Motivated consequentialist reasoning

Nice paper by Liu & Ditto just published (advance on-line) in Social Psychology and Personality Science (“What Dilemma? Moral Evaluation Shapes Factual Belief,” doi: 10.1177/1948550612456045).  It presents a series of studies– from variants of the “trolley problem” to ones involving evidence on stem cell research–supporting the hypothesis that people will conform their assessments of an action or policy’s consequences to their appraisals of its intrinsic moral worth.

As Liu & Ditto acknowledge, their findings are in keeping with those of other researchers who have been studying the influence of culturally or ideologically motivated cognition.  The design of their studies, however, was specifically geared to detecting how readily disposed their subjects were to resort to consequentialist justifications for nonconsequentialist positions. In one cool experiment, e.g., they found that exposure to compelling nonconsequenitialist arguments generated changes in the perceived deterrent efficacy of capital punishment!

This feature of their paper enables the motivated-reasoning position to square off directly against two other important positoins in contemporary moral psychology.

The first, associated most conspicuously with Jonathan Haidt, is that ideological or partisan conflicts over policy reflect a fundamental difference in “liberal” and “conservative” moral styles. Conservatives, Haidt argues, focus on nonconsequentialist evaluations of “purity” or “sanctity,” whereas liberals focus on “harm.”

But as Liu & Ditto note, conservatives, every bit if not more than liberals (more on that in a second!) adopt a default utilitarian perspective. What divides contemporary American who identify as “liberals” and “conservatives” is not the normative authority of Mill’s “harm” principle. It’s a set of disputed factual claims that about whether forms of behavior symbolically associated with one or the other’s cultural style causes  harms of the sort that any Millian Liberal would agree warrant legal redress.

That people are impelled to impute harm to behavior that denigrates their cultural norms is, of course, the nerve of Mary Douglas’s work, in particular Purity and Danger. I very much agree with Douglas’s view. Indeed, I think the view that public policy debate can be characterized as one between philosophical Liberals and Antiliberals — i.e., between those who believe that law should be confined to promotion of secular ends and those who believe that law is also a proper instrument for propogating a moral orthodoxy — is one only those who spend far too much time in university moral philosophy seminars are likely to form.

The second position with which Liu & Ditto join issue is the dual process theory of moral psychology. I view Josh Greene as the leading exponent of this perspective. Greene is a subtle thinker; like Haidt, he is both a first-rate philosopher and an amazing psychologist, But he has not been shy about equating nonconsequentialist (or “deontological”) reasoning with emotion-driven, unconscious “system 1” (in Kahneman’s terms) reasoning and consequentialism with conscious, reflective “system 2.”

I don’t buy it. Indeed, cultural cognition — the tendency of people to fit their assessments of risk and related facts to their group values — is all about the distorting force that motivated reasoning exerts over consequentialist judgments.  Greene depeicts “deontological” reasoning as a form of confabulation. But precisely because consequentiaist frameworks so often rest on contentious behavioral conjectures and contested forms of empirical proof, they furnish a notoriously pliable set of resources for those who feel impelled to reason, as opposed to intuit, their way out of policy conclusions they find ideologically noncongenial.

If anything, it seems like those who are adept at system 2 reasoning will be more vulnerable to motivated cognition. They will be better than those who are less reflective, more intuitive, in manipulating the various bendable empirical bits and pieces out of which utilitarian argument tend to be formed. This was the premise of our Nature Climate Change study, which presented evidence that greater science comprehension magnifies cultural cognition.

But like any other proposition (or any proposition worth discussing), the claim that consequentialist reasoning is more hospitable to motivated cognition than other sorts is open to empirical testing. I count Liu & Ditto’s studies as evidence in support of that conclusion.

Now, there is one other issue to discuss.

As I said, Liu & Ditto find that conservatives, as well as liberals, resort to consequentialist reasoning. Conservatives don’t naturally frame their position in nonconsequentialist terms, much less confine themselves to such justifications. Indeed, in one of the studies they feature in their paper, Liu & Ditto observe “the tendency to perceive morally distasteful acts as also being practically disadvantageous was significantly more pronounced … for political conservatives.”

So this raises the perennial (for me, in this blog; I am getting treatment, but still can’t shake my obsession) issue of the “asymmetry thesis“– the claim (ably advanced in Chris Mooney’s Republican Brain) that motivated consequentialist reasoning is more characteristic of conservatives than liberals.  Is the Liu & Ditto paper evidence in “favor” of the asymmetry thesis?

Sure. In fact, in one of their studies Liu & Ditto present a statistical analysis that shows that subjects’ tendency to adopt empirical positions supportive of their intrinsic moral assessments increased as subjects became more conservative. As I’ve noted before, proponents of the “asymmetry thesis” usually don’t try to assess whether any differernces observed in the force of motivated reasoning across the ideological spectrum (or cultural spectra) is statistically, much less practically, significant. Liu & Ditto did make such an assessment.

But does that mean the asymmetry thesis is “true” after all?

It’s a mistake (a sadly common one) to view scientific studies as “proving” or “disproving” claims in some binary fashion. Valid studies supply evidence that gives us more reason than we otherwise would have had to credit one hypothesis relative to some alternative one. If one wants to form a provisional judgment–and all judgments must always be viewed as provisional if one is taking a scientific attitude toward empirical proof–then one has to aggregate all the available pieces of evidence, assigning to each the weight it is due in light of how much more consistent it is one with hypothesis than another.

There’s just much more valid & compelling evidence in support of the “symmetry” thesis — that ideologically motivated reasoning is uniform, for all practical purposes, across ideologies–than there is in support of the “asymmetry” position. I myself don’t view the Liu and Ditto finding of “asymmetry” as a reason to substantially revise my view of the likelihood that that position is correct.

Indeed, I don’t think Liu and Ditto themselves view their results as particularly strong proof in favor of the asymmetry thesis. They note that the “associations between moral and factual beliefs” they observed–on issues like the death penalty, promotion of condoms to fight STDs,  stem cell research, and forceful interrogations–” were stronger for conservatives but “still significant for … political liberals.” “[W]hile our political psychology results can be taken as consistent with the body of work associating conservatism with heuristic and motivated thinking,” they conclude, “it is important to also note the modest size of these interaction effects and that significant moral-factual coordination was found across the political spectrum.”

The paper is not a “show stopper” on the “asymmetry” question. On the contrary, it is, in this respect like the others, something much better than that: a pertinent, informative, and indeed elegant addition to an ongoing scholarly conversation.

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