Fitting Factual Beliefs to Moral Evaluations: How Moral Coherence Explains Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Position

August 22nd, 2012 by Brittany Liu

The recent firestorm surrounding Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) claims about legitimate or forcible rape and pregnancy are indeed shocking. For those unfamiliar with his remarks, in an August 19, 2012 interview he responded to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape by saying, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Later Akin said he misspoke and issued a tv-ad apology saying “The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy.” Despite his clarification, however, it seems likely that his initial comments reflect his true beliefs that rape rarely causes pregnancy, a view that seems to have little or no empirical support.

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.

In a recent paper my co-author, Peter Ditto, and I have termed this phenomenon moral coherence, and it 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. Real-world dilemmas like capital punishment and abortion involve a no-win choice between endorsing a morally distasteful act, and rejecting that act and with it the compelling logic of a favorable cost–benefit analysis.

So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? We suggest that people’s desire for moral coherences 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. So, if a particular act feels morally wrong, moral coherence processes lead people to try to maximize the costs and minimize the benefits associated with that act. Likewise, if an act feels morally acceptable, people will minimize the costs and maximize the benefits associated with that act. By changing their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits of various actions, people emerge with a coherent moral picture in which their factual beliefs fit perfectly with their moral evaluations.

Applying this logic to the Akin case, strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived in from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.

This tendency for factual beliefs to cohere with moral sensibilities is not limited to abortion. In our work using data from, we found that people’s beliefs about capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, forceful interrogations, condom promotion as part of sexual education to teens, global warming initiatives, and same-sex marriage all follow the moral coherence pattern. In every case, the more people found an act or policy to be morally wrong, the more costs and fewer benefits they believed to be associated with that act. For instance, the more strongly participants believed that the death penalty was inherently immoral, the less effective they believed it was at deterring future murders (low benefit) and the more often they believed innocent people are wrongly executed (high cost).

These findings are correlational, but in our paper we also describe an experimental study in which we manipulated participants’ beliefs about the inherent morality of a policy (e.g., capital punishment) and found that participants changed their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits associated with that policy. That is, they altered their perceptions of fact to fit their altered moral judgments.

In sum, moral coherence describes the tendency for people to fit their factual beliefs to their moral world-view, so that what is right morally becomes what is right practically as well. Finding political middle-ground is hard enough when policies push people’s moral buttons, but when different factual beliefs arise from different moral evaluations, compromise becomes even more difficult. How do politicians work together when one side believes gun ownership reduces violent crime while the other side believes gun ownership increases violent crime? How can legislation move forward when one side believes legalized abortions save lives and protect victims of sexual assault while the other side believes medical circumstances and rape-related pregnancies are so rare that they cannot justify abortion. Moral coherence between factual and moral beliefs sheds light on why liberals and conservatives seem, at times, to be experiencing completely different realities.

Brittany Liu & Peter Ditto

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17 Responses to “Fitting Factual Beliefs to Moral Evaluations: How Moral Coherence Explains Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Position”

  1. Lauren says:

    Very informative. Thanks.

  2. [...] So where is Todd Akin coming from? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation: [...]

  3. [...] becomes what is right practically as well.” The apply this perspective to the Akin case in a blog post at the YourMorals blog. Here’s an excerpt: We suggest that people’s desire for moral [...]

  4. [...] Now, given everything I’ve just said, 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: [...]

  5. Henry says:

    If we really pay attention to this article, moral rights are justified by what each individual feels as unjust by experiencing different realities such as who claims abortion has those who think the body can reject while those want to prevent this. Then we we make a honest opinion from our minds it is blown up in one for or another and use against us for someone else gain.

  6. [...] 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 [...]

  7. Chris Lynch says:

    I first was “informed” of these defenses when I started reading pro-life literature in the mid 1970’s. There was sometimes a quote from somebody with “M.D.” after his name, and sometimes not.

    But the science didn’t matter to a number of people, because it was just a talking point to be used to disarm one’s opponent in a debate, to be quickly followed by other dubious statistics on pregnancy which would allow the pro-lifer to dodge the rape question. I know, because I am pro-life, and I heard my friends do this multiple times. I had grave reservations about saying it, because I wasn’t sure it was true and — if it turned out to be false — repeating it would badly discredit the cause in the eyes of many.

