What’s Wrong With Todd Akin and His Critics: Moral Coherence

Picture: US Congress (PD)

Do you accept or dismiss information depending upon your emotional reaction to it?  Brian D. Earp writes at Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog:

Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data – though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.

Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body’s defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.

Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:

The misuse of scientific information in support of one’s moral position is not new. When it comes to controversial and morally-laden issues such as abortion, it is difficult for people to separate their moral intuitions from their factual beliefs. With Akin, for example, his stance that abortion is fundamentally immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) is tightly wrapped up in his beliefs about the consequences of abortion and the science of female reproduction.

According to Liu, “moral coherence” refers to:

… the power our moral intuitions have to shape beliefs about facts, evidence, and science. Often, our intuitions about right and wrong conflict with well-rehearsed economic intuitions based on a cost-benefit logic. That is, it is often the case that a particular act feels morally wrong even though doing it would maximize positive consequences.

So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? In a paper with her colleague Peter Ditto, Liu suggests that people’s desire for moral coherence “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.” 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 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.

The idea of “moral coherence”— a clear cousin of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory—seems plausible enough, and Liu lays it out in a thoughtful, compelling manner. Unfortunately, this sort of fair-minded effort to understand how it is that an otherwise intelligent person could fall so far afield of reality is rare when it comes to political hot-topics involving moral disagreement.

Read more here.

20 Comments on "What’s Wrong With Todd Akin and His Critics: Moral Coherence"

  1. charlieprimero | Sep 2, 2012 at 6:45 pm |

    It says a lot about a society when that society considers this is a “hot topic” and ignores institutionalized elite thievery, unending war, and destruction of the middle class.

    • what would the elites who own the legacy media rather we discussed, “hot button” social issues or their attempts as a parasitic class to kill its host?

    •  Don’t you think it’s rather weird that Republicans consider rapist’s as republican voters and are doing everything they legally can to ensure reproductive rights for rapists.
      Seriously the US must be one of the few countries left, besides third world pariah states, that consider rape and legitimate reproductive method.
      Why bother with work, creating a home, being an active supportive parent, we all you have to do according to Republicans is select you breeding victim, attack and restrain her, strip away her personal dignity and rights and force intercourse. To ensure reproduction of course it would be legitimate according to Republicans to keep the victim for a least a month and repeat the rape act daily.
      Whilst the majority of normal people would consider this act psychopathically insane, apparently Republicans have no problems with presenting future generations with the genetic results.
      The only way to continue to have Republican voting rapists to force victims to continue to produce them.

      • Anarchy Pony | Sep 3, 2012 at 12:44 am |

        Metaphor works on more than one level. Dunno if it’s what you were aiming for, but bravo.

      • charlieprimero | Sep 3, 2012 at 11:32 am |

        Instead of reasoned, fair, rational discussion of issues, your post is exactly the type of hyperbolic nonsense I was referring to.

  2.  If more people realized what Mitt Romney believed they would run in the other direction and tell everyone that they know:


  3. if we overlook the fact that government has no business policing vaginas
    and if we overlook the fact that getting the facts right is rare among politicians
    and if we overlook the fact that most Congresspeople are two-faced whores
    then this is a legitimate debate

    arguing against moral/factual confusion here is Brittany Liu
    she hails from a CIA funded institutions (CMC & UCI)
    so no matter if you agree with her positions or not, you are still inline with CIA intentions
    which is what psysops are all about, distraction & confusion
    ah what’s that called
    oh yeah, disinfo

    • She was arguing against moral coherence, not moral confusion.

      • her overt statements & actions are for moral coherence
        but the overall effect desired is confusion
        maybe not her intended effect
        but certainly the intent of those who fund her studies

        • I guess you can answer the introductory question “Yes.”

          • your statement is an excellent example of how this stuff works
            ignore the underlying disinfo and its intent
            but focus on the content as if it was valid
            a make-believe issue for the impotent to discuss while Rome burns

          • And it seems to me your comments are an excellent example of rejecting facts because they don’t comport with your moral feelings.

