a leadership position, even if it does result in a higher tax bill and more risk.

Of course, bear in mind that I haven’t actually connected these values to any attitudes toward Libya, and these results may only hold for the types of educated internet users that tend to visit our website.  Still, this was informative to me for the hypothesis that this rules out, as it seems unlikely that pride is driving calls for the US to lead intervention in Libya amongst conservatives, given that liberals may actually be more prone to pride.  The desire for our country to remain in a prestigious position of power and authority is a more likely candidate and perhaps underlies the desire to see us play a leading role in Libya.

I would welcome any other hypotheses or ideas, especially from conservatives who do feel that it is important that the US take a leadership role in whatever we do.  Why do you feel this is this important to you?  What am I possibly missing?  Perhaps those thoughts would help me design a more conclusive study.  In addition, I’m going to start monitoring my own levels of modesty.

- Ravi Iyer

Separating Attitudes Toward War from Attitudes Toward Soldiers on Veteran’s Day

Today is Veteran’s Day and I would like to express my profound thanks for the sacrifices that soldier’s make in service to our nation.  I may not agree with the decision to go to war in some cases or with the utility of war in general, but soldiers do not make those decisions.  Politicians do.  Once they are made, soldiers are the ones who make the sacrifices necessary as a result of those decisions, including the potential ultimate sacrifice, and there is something truly noble and selfless about being willing to risk one’s life for others.  While the decision to go to war can be partisan, supporting the individual people who carry out military policy is usually bipartisan, and today, Obama honored troops in Korea while incoming House Speaker Boehner joined Vice President Biden in a bipartisan show of support at Arlington National Cemetary.

However, some people have trouble separating their attitudes toward war from their attitudes toward soldiers, especially the more liberal among us.  As a liberal myself, I can understand the cognitive dissonance that may arise from the idea of supporting those who carry out policies that we find destructive.  On the conservative end of the spectrum, it may seem dissonant to think that people can oppose a war and still support the people involved in the war.

In our dataset, attitudes toward our troops do indeed appear highly related to attitudes toward war.

And this no doubt contributes to lower feeling thermometer ratings among liberals in terms of attitudes toward troops, though I should point out in the below graph that the midpoint of the scale is 4, so the range of mean attitudes toward soldiers ranges from neutral (very liberal) to extremely warm (very conservative), with no group being against our troops.  Of course, mean values are to be taken with a grain of salt for our dataset, given its non-representativeness, but here is a similar Gallup finding.

It may be hard to do, but especially on Veteran’s day, I think the civil thing to do for liberals is to attempt to separate their negative attitudes toward specific war decisions from their attitudes toward our nation’s troops, perhaps populating the upper left quadrant of the first graph above where negative attitudes toward war coexist with positive attitudes toward soldiers.   At the same time, perhaps those who support specific war decisions can take liberals at their word, that most of us do support our troops, even if we might have made different decisions about the policies that led to their deployment.

- Ravi Iyer

ps.  If you want to more fully explain liberal-conservative differences in feelings toward soldiers using our dataset (reducing ideology beta to .122, p=.055), you can add differences in identification with country (“How close do you feel to people in your country?”, beta=.215) and authoritarianism (“Our country needs a powerful leader, in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.”, beta = .221) to attitudes toward war (“War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict.”, beta = .387) in a regression model.

Does trait anxiety make your more or less likely to support war & aggression?

Recently, one of the grad students in my department gave a brownbag talk about the relationship between fear and aggression.  On the one hand, one might expect fear to lead to aggression as one perceives threat to a greater extent and responds accordingly.  On the other hand, fear is associated with withdrawal and so we may expect those who are naturally fearful to avoid aggressive actions, such as war.

I analyzed data on our support for war and peace measure (e.g. “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict” – Van der Linden et. al 2008) as well as a measure of trait anxiety (e.g. how accurately “get stressed out easily” describes you – from the IPPI BIS/BAS scale).  Unfortunately, the analysis I ran isn’t particularly conclusive, but part of science is hopefully sharing both conclusive and inconclusive results so that others can build on it.  There is a small significant negative correlation (r=-.166, p<.001) between trait anxiety and support for war.  From the below graph, this relationship appears strongest in moderates (perhaps because they have made up their minds less about war/peace), but is consistent across groups except libertarians.

Trait Fear/Anxiety and War/Aggression support

The straight lines above are linear relationships and the curvy lines are if we allow SPSS to fit a curvy line to the data.  There is a semi-consistent result, but the slopes certainly aren’t dramatic.  I also ran the analysis for Big 5 Neuroticism and the correlation between that and support for war was even smaller (r=-.052) though still negative and significant (p=.004 since there were 3,041 participants vs. 604 in the above graph).

The take home message?  I would say that it seems likely that there is an overall slightly negative relationship between general anxiety and general support for war.  However, it seems likely (and consistent with previous research) that in a specifically threatening situation, the results might be quite different as the chronically stressed individual might perceive much greater threat and therefore support war in specific threatening cases to a greater degree than a less anxious individual.  I hope to have more to report on this in the future as to what these cases look like and I’d welcome any comments pointing to other relevant research as it’s something I’m learning about.

- Ravi Iyer

Hypermoralism – Morality causes ordinary people to do immoral things.

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.

