The Moral Foundations of Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Photo by Juliette Humble/UK DFID

By Mike Burnham and Shannon Peterson |

How do individuals morally justify participation in ethnic violence? This paper presents original research that attempts to answer this question. Using text analysis software and Jonathan Haidt’s moral matrix, a total of 225 text samples from three different ideological groups—Liberals, Conservatives, and White Nationalists within the United States—were analyzed. The samples were then tested using multiple linear regression to determine if there are ideological differences between the mainstream ideological groups (liberals and conservatives) and the white nationalists.

The first half of this paper introduces the question and how it contributes to the literature. The question is rooted in the ongoing debate on the rationality or irrationality of individual actors in ethnic conflict, terms that have largely become synonymous with material self-interest and nationalism. First, the paper argues that ethnic conflict cannot be explained without accounting for nationalism as a motivating factor. Next, it shows that the dichotomy between rational and irrational is fundamentally flawed and that nationalism, therefore, cannot be characterized as irrational.

The second half of the paper uses psychological literature from Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt to propose a more accurate model of human cognition, one in which the motivation of nationalism can be more completely understood through the framework of ideology. It shows how individuals construct ideological paradigms, and how it impacts their decision-making. By understanding this, ideological actors are more predictable and can be fit within the framework constructed by Haidt to codify ideologies. The paper then applies this framework to the moral foundations of nationalist movements and ethnic violence and finds that ethnic partisans primarily rely on moral justifications associated with ethnic identity and purity. Finally, it closes with a brief discussion on policy implications and avenues for future research.

Rationality vs. Irrationality

The dichotomy between rationality and irrationality has permeated the literature on ethnic conflict. John Mueller’s essay pits self-interested actors against nationalists driven to “murderous enmity.”[1] Likewise, Stuart Kaufman, in a 2006 essay titled “Symbolic Politics or Rational Choice?,” offers a “head-to-head test of rationalist and symbolist theories of ethnic war.”[2]

Rational choice theories largely define ethnonationalists as self-interested actors motivated primarily by material interests. Common motivations include control over territory or natural resources, material security, and power. Generally, under such explanations, ethnicity plays a secondary or passive role as a justification or convenient excuse for conflict.[3]  Thus, rational choice theorists are often anti-nationalist or reductionist in nature; ethnic conflict is merely a doppelgänger for more conventional warfare.[4]

Outside the rational self-interest camp is an extensive body of literature that describes individual participation in ethnic conflict as ‘irrational’ in nature. Irrationality is typically defined as behavior motivated and or driven by emotions, passions, and identity. Unlike rational self-interest, irrationality does not exist as a theoretical concept. Rather, it exists as rationality’s antithesis, utilized by authors primarily when rejecting materialist explanations of ethnic conflict. Social construction or primordialism typically provides the theoretical foundation. The notion that conflict is irrational is introduced when it can be shown that behavior does not follow traditionally defined rational self-interest. The examples are many:
–“The dyed in the wool nationalist is a romantic, not a rationalist… He thinks in terms of the spirit and culture of his people, not in terms of bargains and calculations,” states Anthony Birch.[5]
–In an essay titled “Beyond Reason” Walker Connor expresses the sentiment by quoting Chateaubriand, “Men don’t allow themselves to be killed for their interests; they allow themselves to be killed for their passions.” Connor concludes that “people do not voluntarily die for things that are rational.”[6]
–Historian of oriental studies Bernard Lewis describes the clash of civilizations as “perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”[7]
–“There remain irrational elements of explosive power and tenacity in the structure of nations and the outlook and myth of nationalism… many of these conflicts, and perhaps the most bitter and protracted, stem from just these underlying non-rational elements” argues Graham Smith.[8]
–As Ashutosh Varshney stated, the alternatives to rational self-interest have simply been regarded as emotional or otherwise “irrationally” motivated behavior.[9]

There are two issues with this dichotomy. First, because the notions of rationality and irrationality have been so closely tied with the motivations of material self-interest and nationalism respectively, the literature has also developed a dichotomy between these motivations. Second, the notion that actors fall neatly into a single category of either calculating or emotional does not agree with psychology. In order to understand why the moral motivations of ethnic conflict are significant, it is important to briefly address these two issues.

