The Situationist

Morality and Politics: A System Justification Perspective

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2015

capital buildingAn Interview with John Jost by Paul Rosenberg

Note: This interview was originally published on Salon.com with an outrageously incendiary title that entirely misrepresented its content.

Introduction by Paul Rosenberg:

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a wide range of thinkers, both secular and religious, struggled to make sense of the profound evil of war, particularly Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One such effort, “The Authoritarian Personality” by Theodore Adorno and three co-authors, opened up a whole new field of political psychology—initially a small niche within the broader field of social psychology—which developed fitfully over the years, but became an increasingly robust subject area in 1980s and 90s, fleshing out a number of distinct areas of cognitive processing in which liberals and conservatives differed from one another. Liberal/conservative differences were not the sole concern of this field, but they did appear repeatedly across a growing range of different sorts of measures, including the inclination to justify the existing social order, whatever it might be, an insight developed by John Jost, starting in the 1990s, under the rubric of “system justification theory.”

The field of political psychology gained increased visibility in the 2000s as conservative Republicans controlled the White House and Congress simultaneously for the first time since the Great Depression, and took the nation in an increasingly divisive direction. Most notably, John Dean’s 2006 bestseller, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” popularized two of the more striking developments of the 1980s and 90s, the constructs of rightwing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. A few years before that, a purely academic paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by Jost and three other prominent researchers in the field, caused a brief spasm of political reaction which led some in Congress to talk of defunding the entire field.

But as the Bush era ended, and Barack Obama’s rhetoric of transcending right/left differences captured the national imagination, an echo of sentiment appeared in the field of political psychology as well. Known as “moral foundations theory,” and most closely associated with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and popularized in his book “The Righteous Mind,” it argued that a too-narrow focus on concerns of fairness and care/harm avoidance had diminished researchers’ appreciation for the full range of moral concerns, especially a particular subset of distinct concerns which conservatives appear to value more than liberals do. In order to restore balance to the field, researchers must broaden their horizons—and even, Haidt argued, engage in affirmative action to recruit conservatives into the field of political psychology. This was, in effect, an argument invoking liberal values—fairness, inclusion, openness to new ideas, etc.—and using them to criticize or even attack what was characterized as a liberal orthodoxy, or even a church-like, close-minded tribal moral community.

Yet, to some, these arguments seemed to gloss over, or even just outright dismiss a wide body of data, not dogma, from decades of previous research. While people were willing to consider new information, and new perspectives, there was a reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. In the most nitty-gritty sense, the question came down to this: Was the rhetorical framing of the moral foundations argument actually congruent with the detailed empirical findings in the field? Or did it serve more to blur important distinctions that were solidly grounded in rigorous observation?

Recently, a number of studies have raised questions about moral foundations theory in precisely these terms—are the moral foundations more congenial to conservatives actually reflective of non-moral or even immoral tendencies which have already been extensively studied? Late last year, a paper co-authored by Jost—“Another Look At Moral Foundations Theory”—built on these earlier studies to make the strongest case yet along these lines. To gain a better understanding of the field as a whole, moral foundations theory as a challenge within it, the problems that theory is now confronting, and what sort of resolution—and new frontiers—may lie ahead for the field, Paul Rosenberg spoke with John Jost. In the end, he suggested, moral foundations theory and system justification theory may end up looking surprisingly similar to one another, rather than being radically at odds.

PR: You’re most known for your work developing system justification theory, followed by your broader work on developing an integrated account of political ideology. You recently co-authored a paper “Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory,” which I want to focus on, but in order to do so coherently, I thought it best to begin by first asking you about your own work, and that of others you’ve helped integrate, before turning to moral foundations theory generally, and this critical paper in particular.

So, with that in mind as a game plan, could you briefly explain what system justification theory is all about, how it was that you became interested in the subject matter, and why others should be interested in it as well?

JJ: When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.

And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator—at the level of social psychology—in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.

