Simplicity Patterns



February 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Moral clarity” always seemed to me like a self-flattering way of saying “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” Moral clarity turns the complicated into the simple. It reduces a complex issue into a choice between good and evil. William Bennett popularized the phrase in his arguments supporting the Iraq invasion. Terrorism is evil, therefore invading Iraq is good. Unfortunately, reality turned out to be a lot more complicated.

The call for “Moral Clarity” comes mostly from the right, and not just on fighting terrorism. Go to the “Center for Moral Clarity,” click on “Key National Issues,” and you’ll find support for “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” (be warned however that this page does not spell out the moral clarity of leaving 40 million Americans without health insurance).

Does this preference for the simple over the complex generally distinguish the political right wing from the left? (See an earlier post on this and tolerance for ambiguity here.) And does it carry over into other areas? Is the political also the personal?

OK Cupid is a dating site. It isn’t about terrorism or health care. But the people who run it (Harvard math grads who turn dating into data) have looked at the correlations and discovered some non-obvious connections. Looking to get lucky? Ask your prospective date if they like the taste of beer. Those who do, both men and women, are 60% more likely to say they would consider sleeping with someone on the first date.

The same sorts of questions fit with the idea that conservatives prefer simplicity both in politics and people.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here were the political questions that these were based on.
On the surface, liking your peeps to be simple or complex shouldn’t have much to do with your position on gay marriage or creationism. But it does.

3 comments:

gabrielrossman said...

>On the surface, liking your peeps to be simple or
>complex shouldn’t have much to do with your
>position on gay marriage or creationism.

in one sense gay marriage and flag burning should be correlated because they both load on what Haidt calls "purity" but in another way they shouldn't because the best arguments against flag burning (it's insulting) are much simpler and more direct than the best arguments against gay marriage (it further relaxes the procreative assumptions behind the institution of marriage which will eventually lead to more illegitimacy and by extension more childhood suffering and inequality).

this got me thinking about the extent to which the intellectually respectable defenses for a position (which may or may not be true and may or may not correspond to the actual reasons most people hold those positions) are about first order vs second order effects. for instance, the main argument for the minimum wage is a first order effect (more money for poor people) and the main argument against it a second order (more unemployment among low-skilled workers). my hunch is that both left and right have their share of positions where the first order arguments dominate and those where the second order arguments dominate. it would be interesting to see if (net of overall ideology) education or wordsum or something like that correlates with affinity for particular positions with a second-order justification.

Jay Livingston said...

Most of the arguments I’ve heard about flag-burning and gay marriage are not about effects of any order. Like Haidt’s incest scenario, they’re about principles, morals, or values. (Flag-burning seems to me more a matter of “loyalty” or possibly “respect” than “purity.”) On effects, my first guess would be that more intelligent or educated people would think about both intended and unintended consequences. But here’s what I really think: on most issues, people base their positions on some combination of self-interest and morality/values; then they justify the position with whatever principles or imagined second order effects they think others will find convincing. I’d also guess that the choice of whether to argue on principle (freedom) or effects (usually costs) depends less on the intelligence of the person and more on the issue.

Maybe Prof. Perrin could go back and recode those letters for first/second order content and level of literacy/vocabulary.

codeandculture said...

>(Flag-burning seems to me more a matter of “loyalty”
>or possibly “respect” than “purity.”)
...
>But here’s what I really think: on most issues, people
>base their positions on some combination of self-
>interest and morality/values; then they justify the
>position with whatever principles or imagined second
>order effects they think others will find convincing.

agreed, well put on both counts. sorry i mischaracterized flag-burning in Haidt's schema and i totally agree that most moral articulations are post hoc rationalizations of intuitions and interests.