Materialism vs. Nationalism

One of the implications of dichotomizing actors as, in the words of Walker Connor, either rational (defined in terms of material self-interest) or national animals is that some authors portray actors that think exclusively “in terms of the spirit and culture of [their] people.”[10] Conversely, other authors have stretched the notion of material self-interest to portray it as the singular cause of ethnic conflict, shunning nationalist or culturally driven motivations. This second category of theorists question the utility of codifying the nationalist and cultural motivations of ethnic conflict.

While materialist motivations such as security and personal gain can be an essential element in catalyzing ethnic conflict, it has yet to be shown theoretically or empirically that material self-interest can provide a comprehensive explanation for ethnic conflict. Nationalism is a significant motivating factor in ethnic conflict, and is therefore necessary to understand in order to explain ethnic conflict. This paper borrows Walker Connor’s definition of nationalism: a nation “connotes a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related,” and “nationalism connotes identification with and loyalty to one’s nation.”[11]

Realism provides one of the simplest explanations of ethnic conflict rooted in material self-interest. While other theories define self-interest in terms of economics, realism approaches it from the angle of security. Barry Posen (1993), for example, argues that ethnic groups seek survival above all else and guarantee security by pursuing relative power.[12]

But the same criticisms that realism faces as a theory of international politics apply to it as an explanation for the motivation for ethnic conflict. While some behavior can be accurately characterized as driven by security or power consolidation, much of it cannot. Two of the distinguishing features of ethnic conflict are the propensity toward violence beyond any objective gains in security or power, and engaging in behavior that defies individual self-interest. It is difficult to argue, for example, that the Holocaust had anything to do with power or security. Nor can realism explain “the countless fanatical sacrifices which have been made” in the name of nationalism, such as suicide bombings carried out by secular, nationalist groups like the Tamil Tigers.[13]

In “The Banality of Ethnic War,” John Mueller characterizes ethnic conflict as an event largely perpetrated by materially self-interested individuals and elites. He argues that ethnic conflict occurs “not because people generally gave into murderous enmity but because they came under the arbitrary control of armed thugs” who were responding to material incentives provided by political elites.[14] The role of nationalism, according to Mueller, is nothing more than an “ordering device” for individuals to pursue more self-interested goals. He goes so far as to say that any social indicator, such as right-handedness or loyalty to a soccer team, would provide an adequate substitute for ethnicity.[15]

To support his claim, Mueller draws examples from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In the former Yugoslavia, the fact that Slobodan Milosevic bussed protestors to nationalist rallies, promising them food and liquor as compensation, calls into question the fervor of nationalist forces. Likewise, Mueller argues that violence in Rwanda was not characterized by neighbors falling upon neighbors, but by bands of thugs who were compensated for participating in the slaughter with daily beer and meal and the prospect of looting.[16] In both cases, Mueller shows that many were coerced into participating in killings.[17]

While Mueller makes a compelling case for the role of materialism, there is reason to doubt that ethnic conflict can be explained solely by this motivation. For one, the claim that nationalism functions only as an ordering device is unsubstantiated. The premise rests on the false dilemma in which actors are entirely motivated by either nationalism, or material self-interest. The fact that many perpetrators of ethnic violence were materially compensated does not mean materialism was their sole motivation. Food and beer may be sufficient incentive to mobilize individuals against an ethnic group, but not necessarily against left-handed people. The prominent role that nationalism played in Marxist-Leninist revolutions supports this assertion. Despite the fact that Lenin described appeals to nationalism as a “despicable betrayal of socialism,” he also labeled it “one of the most important constituents in the policy of winning the masses and preparing a victorious revolution.”[18] Regimes in China, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia also depended on it to assume power. As Walker Connor points out, “it is indeed a powerful testament to the primacy of ethnonational over economic motivation, that a school predicated upon economic determinism should turn to ethnonationalism to propel them into power.”[19]

If this is true, the emphasis on material incentives may be confusing causation. Daniel Goldhagen (2009) states it succinctly in Worse Than War: “People who hate other people and see them as a mortal danger are often happy to improve their material or professional lives when their self conceived enemies are eliminated. Yet, there is little evidence that personal benefit has been a widespread or determinative motive.”[20] Is mass genocide caused by, as Mueller suggests, purely economic incentives? Or, as Goldhagen argues, were there nationalist hatreds already present that political entrepreneurs could capitalize on with materialism?

