A longtime Loyal Reader™ with whom I have the occasional pleasure of corresponding recently sent me a link to an interesting article entitled New Study: Right Wing ‘Morality’ Is Divorced From The Real World Suffering It Causes. (The paper it reports on is behind a paywall; the abstract is here.) Students of the Palace University’s free online courses on the topic of Conservative Personality Disorder (CPD) will find nothing new or surprising here, just more evidence that conservatives and religious people present a clear and present danger to humanity. Still, it’s an interesting study (actually three separate studies) in that it drills down on one of the CPD symptom clusters — amorality — and clarifies it in an illuminating way.
First, for the non-philosophers, some big words: deontological vs. consequentialist ethics. I will now proceed to mangle and wildly oversimplify their definitions to suit our purposes here:
In deontological ethics, one’s moral framework is derived from a set of rules that originate not from the self but from elsewhere, for example from an authority figure or a book of “divine” origin. An action is judged moral to the extent it complies with those rules, independent of the consequences that result from that action.
In consequentialist ethics, one’s moral framework derives from internally valuing outcomes as positive or negative. An action is judged moral when its consequences are evaluated and independently determined to be beneficial (or resulting in less harm than alternatives).
I bet you can already see where this is going.
Jared Piazza of the University of Pennsylvania and Paulo Sousa of Queen’s University Belfast queried 688 subjects about their moral positions on killing, assisted suicide, torture, incest, cannibalism, malicious gossip, stealing, lying, deception, betrayal, breaking a promise, breaking the law, and treason. The upshot of their findings is that religious people and political conservatives consistently invoked deontological ethics, while liberals consistently invoked consequentialist ethics. Conservatives either do not or cannot think through the outcomes of their policies: the only measure of a “good” policy is whether it complies on its face with explicit rules laid down by Moses, Milton Friedman, or one’s friendly neighborhood wild-eyed pastor. Obviously, this has real-word implications which one can readily observe simply by opening a newspaper.
The new research sheds some light on CPD symptom cluster 14:
-amorality: justifies actions based on expedience or arbitrary rules; markedly unconcerned with the welfare or suffering of others, especially out-groups; understands “right” and “wrong” as dictates and rules handed down from authorities perceived as higher than self; legalistic; insistence on strict adherence to arbitrary rules with no consideration given to resulting absurd outcomes or destructive consequences…
Yeah, I think we pretty much nailed that.
The study results prompted the article’s author to pose some questions, which we are only too happy to answer:
If, indeed, American conservatives and fundamentalists can’t or won’t think their policies through, how can they ever be trusted to make them?
If they can’t or won’t take into consideration the consequences that their policies will have on those who are affected by them, how can we allow them to dictate any policy at all?
The study says that these people follow a divine law, that they refuse to accept that human reasoning and morals can be just as good (if not better) than religiously based morals. In a democracy – or even a republic, as some will argue that we are – how can we let one group’s divine authority dictate social law for all Americans?
How? Either by not voting, or not paying close enough attention when we do.
Meanwhile, over at his blog our old friend Avicenna does a fantastic takedown of some raving CPD case ranting in the Christian Post about the Supreme Court’s decision striking down DOMA. It’s the typical, boring blather about how America is losing “divine favor” and going to straight to hell in a handbasket because we fail to follow (convenient and cherry-picked) biblical rules. I mean, this d00d is still lamenting Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision that held posting the Ten Commandments in a public school is unconstitutional. (Among other abominations, the commandments codify women’s status as the physical property of men, equal in value and purpose to barnyard breeding stock. You know: “traditional marriage.”) One of the quotes Avi pulled struck me as particularly illustrative of conservative “morality,” such as it is:
A free society must start with a foundation of rules. If our biblical tradition is not the source of these rules, what rules do define how we live and where do these rules come from?
I noted in comments that this quip reveals a lot about the author, none of it good:
Translation: I have an enormous empathy deficit and barely controlled sociopathic tendencies, and cannot determine right from wrong on my own without an explicit list of clear rules to follow. When the rules are contradictory, I’ll just go with the one that upholds my unearned privilege.
Consequences be damned.