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 yourmorals.org, 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