This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better—but they are not.

In 2003, a paper you co-authored, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” caused quite a stir politically—there were even brief rumblings in Congress to cut off all research funding, not just for you, but for an entire broad field of research, though you managed to quell those rumblings in a subsequent Washington Post op-ed. That paper might well be called the tip of the iceberg of a whole body of work you’ve helped draw together, and continued to work on since then. So, first of all, what was that paper about?

We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism—the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change—and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other.

And what did it show?

We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat—as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc.—and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.

How did politicians misunderstand the paper, and how did you respond?

I suspect that there were some honest misunderstandings as well as some other kinds. One issue is that many people seem to assume that whatever psychologists are studying must be considered (by the researchers, at least) as abnormal or pathological. But that is simply untrue. Social, cognitive, developmental, personality, and political psychologists are all far more likely to study attitudes and behaviors that are normal, ordinary, and mundane. We are primarily interested in understanding the dynamics of everyday life. In any case, none of the variables that my colleagues and I investigated had anything to do with psychopathology; we were looking at variability in normal ranges within the population and whether specific psychological characteristics were correlated with political opinions. We tried to point some of these things out, encouraging people to read beyond the title, and emphasizing that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being high vs. low on the need for cognitive closure, cognitive complexity, sensitivity to threat, and so on.

How has that paper been built on since?

I am gratified and amazed at how many research teams all over the world have taken our ideas and refined, extended, and otherwise built upon them over the last decade. To begin with, a number of studies have confirmed that political conservatism and right-wing orientation are associated with various measures of system justification. And public opinion research involving nationally representative samples from all over the world establishes that the two core value dimensions that we proposed to separate the right from the left—traditionalism (or resistance to change) and acceptance of inequality—are indeed correlated with one another, and they are generally (but not always) associated with system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation.

Since 2003, numerous studies have replicated the correlations we observed between epistemic motives, including personal needs for order, structure, and closure and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Several find that liberals score higher than conservatives on the need for cognition, which captures the individual’s chronic tendency to enjoy effortful forms of thinking. This finding is potentially important because individuals who score lower on the need for cognition favor quick, intuitive, heuristic processing of new information, whereas those who score higher are more likely to engage in more elaborate, systematic processing (what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking, respectively). The relationship between epistemic motivation and political orientation has also been explored in research on nonverbal behavior and neurocognitive structure and functioning.

Various labs have also replicated the correlations we observed between existential motives, including attention and sensitivity to dangerous and threatening stimuli, and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, and conservatism. Ingenious experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of epistemic needs to reduce uncertainty or to attain a sense of control or closure increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of existential needs to manage threat and anxiety likewise increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation, all other things being equal. These experiments are especially valuable because they identify causal relationships between psychological motives and political orientation.

Progress has also been made in understanding connections between personality characteristics and political orientation. In terms of “Big Five” personality traits, studies involving students and nationally representative samples of adults tell exactly the same story: Openness to new experiences is positively associated with a liberal orientation, whereas Conscientiousness (especially the need for order) is positively associated with conservative orientation. In a few longitudinal studies, childhood measures of intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity as well as sensitivity to fear, threat, and danger have been found to predict conservative orientation later in life. Finally, we have observed that throughout North America and Western Europe, conservatives report being happier and more satisfied than liberals, and this difference is partially (but not completely) explained by system justification and the acceptance of inequality as legitimate. As we suspected many years ago, there appears to be an emotional or hedonic cost to seeing the system as unjust and in need of significant change.

“Moral foundations theory” has gotten a lot of popular press, as well as serious attention in the research community, but for those not familiar with it, could you give us a brief description, and then say something about why it is problematic on its face (particularly in light of the research discussed above)?