Goldhagen also presents evidence that challenges Mueller’s assertion that ethnic violence in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia was largely coerced. While some coercion did take place, the killing atmosphere in Rwanda, for example, was described as “lax, with all kinds of opportunities for Hutu to adjust how, and when, and whether they slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors.”[21] In fact, Goldhagen argues that, in general, a lack of coercion was the rule, rather than the exception, to genocidal assaults. Citing genocides perpetrated by the Nazis, Turks, British in Kenya, Belgian in Congo, and others, in addition to those by the Hutu and Serbs, Goldhagen argues, “leaders have easily found people wanting to kill the targeted victims. Coercion has been unnecessary.”[22]

Mueller’s emphasis on economic self-interest provides valuable insights. Material incentives are often present and can impact the decision making of both elites and individuals during ethnonationalist conflicts. However, material incentives are insufficient motivating forces for the violence and destruction that accompanies most ethnic conflict. Other forces, such as nationalist sentiment, must also be present.

Much like Mueller, Collier and Hoeffler (2004, 2008) argue that ethnic conflict is rooted in economic interests. Specifically, they cite disputes over natural resources and the ability to capitalize on opportune social conditions as the primary causes.[23] Similarly, in a 2003 piece written for Foreign Policy, Collier decries nationalist explanations of conflict and claims economics and self-interest, not ethnic tensions, are behind the political violence.[24]

To support their argument, Collier and Hoeffler utilize large data sets and employ binomial logit regressions to identify the most significant causes of civil wars. They find that economic and opportunistic variables, such as the presence of valuable resources or the number of potential soldiers, are the most significant in determining whether or not a country erupts into violence. In contrast, social factors, such as ethnic and religious fractionalization, are considered far less significant. The authors conclude by stating that violence is most consistent with greed motivations, and that “the grievances that motivate rebels may be substantially disconnected from the large social concerns of inequality, political rights, and ethnic or religious identity.”[25]

Yet, the fundamental error in the greed and grievance papers is found in their generalized categorization of conflict. Both authors, and the Correlates of War datasets they used, treat civil war as an aggregate category.[26]  Neither considers the idea that identity wars, such as ethnic conflict, have fundamentally different causes than non-identity based conflicts.[27] By not differentiating amongst conflicts, Collier and Hoeffler miss an important distinction. Generalizing their findings to ethnic conflicts is thus misleading. In order to understand the causes or motives of ethnic conflicts, one must examine a dataset of ethnic conflicts.

In The Geography of Ethnic Violence, Monica Duffy Toft used the more appropriate Minorities at Risk dataset (MAR), the largest dataset on issues concerning ethnicity and conflict. MAR also includes cases in which no war results.[28] The dataset used by Collier, by contrast, excludes instances with fewer than 1,000 battle deaths and instances of one-sided violence—the latter is a hallmark of ethnic conflict.[29]

While the primary focus of Toft’s work is measuring the effect of geographic, rather than economic, variables on ethnic conflict, some of her findings directly contradict those of Collier and Hoeffler. Social fractionalization, measured by ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, is largely insignificant in Collier and Hoeffler’s work. Toft’s, however, suggests it is significant.[30] More telling is that the correlation of conflict with resource rich territory is negative. Whether or not territory is perceived to be a homeland is both significant and positively correlated.[31]

All of this questions the robustness of Collier’s advice to ignore explanations based on ethnic roots and look toward economic explanations instead.[32] Explaining ethnic conflict exclusively in terms of material self-interest appears overly simplistic. Material incentives matter, but it has not been shown theoretically or empirically that they can provide a comprehensive explanation. A more complete and accurate explanation of the phenomenon requires reference to nationalist forces.

