In Defense of Akin: Moral Coherence is common.

October 3rd, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

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 similar to what I’ve called moral confabulation (I like their term better, so have adopted it).  It is a specific example of every person’s general desire for coherence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance.

Conservatives are often skeptical of social science (which incidentally, I think is healthy for improving social science), so I was intrigued that a blogger at the prominent conservative blog, Red State, echoed the point that Liu & Ditto make: moral coherence is relatively common.  In the blog post titled Everyone Knows Something that Isn’t True, the blogger defends Todd Aikin’s infamous comments about pregnancy and rape.

I don’t know when I learned that everyone has false beliefs. But I see it all the time, both in myself and in others. I’d hate to have my fate decided by some fact I got wrong. Wouldn’t you?

For instance, I never questioned a belief I had held for years: that the hijackers that flew planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 came through Canada. On twitter I said that to do anything about 9/11, President Bush would have had to fix security in Canada.

It was then that I learned the hijackers all came through from US airports.

I had no reason, up to that embarrassing moment, to challenge my belief. It’s not that I had a particular bond to my false recollection, it’s that it just never occurred to me that there was anything to challenge. Afterward I realized that the hijackers would have complicated their mission greatly by choosing a foreign country as their takeoff point.

It’s difficult to challenge our own beliefs. That’s why we believe them.

While I don’t share the politics of this blogger, the social scientist in me has to admit that the blogger is right.  Most of us have factual beliefs that are wrong, often because they conform to/cohere with what we want to believe.  Consider how factual beliefs about whether the Packers or Seahawks should have won their latest football game conform to fan sympathies.  I won’t and can’t defend the contents of Akin’s comments.  But most of us are capable of making comments as ignorant as Akin’s.  We just usually make them about subjects that are less controversial and in ways that are less public.

Want more examples of moral coherence?  Like our moral coherence facebook fan page where we post occasional examples of moral coherence that pop up in the news, where both liberals and conservatives make such errors.

- Ravi Iyer

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