Morality and Political Science

Often I get into a debate with people (mostly students) about the role of morality in politics. The argument usually begins after I after I have articulated some theory of politics which invokes incentive based explanations for some phenomena where the outcome is normatively distasteful. The view that political actors should act in some way preferable to one’s subjective morals is ubiquitous. Moreover, the argument also follows discussions of formal models making the rationality assumption (or as my mentor likes to say models where “actors have preferences that won’t cycle”).

As a student of politics I am trying to understand how the political world around me works. Generally, this involves developing new ways of looking at the world and building interesting theoretical models which can produce testable hypothesis. Of course we can debate Hypothetical-Deductive Reasoning, but that is not the point of this post. Simply put, I want to explain the world and morality rarely plays a huge role as an independent variable. I am not saying that morality cannot play a role in politics; in fact, we can easily model morality or altruistic based incentives. But denying theoretical explanations and empirical evidence because it does not fit with our normative priors does not help us explain the world.

Take the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) as an example. This simple model can be used to explain arms races, common-pooled resource problems, and noncooperation in international relations. The model is of course a simplification and illustrates how individual incentives can lead to collectively poor outcomes. People often have trouble believing that both actors would defect on each other. The reason is often based on some type of moral exhortation about how the actors will cooperate because that is the “right thing to do”. But the fact remains that in many cases one shot PD games are very useful for describing the behavior of individuals. One may think that the world looks more like the Stag Hunt than a PD game, but it is still based on incentives, not morality.

For example, economists have argued that the rise in SUV purchases can be explained by a PD game. Given that SUVs are larger than other vehicles and weigh more, it can be argued that they are safer when experiencing an accident with smaller cars. When people begin to buy SUVs it makes those with smaller cars less safe. A rational response to an increase in SUVs on the road would be to purchase an SUV for oneself as to not be at a safety disadvantage. In the aggregate this means more SUVs on the road which may increase emissions and decrease safety for everyone. Of course a lot more goes into SUV purchases, but using the PD game is still a useful and interesting way to look at the world.

The House is  considering the Smith/Amash Amendment which will alter the NDAA so that  the military may not imprison terrorism suspects captured on United States soil without trial. I recently had a discussion with someone who argued that the the U.S. should pass this amendment because the NDAA violates the natural rights of human beings – for both citizens and non-citizens. Support of the NDAA, for this person, implies that we are relegating fundamental human rights to the state. Philosophically, I tend to agree. But the fact is that the state has a monopoly on force and power is primary in politics. Even if the NDAA violates our “natural rights” it does not prevent the state from passing such as law and implementing it. My ultimate point was that we needed to understand the way the law was written in order to understand the protections it provides for U.S. citizens; if there is going to be a fight it will most likely take place in the courts and understanding the language of the law can be a powerful tool for those trying to combat it.

There is also the implication that democracy is normatively better than other systems and thus ought to do the right thing and stop suppressing civil liberties. But this overlooks several times in history when the U.S. and other democracies used their power to suppress civil rights and liberties. For example Japanese Interment camps during WWII, the institution of slavery, the separate but equal doctrine, the suppression of women’s rights, and we can go on. People often wonder why the U.S. hasn’t intervened in Darfur based on morality. The answer is quite simple, those in power are unwilling to risk blood and treasure in an area which holds little interest for U.S. foreign policy.

I tend to talk about politics outside of morality – although I am aware that it can in fact play a role. Some people take this to mean that I am promoting amoral ideas. I am not promoting anything. I am simply trying to understand the world for what it really is and this means distilling it down to what I (and others) hypothesize are the most important factors. Even so, if you really want to impact public policy you would be better off spending your time learning about how the world really works so that you find strategic points of entry in the policy process and make a difference. Otherwise, debating the morality of theoretical explanations and empirical evidence seems futile – or at least relegated to philosophy.