The Rational/Irrational Dichotomy and Psychology

In addition to the tension between material and nationalist interests, subjecting humans and their behavior to the rational/irrational dichotomy is fundamentally inaccurate and problematic. In much of the literature in social science, rational decision making is described as is goal-oriented, linear, consistent, and coherent. This portrayal of individual decision-making is the subject of considerable criticism, particularly from psychologists. For instance, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states that “the definition of rationality as coherence is impossibly restrictive; it demands adherence to rules of logic that a finite mind is not able to implement. Reasonable people cannot be rational by that definition.”[33]

However, Kahneman warns, this does not mean that people should be branded as “irrational.”[34] Whether or not the authors intended them, describing ethnic conflict as irrational carries a separate host of implications. To say that actors behave irrationally implies they do not obey any rules of logic, are inconsistent in choice, or do not perform cost-benefit analyses. If described in this way, actors in ethnic conflict are thought of as mindless zealots rather than calculating, reasoned individuals making conscious, deliberate decisions. This belief imposes a limit on one’s understanding of ethnic conflict. Irrational behavior does not follow a pattern and therefore cannot be wholly understood or predicted.

System I and System II

Rather than categorizing it into a dichotomy of rational or irrational action and goals, ethnic conflict should be understood as a process of both intuition and rationality.[35] Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and later Daniel Kahneman, developed useful labels for the distinction: System I and System II. System I refers to intuition; it “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” Rational thought is slow and deliberate; this is called System II.[36] System II “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it” and is capable of reasoning.[37]

Focusing on intuition largely eliminates the notion of irrationality. While System I thinking may be influenced by emotions or ‘passions,’ which are often associated with irrational and unpredictable behavior, it is also often predictable and can even be cost minimizing. Intuition is a product of both biology and social construction, and it helps explain the reasoning and motivations of actors.

Kahneman’s definition also defines rationality by its process rather than its goals. Reasoning actors will pursue whichever course they believe will maximize their utility, but the objects and actions that provide utility may vary greatly between actors. This definition moves beyond the simplistic understanding that pursuing self-interested goals is rational, and other goals are irrational.

System I: Ideological Judgments

The pursuit of any goal is rational because it provides utility to the actor. This is as true of ethnic conflict as it is profit maximization. But why do members of one ethnic group determine that killing the members of another would provide them the greatest utility? This paper argues that the preferences that lead to ethnic conflict are ideological, moral, and intuitive.

Before continuing it is important to provide a few more working definitions. According to Kathleen Bawn, ideologies are “enduring systems of beliefs, prescribing what action to take in a variety of political circumstances.”[38] Furthermore, they are “based on something other than direct self-interest” and encompass concepts of identity, values, and morals.[39] Ideology is essentially a manifestation of certain preferences. Second, this paper treats morals and values as synonymous. While the two are different, their proximity and the lack of a widely accepted definition make it difficult to establish the idiosyncrasies of each.

Ideology is Intuitive

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt attempted to answer the question of whether or not ideology is a function of System I or System II cognition. In the context of ethnic conflict, do ethnic partisans, espouse the ideologies that lead them to violence because they logically deduced them to be correct, or is the result of an intuitive judgment? Haidt argues that psychology has found notions of values and morality to be intuitive, rather than rational in nature. They appear “suddenly and effortlessly in consciousness, without any awareness of the mental processes that led to the outcome.”[40] Moral and ideological judgments are thus associated with System I.

To test this theory, Haidt and his colleagues devised several experiments in which they presented subjects with moral dilemmas and gauged their responses. Experiments included telling stories in which a character violated a harmless taboo, asking the test subject if the action was right or wrong, and asking atheists to sign a contract to sell their soul.[41] In the experiments they found the vast majority of subjects were able to pass instant judgment on the innate correctness of the action (System I), but struggled to find reasons why (System II). Additionally, test subjects proved largely unwilling to change their mind when the experimenters stripped away arguments for their decision. Haidt sums up his findings as follows:

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second… Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the President… Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach because we ask ‘Can I believe it?’ when we want to believe something, but ‘Must I believe it’ when we don’t want to believe.”[42]

In the context of ethnic conflict, System I seems to determine where one lies on the spectrum of ethnic partisanship. Whether or not one values ethnic solidarity and self-determination and whether or not ethnic violence is an appropriate method of reaching that goal appear to be an intuitive judgments. Once those judgments are passed, System II can justify almost any action. As a result, it appears that humans engage in ethnic violence not because they are driven mad by enmity but because intuition tells them it is morally just.