            Do you realize that twice you’ve characterized Liu as arguing FOR moral coherence when she’s actually describing the problems with it?  Are you sure you even understand the article?

            It seems to me that the rejection of facts that upset people’s feelings of moral coherence is one of the reasons Rome is burning, particularly regarding the environment.  So I’d say the discussion is legitimate and valid.

          • here are some issues I think are important:
            the abrogation of the US Constitution
            the control of the US gov by elites
            the Military-Industrial-Bankster Complex
            the destruction of the environment for profits
            and how to escape this mess

            Todd my Akin heart is a psyop
            meant to distract attention away from the real problems
            the intellectual masturbation fantasy created by Ms Liu
            and your attachment to it
            is more of the same

          • I agree with your first paragraph, but not your second.  However, I suspect that in your opinion what I disagree with you about totally invalidates what I agree with you about.

  4. emperorreagan | Sep 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm |

    Moral coherence plays into some of the other articles about how facts don’t change people’s minds: maintaing moral coherence trumps fact.

    In particular, if you consider the rigid morality of fundamentalist Christianity + American nationalism + American-style capitalism, facts become very much secondary to maintaining a coherent morality.  There really isn’t a coherent morality that can be built among those three pillars.  

    It also makes the focus on hot button issues a little more understandable.  You avoid encountering some of the defects in the philosophy by dealing with discrete events and treating them as unrelated.  

  5. This seems like a clear cut case of cognitive dissonance. He simply can not reconcile facts into his head that don’t conform to his pro-life doctrine.

  6. People are indeed subconsciously biased towards claims that fit with their moral impulses, and I thought Akin was saying something stupid. Nonetheless, someone called Local Ale over at AltRight posted a comment linking to an earlier printed source, repeating (misrepresenting?) scientists as saying much the same thing as Akin.

    Whether or not Todd Akin was right, the claim he made does appear to come from scientific literature unrelated to abortion.


    “Other recent findings from Gallup’s laboratory suggest that semen-exposed women perform better on concentration and cognitive tasks and that women’s bodies can detect ‘foreign’ semen that differs from their long-term or recurrent sexual partner’s signature semen.

    They suggest the ability to detect foreign sources is an evolved system that often leads to unsuccessful pregnancies – via greater risk of preeclampsia – because it signals a disinvested male partner who is not as likely to provide for the offspring.

    Their findings also suggest that women who have unprotected sex with their partners – and therefore are getting regularly inseminated by them – experience more significant depression on breaking up with these men than those who were not as regularly exposed to an ex’s semen, and that they also go on the rebound faster in seeking new sexual partners.”

  7. Lets look at this sentence.

    “By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception.”

    In other words the author is talking about rape 2.0 as redefined by feminists, who sought to blur the definition of consent, and its pretty obvious that by ‘legitimate rape’ Todd Akin was referring to the more traditional rape 1.0 definition which really does involve clear violation of consent. His use of the word ‘legitimate’ here doesn’t imply approval of any sexual or criminal act; just the widely held belief that many crimes labelled as rape (ie date rape and statutory rape) aren’t rape at all in the restrictive definition.

    In any case, I’m sure ‘moral coherence’ explains some of the nonsense choicetards and the anti-rape movement have shat out of their own mouths for ages, starting with the non-sequitor that special exceptions justify general positions, as though the low cost and high benefit of shooting intruders implies a right to shoot anyone. I can’t help but notice people don’t feel a need to create such rationalisations to justify any other medical procedure as they do for abortion, to deceive themselves no doubt.

    And whats that about the number of rapes that are going unreported again? Sure, all crimes get under reported but that means you can’t make a sensible judgement based on the absence of evidence, because only evidence can be positively said to exist. Where there isn’t actual evidence to support a claim, unbiased people will assume the claim is bogus, but I guess some people just want there to be more rapes happening than there actually are, as a weapon to bash “sexism” with.

    Yea, Todd Akin is biased, but so is Brian D. Earp to use politicised definitions of consent and rape in the first place. I don’t care if he writes for Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog or not.

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