The basic idea is that there are five or six innate (evolutionarily prepared) bases for human “moral” judgment and behavior, namely fairness (which moral foundations theorists understand largely in terms of reciprocity), avoidance of harm, ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards. My main problem is that sometimes moral foundations theorists write descriptively as if these are purely subjective considerations—that people think and act as if morality requires us to obey authority, be loyal to the group, and so on. I have no problem with that descriptive claim—although this is surely only a small subset of the things that people might think are morally relevant—as long as we acknowledge that people could be wrong when they think and act as if these are inherently moral considerations.

At other times, however, moral foundations theorists write prescriptively, as if these “foundations” should be given equal weight, objectively speaking, that all of them should be considered virtues, and that anyone who rejects any of them is ignoring an important part of what it means to be a moral human being. I and others have pointed out that many of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed not merely in the name of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards, but because of a faithful application of these principles. For 24 centuries, Western philosophers have concluded that treating people fairly and minimizing harm should, when it comes to morality, trump group loyalty, deference to authority, and purification. In many cases, behaving ethically requires impartiality and disobedience and the overcoming of gut-level reactions that may lead us toward nepotism, deference, and acting on the basis of disgust and other emotional intuitions. It may be difficult to overcome these things, but isn’t this what morality requires of us?

There have been a number of initial critical studies published, which you cite in this new paper. What have they shown?

Part of the problem is that moral foundations theorists framed their work, for rhetorical purposes, in strong contrast to other research in social and political psychology, including work that I’ve been associated with. But this was unnecessary from the start and, in retrospect, entirely misleading. They basically said: “Past work suggests that conservatism is motivated by psychological needs to reduce uncertainty and threat and that it is associated with authoritarianism and social dominance, but we say that it is motivated by genuinely moral—not immoral or amoral—concerns for group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity.” This has turned out to be a false juxtaposition on many levels.

First researchers in England and the Netherlands demonstrated that threat sensitivity is in fact associated with group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity. For instance, perceptions of a dangerous world predict the endorsement of these three values, but not the endorsement of fairness or harm avoidance. Second, a few research teams in the U.S. and New Zealand discovered that authoritarianism and social dominance orientation were positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity but not with the valuation of fairness and avoidance of harm. Psychologically speaking, the three so-called “binding foundations” look quite different from the two more humanistic ones.

What haven’t these earlier studies tackled that you wanted to address? And why was this important?

These other studies suggested that there was a reasonably close connection between authoritarianism and the endorsement of ingroup, authority, and purity concerns, but they did not investigate the possibility that individual differences in authoritarianism and social dominance orientation could explain, in a statistical sense, why conservatives value ingroup, authority, and purity significantly more than liberals do and—just as important, but often glossed over in the literature on moral foundations theory—why liberals value fairness and the avoidance of harm significantly more than conservatives do.

How did you go about tackling these unanswered questions? What did you find and how did it compare with what you might have expected?

There was a graduate student named Matthew Kugler (who was then studying at Princeton) who attended a friendly debate about moral foundations theory that I participated in and, after hearing my remarks, decided to see whether the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of moral intuitions would disappear after statistically adjusting for authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. He conducted a few studies and found that it did, and then he contacted me, and we ended up collaborating on this research, collecting additional data using newer measures developed by moral foundations theorists as well as measures of outgroup hostility.

What does it mean for moral foundations theory?

To me, it means that scholars may need to clean up some of the conceptual confusion in this area of moral psychology, and researchers need to face up to the fact that some moral intuitions (things that people may think are morally relevant and may use as a basis for judging others) may lead people to behave in an unethical, discriminatory manner. But we need behavioral research, such as studies of actual discrimination, to see if this is actually the case. So far the evidence is mainly circumstantial.

And what future research is to come along these lines from you?