The Biological and Social Construction of Ideology

Naturally, the next question that must be answered is what informs System I thinking. Haidt provides two explanations: genetics and social construction. While the degree to which genetics impacts behavioral traits is debateable, the fact that it matters has been borne out by much research. Studies on identical twins reared in separate households due to adoption show that twins are more likely to share political ideologies than two other randomly selected people.[43] One study claims that genetics explain roughly one-third to one-half of the variability of political attitudes among people.[44] The remaining one-half to two-thirds are determined after birth.

Genetic and environmental factors do not work in isolation of each other. While individuals may be born with a certain proclivity to a political ideology, this disposition is not hardwired. Haidt proposes a developmental perspective consisting of three steps to understand how the two interact.[45]

First, genes construct brains.[46] In 2011, scientists isolated several genes that varied between political ideologies. Genes collectively give people brains that create responses that can shape their political dispositions. Examples include how reactive one is to threats, and one’s reaction when he or she is exposed to novelty and change.[47]

Having a genetic proclivity towards an ideology does not mean that certain people are predestined to engage in ethnic violence. In the second step, genes interact with their environment. Personalities and beliefs develop “in response to the specific environments and challenges that they happen to face.”[48] Genetics provides a first draft, and social environment alters that draft throughout a person’s life.

Finally, individuals construct narratives of their lives. These narratives “provide a bridge between a developing adolescent self and an adult political identity.” People interpret the events in their lives and assign meaning to them to create an identity about who they are and what political ideologies they espouse.

This process is largely a psychologist’s spin on what constructivists already know. Interests are defined by identities, and identities are endogenous to the system in which they reside. The point, however, is that political judgments are largely determined prior to the moment in which a person faces a dilemma. When someone is faced with a political or moral decision, he or she will generally not stop and reason through it with System II thinking. Biological and social factors combine to define how one’s System I interprets morality and how his or her brain provides an intuitive answer that System II justifies post-hoc as the press secretary for System I.

This process is perhaps best illustrated by a hypothetical example of a young Hutu male in Rwanda. From birth, his genetic proclivities are reinforced by a broader, socially-constructed narrative that presents Tutsis as different, unworthy of equal treatment as human beings, and potentially a threat to his prosperity and existence. These combined factors of social conditions and genetics encourage him to construct a political narrative centered on his ethnic identity as a Hutu, and the role of Tutsis as a threatening other. When the opportunity to participate in violence against Tutsis is placed before him, his System I responds with the set of values created by his genetics and social environment and he feels that participating is the right thing to do. His System II cognition then works to justify this intuition. He may provide a rationalization that he is defending his ethnic group, that he is extracting justice for past wrongs, or that Tutsis are not really people. He then makes a conscious decision to participate in the violence.

System II: Value Rationality

Ideological judgments are a function of System I. However, it would be inaccurate to characterize actors in ethnic conflict solely by their intuitive judgments. System II serves two primary functions with relation to ideological judgments. First, it provides post-hoc justification for intuition. Second, it performs reasoned, cost-benefit analyses to determine how and actor will mobilize on behalf of an ideology.

This second function is not particularly novel. Again, it is a psychologist’s spin on a constructivist argument. Alexander Wendt (1992) makes it clear that even though the interests of an actor are endogenous to the system in which they reside, they are still subject to cost-benefit analyses. People act toward objects “on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.”[49] All goal-oriented behavior is subject to cost benefit analysis, but the goals are variable for each actor, ranging from material interests, nationalism, or any number of possibilities.

In Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Rationality, Ashutosh Varshney introduces the Weberian definitions of value and instrumental rationality and points out that rational behavior has traditionally been viewed exclusively in terms of rational self-interest. This type of rationality is instrumental rationality.[50] Value rationality, however:

“…is produced by a conscious ‘ethical, aesthetic, religious or other’ belief, ‘independently of its prospects of success.’ Behavior, when driven by such values, can consciously embrace great personal sacrifices. Some spheres or goals of life are considered so valuable that they would not normally be up for sale or compromise, however costly the pursuit of their realization might be.”[51]

There are a couple of important concepts here. Most important, both instrumental and value rational behavior are associated with System II. If a society or individual values ethnic purity, its pursuit is just as valuable and rational as the pursuit of economic gains in that it brings utility to the pursuant. Actors will plan and make conscious decisions to pursue that value.

