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Is Clear Thinking Morally Superior?

Many of us think so, a new study finds, and that could explain why arguments over science and faith get so heated.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: healthblog/Flickr)

Perhaps you took my colleague Jared Keller’s advice and engaged in a little political debate over turkey and Gewürtzraminer. And perhaps that led to you staring smugly into your uncle’s eyes and feeling a sense of moral superiority. If so, you’re not alone: A new study finds that, for some, logic- and evidence-based reasoning may as well have been commandments handed down from God.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds a bit off. After all, our traditional founts of moral wisdom, religious institutions, have not always been the strongest supporters of clear, empirically based thought. Just ask Galileo, Darwin, or pretty much any climate scientist.

“Opinions grounded in moral conviction are different from equally strong but amoral opinions, in that they are perceived as ‘oughts’ rather than as personal preferences, and lead to intolerance towards those that are attitudinally dissimilar,” psychologists Tomas Ståhl, Maarten Zaal, and Linda Skitka write in PLoS One. “However, it is not only the morally motivated defenders of traditional beliefs that have been characterized as intolerant in these debates.”

“More specifically,” they continue, “we suggest that people can come to view it as a moral virtue to form and evaluate attitudes and beliefs based on logical reasoning and evidence, and to view it as a vice to rely on less rational processes, an inclination we refer to as moralized rationality.”

Yeah, they’re looking at you, New Atheists.

To test that idea, Ståhl, Zaal, and Skitka first built a moralized rationality scale based on how much a person agreed with statements such as “it is morally wrong to trust your intuitions without rationally examining them,” or, more bluntly, “it is immoral to hold irrational beliefs.”

After a series of preliminary studies that demonstrated moralized rationality was distinct from other morals and from a less-righteous belief in the importance of clear thinking, the team explored some of the consequences of viewing logic and reason as morally superior.

In one experiment, 262 American citizens took a moralized rationality survey then read the case of a doctor who’d instructed a patient to pray for better health. Half the participants learned the doctor did so to encourage a sort of placebo effect, while the other half were told he genuinely believed God would answer the patient’s prayers.

Participants generally opposed any sort of punishment, with one exception: Those who viewed rationality as a moral issue were decidedly more neutral on whether a doctor who believed God would actually intervene deserved sanctions.

In a second experiment, the team asked 311 University of Illinois–Chicago students, faculty, and staff to take the survey and then state how likely they’d be, on a seven-point scale, to give time or money to six charities—among them, “Skeptic Alliance,” a hypothetical organization aimed at preventing the spread of irrational ideas. As expected, higher moralized rationality scores were closely associated with participants’ willingness to donate to Skeptic Alliance.

“The present results suggest that it is not only defenders of traditional beliefs that are spurred on by their moral conviction, but that the motives fueling advocates of science may be moral in nature as well,” Ståhl, Zaal, and Skitka write. “To the extent that this is the case, it could also help explain why their argumentative style frequently comes off as angry and intolerant.”