Ethics in Politics

The inability of Congress and the President to work together to avoid the “fiscal cliff” until well after their failure to do so had caused real damage to the American economy highlights a deeply troubling problem in the U.S. democratic system.  It is tempting to put all the blame on politicians for America’s bitter ideological polarization.  Or perhaps upon the media.  The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, for example, congratulated President Bush in 2004 for “what by any measure is a decisive mandate for a second term.”  When President Obama won reelection in 2012 by larger margins in both popular vote and Electoral College delegates, that same board saw no mandate at all.

The work of Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at N.Y.U., and others traces some of Americans’ ideological polarization to our values, and beyond that to genetics.  Liberals’ political beliefs are heavily dependent upon values of care/harm (we should care for others and not harm them) and fairness/cheating (society should treat everyone fairly and people should not cheat). Conservatives also honor these values, but have higher allegiance than liberals to loyalty, to authority, and to sanctity.  For example conservatives are more likely than liberals to promote patriotism, obedience to the established hierarchy, and values such as piety and chastity.  Haidt’s message to liberals is: “There is more to morality than harm and fairness.”

Genetics provides part of the reason that some of us are liberal and some of us are conservative.  Given that our brains are different in meaningful ways, it seems inevitable that political differences will always be with us, as indeed it appears they have been through time.

However, we often hear political partisans tell each other: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”  Here is an area where we might be able to make some headway.  Or maybe not.  It is hard for Joe and Sally to get on the same page when Joe, focusing on fairness and harm believes that the U.S. should not torture while Sally, who additionally strongly values loyalty and authority thinks that it should be “America first” and that anything the President (or at least a Republican one) does should be presumptively supported by the people.  Joe, the liberal, is likely to oppose torture.  Sally, the conservative, is more likely to believe in “my country right or wrong.”

But Joe and Sally are likely to differ not only in their opinions on the policy, but also on their factual beliefs.  Joe is unlikely to believe that torture produces useful information.  Sally is likely to believe that it does.  Emory University psychologist Drew Westen’s work shows that our brains get little hits of dopamine when we can lay our hands on some evidence that supports our positions.  We may become literally addicted to our partisan factual beliefs.

In a recent paper, Harvard’s Dan Kahan noted the political factual divide in America.  Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have different factual beliefs regarding the existence and causes of global warming, the consequences of fracking, and the factual underpinnings of many other policy debates.  The post-Newtown debate over gun control highlighted the starkly differing factual beliefs people across the political spectrum hold regarding whether society would be safer or less safe if there were limits on gun rights.

The self-serving bias (highlighted in our “Concepts Unwrapped” video series)–which is a broad concept, but includes the tendency to gather, process, and even remember information in ways that support our perceived self-interest or our preexisting point of view—makes it easy to people to adopt the factual conclusions that support their policy preferences and difficult for them to objectively weigh opposing evidence.

Kahan’s paper reported the results of studies he had performed that were inconsistent with the theory that our factual differences come primarily from the predominance of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 intuitive thinking.  Kahan found more motivated reasoning when System 2’s cognitive processing was more involved.

Kahan’s results also undermined earlier studies providing evidence of what he denominated “Republican Brain Hypothesis,” the proposition that conservatives are inclined to be more close minded and therefore more dogmatic regarding factual conclusions than persons of other political persuasions.  Indeed, he found no correlation between right-wing ideology and measures of open-mindedness.

Kahan’s results did support what he called the “Expressive Rationality Thesis” (ERT), which sees ideologically motivated reasoning not as a defective mental heuristic, but “as a reasoning strategy suited to the interest that individuals have in conveying membership in and loyalty to affinity groups central to their personal wellbeing.”  In other words, we are motivated to believe that fracking is dangerous or that assault rifles increase societal safety because to do so communicates our “membership in and loyalty to groups on whom [we] depend for various forms of support, emotional, material, and otherwise.”  Kahan stresses the rational aspect of this motivated reasoning, but I suspect that it occurs mostly unconsciously.

I propose that if we truly desire for our democracy to thrive, each of us as a member of the body politic has an ethical obligation to try to overcome the self-serving bias and to weigh evidence as objectively as possible.  This is difficult, but we can make at least some progress.  Factual positions are not immutable.  They can and sometimes do respond to evidence.  Note, for example, our society’s rapidly changing views regarding the “dangers” of homosexuality.

Admitting that I have often failed to live up to my own standard, I propose that it is the ethical obligation of citizens of any democracy to seek out factual evidence on both sides of important policy debates, to study it carefully, and to evaluate it as objectively as possible.  Do you agree?


I strongly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND (2012) and Drew Westen’s THE POLITICAL BRAIN (2007) and believe you’ll find interesting Dan M. Kahan’s working paper “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study,” (2012).

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3 Responses to Ethics in Politics

  1. Jane Hastings May 3, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    In response to this well written blog, I agree that we need to seek out factual evidence on both sides of debates. Equally as important is determining whether the positions held are legitimately believed or whether they are self-serving dogma to further some other cause. Are greed and power elements driving a particular position?

    Eliminating greed and power from the equation is easier than eliminating narrow mindedness. People who are promoting specific stances, especially politicians who are attempting to pass laws in response to their stances, could be asked to verify their position by taking a fMRI lie detector test. Do they really believe in the law they are attempting to pass or is it a self-biased and self-serving act, which will bring them power and money?

    Only honest and ethical people are willing to take a fMRI test, because lies are detected with 99+% accuracy. If we can eliminate the corruption of power and money in issues of ethics in politics, then we can finally make headway, where opposite sides can honestly debate.

    Please support the use of fMRI lie detection to verify the ethics of politicians.

  2. Ethics Unwrapped March 12, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Thank you for the mention! We are very glad you found the blog useful!


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