One of my students decided to investigate the relationship between system justification and its motivational antecedents, on one hand, and the endorsement of moral foundations, on the other. This work also suggests that the rhetorical contrast between moral foundations theory and other research in social psychology was exaggerated. We are finding that, of the variables we have included, empathy is the best psychological predictor of endorsing fairness and the avoidance of harm as moral concerns, whereas the endorsement of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity concerns is indeed linked to epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty (such as the need for cognitive closure) and existential motives to reduce threat (such as death anxiety) and to system justification in the economic domain. So, at a descriptive level, moral foundations theory is entirely consistent with system justification theory.

Finally, I’ve only asked some selective questions, and I’d like to conclude by asking what I always ask in interviews like this—What’s the most important question that I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer to it?

Do I think that social science can help to address some of the problems we face as a society? Yes, I am holding out hope that it can, at least in the long run, and hoping that our leaders will come to realize this eventually.

Our conversation leads me to want to add one more question. Haidt’s basic argument could be characterized as a combination of anthropology–look at all the “moral principles” different cultures have advanced—and the broad equation of morality with the restraint of individual self-interest and/or desire. Your paper, bringing to attention the roles of SDO and RWA, throws into sharp relief a key problem with such a formulation—one that Southern elites have understood for centuries: wholly legitimate individual self-interest (and even morality—adequately feeding & providing a decent future for one’s children, for example) can be easily over-ridden by appeals to heinous “moral concerns,” such as “racial purity,” or more broadly, upholding the “God-given racial order.”

Yet, Haidt does seem to have an important point that individualist moral concern leave something unsaid about the value of the social dimension of human experience, which earlier moral traditions have addressed. Do you see any way forward toward developing a more nuanced account of morality that benefits from the criticism that harm-avoidance and fairness may be too narrow a foundation without embracing the sorts of problematic alternatives put forward so far?

Yes, and there is long tradition of theory and research on social justice—going all the way back to Aristotle—that involves a rich, complex, nuanced analysis of ethical dilemmas that goes well beyond the assumption that fairness is simply about positive and negative reciprocity.

Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice—which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society—there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.

How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out. We should also focus on solving other dilemmas, such as how to integrate utilitarian, deontological, virtue-theoretical, and social contractualist forms of moral reasoning, because each of these—in my view—has some legitimate claim on our attention as moral agents.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

3 Responses to “Morality and Politics: A System Justification Perspective”

  1. getbye said

    Reblogged this on getbye.

  2. Great interview, both questions and answers. I was especially pleased at the broadening of view of the moral task pointed at in the last paragraph, where MFT is implicitly shown to not circumscribe well the fuller, well-storied notion of morality. It’s very good to be explicit that a broad and complete view of morality is more a bundle of loosely-arranged “dilemmas” than anything like MFT. To me, MFT is a rough-hewn half-theory, though it sheds great light on our use and abuse of deontological and virtual notions of morality, which is no small feat; its insights there have been very helpful to me. Jost is correct that MFT should’ve been positioned as a subset of things in that kind of way- set carefully into a context. But I think that didn’t happen because the team simply didn’t see much context for their results, leading to a quite distorting view that conservatives ‘get’ morality better, balance out more principles in natural tension, have a broader moral palette, etc. True and interesting and very useful in certain conditions, but often false or deceptive in other ways, as in: the assumption one would want a larger number of significant inputs into a given morality decision; both virtue problems and opportunities of non-egalitarianism/success/authority/groupishness as moral arbiter; the central role of empathy in most forms of morality, vs. empathy’s betimes- quavering vote in the MFT kitchen cabinet of moral values. And no hint within the theory to understand where a dividing line might exist between useful and crazy ‘broadening’; worse, that such a line even exists. Which is another way of stating the problem with MFT: there’s no rest-of-the-story to carry on the work of laying down a broader set of prescriptives. There’s just a pretty good stab into the dark, that provides some good explanation, particularly of conservative perspective, on the basis of some great descriptive cultural anthropology. It needs a better half to come home and dress it up, so they can come to the party together.

  3. […] Morality and Politics: A System Justification Perspective (thesituationist.wordpress.com) […]

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