    I can attest that there was peer pressure to believe Akin’s claim; it was presented with assurance as something “everybody knows”. In the absence of actual knowledge, that pitch is hard to resist in-group.

  8. Brittany says:

    Chris, you bring up a really going point that isn’t mentioned much — the influence our group membership exerts on us. Knowing that our ‘team’ believes this or that is such a strong influence on our own beliefs and attitudes. Thanks for insight.

  9. [...] Psychologists have found that conservatives are more likely to create coherence between their factua….  While "moral coherence" can be found in liberals and conservatives alike, conservative moral coherence is readily apparent in the news (see Akin, Todd). [...]

  10. Scott Wagner says:

    Thanks for making the research available online! Your studies were great, and had such strong results- congratulations on hitting on an effect that’s powerful and important.

    Though it’s perhaps a bit the odd man out here, your third study struck me as very important in a vein that I work within a lot, within informal persuasion and establishing connections between disagreeing people. People often discount the powerful effect we can have by simply stating our ethical values to one another- not resulting in persuasion in the sense we normally think of it, as in having someone flopping over to the other side dramatically. More in the sense that happened here, where individuals are influenced to lean less in the direction they did if presented with an ethical counterpoint, and more if their view is reinforced. In my experience, this effect is very strong when 1) there is a personal relationship between parties engaged in that sort of thing (even a weak one), and 2) when the discussion is friendly and safe. In a way, your essays were friendly, safe input, in the sense of being neutral, and they were effective in the same way. This point is related to the therapeutic gambit of focusing on your personal feelings: in both cases, we recruit the imagination of the other person to experience life from our perspective, apart from issues about accuracy, statistics, etc.

    The emotional component to persuasion isoverlooked by everyone except great salespeople; this study highlights that, I think, because moral statements have emotional and imaginative power, even on a page. They can recruit images and feelings that can operate independently of our a priori take on a subject, probably precisely because the approach is deontological, skirting our normal emphasis on facts (or “facts”). A passionate, deontological statement can be very powerful, even if persuasion in the binary sense is impossible.

    I believe this point to be an overlooked source of power in moral conflict, especially ideological ones within family, at work, or with friends. It’s often not the goal to persuade, but to assuage the sting of real difference, to prevent the worst consequences that arise from difference. Persuasion becomes less binary to us framing it this way, and more about helping us react to one another’s differences more healthily. In a sense, it’s an offsetting principle to your main point here about synthesizing facts to support our feelings of certainty: this technique makes for an unconscious softening that allows people with different viewpoints to hold strong judgment in suspension in a healthy way. It provides a hidden middle ground between viewpoints, in that it provides the unconscious mind a handle on the other person’s experience, enough of one to help provide flexibility and acceptance of other people. It can lead to compromise effectively as well.

    Thanks for the insights.

  11. Brittany says:

    Thank Scott for the great reply post. I totally agree and you very elegantly explained the power of affect, emotion, and feelings. Loads of studies tell us that persuasion through logical, rational means is very difficult, and particularly ineffective when it comes to strongly held positions. Targeting people’s emotions and intuitions is much more powerful, and a tool that salespeople and storytellers are expert at using. Thanks for the comments!

  12. [...] is common. Recently, some of my collaborators (Brittany Liu and Pete Ditto) published a paper on moral coherence, which is when people fit their factual beliefs to their moral beliefs.  It is a phenomenon very [...]

  13. anon says:

    “I can attest that there was peer pressure to believe Akin’s claim; it was presented with assurance as something “everybody knows”. In the absence of actual knowledge, that pitch is hard to resist in-group.”

    And you resisted when you were not ‘in group’.

  14. [...] But at the same time, the things that Todd Akin says about rape and pregnancy are crazy and wrong – to the point that they are THE textbook example of moral coherence. [...]

  15. [...]; Fitting Factual Beliefs to Moral Evaluations: How Moral Coherence Explains Todd Akin’s [...]

  16. [...] 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 [...]

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