Moral coherence aka dissonance theory


Brian Earp had a very interesting post a year ago on motivated reasoning and “moral coherence” and how people resolve moral conflicts.

I was thinking “moral coherence” sounded very like dissonance theory, and then Brian went ahead and said as much, so that’s good. I know where I am.

He started with Todd Akin’s interesting take on pregnancy and rape, and how he could have believed that.

what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:

The misuse of scientific information in support of one’s moral position is not new. When it comes to controversial and morally-laden issues such as abortion, it is difficult for people to separate their moral intuitions from their factual beliefs. With Akin, for example, his stance that abortion is fundamentally immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) is tightly wrapped up in his beliefs about the consequences of abortion and the science of female reproduction.

According to Liu, “moral coherence” refers to:

… the power our moral intuitions have to shape beliefs about facts, evidence, and science. Often, our intuitions about right and wrong conflict with well-rehearsed economic intuitions based on a cost-benefit logic. That is, it is often the case that a particular act feels morally wrong even though doing it would maximize positive consequences.

So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? In a paper with her colleague Peter Ditto, Liu suggests that people’s desire for moral coherence “initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences.”

Which is understandable, although unfortunate.

The idea of “moral coherence”— a clear cousin of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory—seems plausible enough, and Liu lays it out in a thoughtful, compelling manner. Unfortunately, this sort of fair-minded effort to understand how it is that an otherwise intelligent person could fall so far afield of reality is rare when it comes to political hot-topics involving moral disagreement.

Yes but what Todd Akin said was so infuriating!

I have a feeling that’s not a very careful or philosophical response.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    I have a feeling that’s not a very careful or philosophical response.

    Probably not, but it is reasonable.

  2. Pieter B, FCD says

    I have a feeling that’s not a very careful or philosophical response.

    As a good and dear friend would say “Careful? Philosophical? Fuck that noise.”

  3. octopod says

    So this is related to the “that doesn’t happen, and if it did, it wouldn’t be bad” phenomenon? I’m thinking of AGW denialists in particular, but of course it’s more general than that.

  4. thephilosophicalprimate says

    In the case of Todd Akin, I’d say that it’s more than “fair-minded” to grant that he is an “otherwise intelligent person.” It is granting what is not in any way in evidence. His biography is that of a man of perfectly unremarkable intellect whose way through life was paved flat, and indeed was a gentle downward slope towards success, by his vast socioeconomic privilege. The height of Todd Akin’s intellectual “achievements” is acquiring a masters in divinity from a conservative theological seminary. I mean, yes, he seems like a shining light of glorious genius when compared, say, to the triumvirate of idiots that appointed themselves ambassadors to Egypt this week — but that’s a really, really fucking low bar.

  5. Dave Ricks says

    … people’s desire for moral coherence “initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences.”

    Cannot unsee Sam Harris on Ecstasy.

  6. says

    Thanks for linking Earp, a very interesting article.

    Realising such an argument is due to a mental process like striving for moral coherence, warns us we all may fall into the same trap, however skeptical we (want to?) believe ourselves. The “I am totally rational” trope bores and annoys me at the same time. Not a philosophical response either.

  7. otrame says

    Realising such an argument is due to a mental process like striving for moral coherence, warns us we all may fall into the same trap, however skeptical we (want to?) believe ourselves.

    I have for years planned a cross stitch sampler with the aphorism: “Sooner or later, cognitive dissonance makes fools of us all.”

    We all have to watch out for it.

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