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Separating Pro-Peace from Anti-War Attitudes using Moral Psychology Measures

I’m off to SPSP 2010 and will be presenting the below poster at the morality and justice pre-conference.  It’s based on a scale I found measuring separate war and peace attitudes (Vander Linden et. al, 2008) at the main political psychology conference 2 years ago.  The concept is pretty simple…I found scales that predicted pro-war and pro-peace attitudes, controlling for political ideology and the opposite construct.  For example, there are many reasons to be pro-peace….one could think war is a bad thing or one could be echoing one’s political party’s point of view.  Theoretically, by controlling for war attitudes and ideology, we get a picture of the kind of person who uniquely likes peace.

Like this Mother Theresa quote:

I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations.  I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.

There is something powerful about being “for” things rather than “against” things that other people believe in.  The opposition that the later strategy creates might just lead to the very same kinds of conflict that anti-war protestors seek to avoid.

Click Here for the poster

J Street vs. The Weekly Standard: Is it possible to be pro-peace and pro-Israel?

A group called J Street has recently sought to question the wisdom of military action by the Israeli government.  Their influence is supposed to be a counterbalance to the traditionally hawk-ish Israel lobby embodied by AIPAC.  Many lobbying groups which oppose military action by Israel identify with the groups that Israel has conflicting interests with or inherently believe that war is a terrible thing.  J Street is unique in that it is pro-peace AND is pro-Israel, taking the stance that the best way to support Israel is by taking a pro-peace stance.  In taking this stand, they are questioning one of the most powerful implicit arguments for military action….that support for military action is related to being patriotic.  As a result, groups like the Weekly Standard have been questioning just how pro-Israel J Street really is.

Is it possible to be both pro-peace and pro-Israel?  What part of this is simply the moral confabulation of believing that your side (liberal or conservative) is correct and that the other side MUST be unpatriotic?  Sometimes we might dislike the opposing viewpoint so much that we question not just their wisdom, but their motives.

To help answer this question, I analyzed some of our data from to see how identification with one’s country (measured using questions like “How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for)…people in my country?”) is related to attitudes toward peace (measured using questions like “Peace brings out the best qualities in a society.”) and attitudes toward war (measured using questions like “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict.”).  It is worth noting that attitudes toward war and attitudes toward peace are not necessarily the same thing.  They are highly correlated (r=-.68) in our sample, but the correlation is not perfect (-1 or 1 would be a perfect correlation).

At first glance, it seems that being pro-peace might be incompatible with identifying with one’s country.  Consider the below 2 graphs.  Attitudes toward peace aren’t really related to patriotism.  Attitudes toward war are related to patriotism in that people who identify with their country more seem to be slightly more likely to be more sympathetic to the need for conflict.



Given that the distinction between pro-peace and anti-war is difficult, it is unsurprising that from the simple relationships, people are suspicious of people who are both pro-peace and patriotic.  However, these relationships are not large and there are many confounding variables, the most obvious of which are your political leanings.  Much research in political psychology concerns our motivated reasoning to support our political party’s position on any given issue.  If we look within each political party, the relationship between being pro-peace and pro-country changes as shown in the below two graphs.



The confusing purple lines above are self-identified libertarians.  Let’s deal with them later.

The main result if we look at everybody else is that we see that identification with one’s country is actually associated with being pro-peace WITHIN each political group.  In contrast, in the first set of graphs, being pro-war was associated with identification with one’s country when collapsing across all political groups viagra sans ordonnance. The results suggest that identification with country is independently associated with being pro-peace if we control for being liberal, conservative, or libertarian.  If we control for the variance associated with political ideology, it is not patriotic to be anti-war or pro-war.  It IS patriotic to be pro-peace….and the reason people who are pro-peace are characterized as not being patriotic is because the doves and the hawks reside on opposite sides of the partisan divide.  This partisan divide also predicts identification with country (conservativism correlates .29 with identification with country).  But if we take out the variance due to ideology, peace is indeed patriotic.

Put in the context of the political issue of the day, there is nothing so abnormal about being pro-peace and pro-Israel, but it is unsurprising that critics of J Street are unable to disentangle their partisan leanings from their opinions about the group given the simple pattern of what we see in society.  It is worth noting though that questioning the motives rather than the wisdom of the opposing position is not something that is limited to conservative groups like the Weekly Standard.  J Street characterizes the Weekly Standard’s actions as “thuggish smear tactics”, “swift boat” moves, and “unhinged” which is surely a caricature of their true motivations.  My advice to J Street would be to avoid such confrontational language as it only exacerbates the partisan divide and makes it more unlikely that others might actually see resonance in their pro-peace, pro-Israel stance.

There is one group for whom being pro-peace is more diagnostic, libertarians.  Libertarians make up 10-15% of the population according to recent surveys and 7% of our sample, but it is worth speculating about why group identification is so diagnostic of war and peace attitudes for this group.  Using Moral Foundations Theory, war and peace attitudes are predicted by both the ingroup/loyalty foundation and the harm/care foundation.  Similarly, patriotism and identification with one’s country is a blend of concern about loyalty to one’s group and care for those group members.  Libertarians score lower on the moral foundations questionnaire on both the ingroup and harm foundations.  My hypothesis would be that for libertarians, identification with country is more a function of group loyalty rather than care for other group members (see Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness).  Indeed, the correlation between Moral Foundations Questionnaire-Ingroup scores and Identification with Country scores are higher for libertarians than for every other group (r=.56 for libertarians, .37 for conservatives and .38 for liberals).  I would speculate that the fact that libertarian patriotism is more loyalty than care based is the reason why libertarian patriotism is more highly related to pro-war/anti-peace attitudes.  More on libertarians to come as I’m working on a paper on libertarian psychology.