Secondly, value rationality can be pursued independently of its prospects for success. Defending and upholding values is an end in and of itself. The mere act of representing the desired value provides utility to the actor even if it is a foregone conclusion that the end result is failure, or if the act provides little to no material benefits. More specifically, Varshney argues that utility gained from upholding these values is connected to cultural or individual perceptions of dignity and self-respect.[52]

This provides a powerful explanation as to why ethnonationalists may choose self-destructive behavior, such as suicide bombings, or plan to execute violence beyond what is politically advantageous, such as genocide. When deciding how and why a person will uphold or fulfill the moral judgments made by System I, System II relies on value rationality, which is highly insensitive to costs.[53]

Additionally, the concept of value rationality helps explain how both socially constructed and materially self-interested goals can play a significant role in mobilizing actors to violence. As Varshney further elucidates:

“Most of the time and in most places, ethnic or national mobilization cannot begin without value-rational microfoundations. For it to be instrumentally used by leaders, ethnicity must exist as a valued good for some. However, ethnic mobilization cannot proceed on value-rational grounds alone. Strategies are necessary; coalitions must be formed; the response of the adversary—the state, the opposed ethnic group, the in-group dissenters—must be anticipated. And many would join such mobilization, when it has acquired some momentum and chance of success, for entirely selfish reasons.”[54]

To draw from a previously used example, Mueller was wrong to isolate materialism as the primary motivating force for soldiers in the Rwandan genocide. As was pointed out by Goldhagen, ethnonationalist microfoundations already existed and instrumentalist incentives helped mobilize those foundations.

Measuring Morality

The above section explains the cognitive processes at work in ethnic conflict. But is it possible to determine if an actor or group is prone to System I judgments that will lead to violence? Doing so requires a method for observing ideologies and moral paradigms.

Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph devised a moral matrix that consists of five different “moral foundations.” Each foundation is presented as a dichotomy, such as care/harm and sanctity/degradation. Each dichotomy was identified by linking adaptive challenges frequently cited by evolutionary psychologists and connecting those with virtues commonly found, in some form, across cultures.[55] The moral foundations are “adaptations to long standing threats and opportunities in social life.”[56] The five dichotomies and descriptive information are presented in Table 1 below. Because these foundations are rooted in evolution, they are assumed to be universal. The interpretation of each foundation and the relative importance placed on it, however, is not universal. The foundations are analogous to moral taste buds.[57] Liberals and Conservatives broadly, for example, have separate notions of what defines the sanctity/degradation dichotomy. While Conservatives generally refer to notions of chastity and religious purity, Liberals often associate it with nutrition or nature.[58]

Art 3 - Table 1

Haidt employs this matrix to measure differences in moral paradigms among political ideologies in the United States. It can also be used to evaluate extremist ideologies around the world, providing a more definitive measurement of what propels individuals toward ethnic partisanship and ultimately violence. 


In order to test the feasibility of this framework, this paper builds on a methodology used by Haidt in 2009. Aiming to measure the ideological differences among liberals and conservatives, the researchers collected text samples of sermons given by churches affiliated with the two ideologies. They then used the Linguistics Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) text analysis software and installed a custom dictionary of words associated with each foundation to count the instances when each group appealed to a certain moral foundation. Using confidence intervals, they looked for any significant differences in the groups.

To represent the ideology of ethnic partisans, American White Nationalists were sampled because of their relatively large member base, accessibility, and the absence of any language barriers. Then prominent opinion leaders within the ideology were isolated by identifying names commonly recognized by both consumers and producers of political media; a list of individuals polled is included in Appendix 1. Text samples consisted of essays, opinion editorials, and transcripts from radio and television broadcasts. The process was then repeated for liberals and conservatives. The samples taken from each ideology were drawn from at least 10 different authors, and no single author accounted for more than 10 samples. With the exception of one particularly influential author, the deceased William Pierce who was one of the most prominent members of the modern white-nationalism movements and is still referenced frequently, all samples are dated within the last 10 years. No preference was given to the subject matter of samples; the only stipulation was that they were political in nature. Next, the samples were analyzed using the LIWC software and the moral dictionary created by Haidt and his team. Slight alterations were made to the dictionary in order to capture the language of nationalists who were not sampled in Haidt’s experiment and to account for the fact that similar words will have slightly different moral implications for each group. The word “conservative,” for example, can represent either ingroup or outgroup depending on the ideology.

