People tend to get very emotional about issues they consider moral, and generally try to avoid or even punish those they consider immoral. The heated reaction to moral issues is the exact opposite of what many people consider rational behavior.
Or so many of us would like to think. As it turns out, a new study indicates that people view rationality itself as a matter of moral behavior. While the study identifies a group of people who tend to take a strong and persistent moral stand about rationality, it also shows that even the control populations tend to do so. The results could go a long way toward explaining why people have separated themselves over ideological issues and react so violently to policy issues.
The study comes about thanks to a team of three researchers (Tomas Ståhl, Maarten Zaal and Linda J. Skitka), who were motivated in part by the likes of the New Atheists and organized groups of skeptics. According to the researchers, these individuals have engaged in something akin to a crusade, trying to get everyone to give up faith and adopt a science-oriented worldview. The researchers “suggest that advocates of science are often anything but value-neutral or amoral in their beliefs about the superiority of beliefs based on rationality and scientific evidence,” and then set out to find evidence.
The evidence they focused on was a series of surveys of people using Mechanical Turk. They first devised a series of questions that looked at how people view rational behavior, both personally and in general. Subjects were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “It is morally wrong to trust your intuition without rationally examining it” and “It is important for me personally to critically examine my long-held beliefs.”
The results showed that among those surveyed, there was a population that placed a high value on rationality in general, as opposed to valuing it in their personal behavior. Follow-up surveys showed that this trend was stable for at least several months. It also correlated with placing a high value on scientific evidence and a tendency to reject things like paranormal and religious beliefs. And the people who moralized rationality tended to behave in the same way as everyone else with regard to moral issues: they view irrational individuals as best avoided and rather consider their actions deserving of some form of sanction.
An obvious explanation for viewing rationality as a moral necessity is that rational evaluation of things often leads to better results. So it could become a moral imperative for people to feel that rational evaluations produce a better functioning society. To arrive at this issue, the authors examined whether moralizing rationality was accompanied by a general utilitarian outlook. It wasn’t. It doesn’t seem that those who view rationality as a moral issue do so simply because they think irrationality is generally harmful.
There are a number of issues that researchers have previously identified as fundamental to human morality, such as care versus harm and honesty versus deceit. The authors of the study examined whether valuing rationality differed from the rest. Unfortunately, this part of the work involved a lot of statistical testing and suffered from the smallest study population of all experiments. While the researchers’ results suggest that valuing rationality is a separate form of moral behavior, this is really something worth repeating. (By contrast, valuing rationality as a personal trait was associated with a number of previously defined moral issues.)
Everybody does it
So it seems that there is a segment of the population that sees rational behavior as a moral necessity. The surveys weren’t big enough to really give us any grip on how big the population is, so on its own this study wouldn’t give us much indication of overall relevance. But there are some indications that the conclusions may apply to many people.
First, things didn’t go so well with the basic idea behind the whole work – that moralized rationality could explain the new atheists. In each individual test, there were only minor differences between atheists and those who identified as religious; the authors had to pool all their tests to find a connection between moralized rationality and atheism. It seems that this tendency is very much present throughout society.
That idea is also reflected in the parts of the study where people are asked to evaluate an individual’s behavior in different scenarios. In one example, people were asked to rate a doctor who recommended that a patient pray, either because of an expectation of a placebo effect (the rational state) or because of a belief in the power of prayer.
In these scenarios, it was very likely that all groups of people would assign moral judgment to rational actions; the only difference in the groups came when they were asked to assign one to irrational actions. The same was largely true when people were asked to assign blame. Here, whether they moralized rationality or not, everyone was more likely to not assign blame when the person in the scenario acted rationally. (The differences were mostly in how people respond to irrational behavior.)
So while the study indicates that there may be a population that differentiates itself in the degree to which it places a moral value on rationality, there is a tendency to do so even among people who do not belong to that population.
How does this relate to current events? To evaluate that question, we need to go beyond everything in the paper. Everyone is familiar with the well-known tendency to regard their own beliefs as rational and brought about by careful deliberation. For example, people who do not accept the science of evolution or climate change will often argue that their doubts are based on a careful evaluation of the evidence.
The consequence of this tendency is that, for those individuals, anyone who believes the contrary must not have made a careful, rational evaluation of the evidence. Which, based on this research, may mean that the reasoning is morally suspect, with all the emotional charge that such a judgment entails. This kind of behavior may help explain why people segregate themselves based on ideological beliefs, and why political controversies have so often led to the demonization of the opposition.
PLOS ONE2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166332 (About DOIs).
List image by http://sites.psu.edu/ryanhanchick/