Rape doesn’t lead to pregnancy, in the mind of someone seeking “Moral Coherence”
In my earliest research I discovered that people sometimes invented the facts they needed to back up the moral judgments they had just made. When I asked people about whether it was wrong for a family to eat it’s dog, after the dog was killed by a car, people often said “yes, it’s wrong, because…. um… if you eat dog meat you’ll get sick.” This finding became the First Principle of Moral Psychology in The Righteous Mind: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Our gut tells us what’s true on moral questions, and our reasoning then kicks into high gear to justify that intuition.
So when Todd Akin said that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy because, um… “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down…” I was both horrified and delighted. Delighted only because it offered such a vivid demonstration of the First Principle in action.
By coincidence, my colleagues at Yourmorals.org, Brittany Liu and Pete Ditto, have just published an article showing how exactly the process works when people invent or inflate facts. Ditto and Liu talk about the need for “moral coherence,” which they describe as “the tendency for people to fit their factual beliefs to their moral world-view, so that what is right morally becomes what is right practically as well.” The apply this perspective to the Akin case in a blog post at the YourMorals blog. Here’s an excerpt:
We suggest that people’s desire for moral coherences initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences. So, if a particular act feels morally wrong, moral coherence processes lead people to try to maximize the costs and minimize the benefits associated with that act. Likewise, if an act feels morally acceptable, people will minimize the costs and maximize the benefits associated with that act. By changing their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits of various actions, people emerge with a coherent moral picture in which their factual beliefs fit perfectly with their moral evaluations.
Applying this logic to the Akin case, strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived in from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.
Pat Moynihan is reported to have once said that we are each entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Unfortunately, partisans tend to create their own facts, most of which are not so outrageously and obviously wrong as Akin’s. Left and right in America today live in different moral “matrices,” and the search for moral coherence, satisfied by cable news networks, gossip, and the internet, allows us all to live in gated moral communities, each one grounded in its own set of facts.