Progress on Debt Ceiling shows us how Moderates can temper the Dark Side of Moral Conviction

October 14th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

As I write this, reports indicate that moderate Republicans (Susan Collins) and Democrats (Joe Manchin) appear to be spearheading bipartisan talks to avoid the economic consequences of a debt default and also end the partial government shutdown.  This is in marked contrast to partisans on the left who are willing to endure some economic hardship to regain political power and partisans on the right who are willing to endure some economic hardship to achieve policy goals.

Strong partisans tend to have strong moral convictions, which can certainly lead to pro-social behavior in many cases.  One principle of practicing political civility is to try to accept the genuine good intentions of others, and I have little doubt that those on the left and right have good intentions for the country.  Yet psychological research on moral conviction shows how it is precisely those individuals with the strongest moral desires who are often willing to overlook the consequences of their actions (e.g. shutting down the government and threatening to breach the debt ceiling) in service of their goals.  

This review paper by Linda Skitka and Elizabeth Mullen provides a nice overview of this research:  

Although moral mandates may sometimes lead people to
engage in prosocial behaviors, they can also lead people to disregard procedural safeguards. This article briefly reviews research that indicates that people become very unconcerned with how moral mandates are achieved, so long as they are achieved. In short, we find that commitments to procedural safeguards that generally protect civil society become psychologically eroded when people are pursuing a morally mandated end. Understanding the “dark side” of moral conviction may provide some insight into the motivational underpinnings of engaging in extreme acts like terrorism, as well as people’s willingness to forego civil liberties in their pursuit of those who do.


It is precisely for these reasons that partisan gerrymandering, which makes politicians accountable to the extremes who vote in primaries as opposed to moderates, threatens to lead to more future crises.  If moderates like Olympia Snowe leave and their influence is replaced by hardliners like Ted Cruz, we are all bound to suffer the consequences of their moral conviction.

– Ravi Iyer

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