Wednesday, February 16, 2011

War and Deontological Reasoning

Following on from my last post about sacred values, I read with interest a news item on the Science website about this study on war as a moral imperative. The study shows that, contrary to what many might be inclined to think, support for deadly intergroup violence is bounded in deontological reasoning and parochial commitment rather than a consequentialist "cost-benefit" analysis.

Critics of consequentialism often object that it is a "harsh" moral theory that fails to recognise the separateness of persons. Because consequentialism permits trade-offs it is typically characterized as a defective moral theory that fails to accord the appropriate moral weight to sacred or "serially ordered" values (to use Rawls's terminology).

And yet it is precisely this kind of absoluteness in deontological reasoning that makes it dangerous. Here is the abstract of the paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society:

We present findings from one survey and five experiments carried out in the USA, Nigeria and the Middle East showing that judgements about the use of deadly intergroup violence are strikingly insensitive to quantitative indicators of success, or to perceptions of their efficacy. By demonstrating that judgements about the use of war are bounded by rules of deontological reasoning and parochial commitment, these findings may have implications for understanding the trajectory of violent political conflicts. Further, these findings are compatible with theorizing that links the evolution of within-group altruism to intergroup violence.

And a sample from the article:

Decisions based on sacred values, such as whether to become a priest or a suicide bomber, often seem to follow a rule-bound logic of moral appropriateness and absolutist thinking, which, at least in a proximate sense, defies the cost-benefit calculations and means-end logic of realpolitik and the marketplace [26,27]. Even in objectively economic contexts, such as when playing one-shot economic games, people will make apparently morally motivated and personally costly decisions to obey social norms, or to punish those who do not (cf. [28,29]).

In this paper, we investigate whether people choosing whether to support or participate in war use the logic of instrumental rationality (as assumed by the preponderance of scholars and policy-makers), or the logic of deontology.

What I take away as the moral of the story here... there might be less war in the world if we all thought like good consequentialists rather than good deontologists!