Once samples were collected and processed with LIWC, each sample was examined and edited for accuracy. Samples were edited as little as possible in order to maintain the integrity of the text. A few simple rules were followed in order to determine when a word the software picked up would be replaced with another word it would not. First, all homonyms that created false positives were replaced. The words ‘”left” and “right,” for example, were removed when talking about directions rather than political leanings. Second, all words in proper names or titles picked up by the software were removed. The word “justice,” for example, was removed when referring to a judge or in an official name like the “Department of Justice.” Finally, any word that registered but was unambiguously not associated with morality, such as using the word “good” to describe a meal rather than make a moral judgment, was removed. This final rule was exercised sparingly.

The ideological data collected was used to test the following hypothesis. First, White Nationalists will appeal to morality in total more frequently than liberals and conservatives. In keeping with the notion that ethnic conflict is based on intuitive, ideological and moral judgments, authors should appeal more frequently to moral intuition than to System II logic.

Second, Ethnonationalists will appeal to the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy more frequently than liberals and conservatives. This comes from the assumption that ethnic conflict is a form of identity conflict. Nationalist ideologies and their corresponding System I judgments are predicated on how they define themselves and a referential “other.”[59] What defines “whiteness” and other ethnic groups should be a central feature in White Nationalist political discussion.

Finally, White Nationalists will appeal more frequently to the sanctity/degradation dichotomy. The sanctity degradation dichotomy is primarily linked with notions of purity and disgust. This hypothesis stems from the notion that nationalism is based on illusions of homogeneity.[60] Nationalists believe themselves to be ancestrally related, and have a sense of shared blood. Notions of sanctity and degradation can also be dissociative and create validation as to who is deserving of harm or care, such as the Hutus referring to Tutsis as cockroaches.


To test these hypotheses, LIWC was used to analyzed the text samples and determined the percentage of all words used that were associated with each moral dichotomy. The percentages are listed in the table below.

Art 3 - Table 2

Regression was then used to identify correlations. The dependent variable was represented by the percentage of words associated with one of the foundations, or all of them when testing total morality. Dummy variables were introduced for two of the three political ideologies, while leaving one in the intercept. Because some text samples were polled from slightly different mediums, another variable was introduced. The Transcript variable represents text samples from a radio or television program, rather than an editorial or essay. The generic model looked like this:

YMorality% = B1+B2DIdeology 1+B3DIdeology 2+B4DTranscript+ui

Using robust standard errors, the model was run three times; rotating which ideology was represented by the intercept, for each moral dichotomy and for total morality.

The model was then tested for heteroskedasticity using the Breusch–Pagan/Cook-Weisberg test. With the exception of regressions run for the authority/subversion dichotomy, there was evidence of heteroskedasticity in all instances. This was expected because sample collection methods were not truly random. The issue was somewhat ameliorated by transforming the model to a logarithmic function, but not enough to warrant sacrificing the model’s ease of interpretation. However, F-tests revealed that the heteroskedasticity was largely due to the variance in the nationalist group being significantly larger than that of the conservative and liberal groups. Since the point of the test was to see how the nationalist group differs from liberals and conservatives, this is an observation in and of itself and is discussed below.


The regression table below represents the initial model in which the Liberal ideology is represented by the intercept, and the Conservative and Nationalist ideologies are represented by dummy variables. Additional tables in which the variable represented by the intercept are switched are shown in Appendix 2.

YMorality = B1+B2DConservative+B3DNationalist+B4DTranscript+ei

Art 3- Table 3

These results generally support all three of hypotheses. The Nationalist coefficient associated with total morality is both positive and significant. This supports the assertion that Nationalist opinion leaders are more likely to appeal to morality than Liberals and Conservatives and that White Nationalists support their ideology more frequently with System I, or intuitive, thinking. This does not mean that rational cognition does not occur; it merely supports the idea that moral and emotional cognition tend to play a more important role in extremist ideologies than mainstream ones.

Under the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy, the relatively large coefficients associated with the nationalist variable indicate this moral foundation is highly important to the White Nationalist ideology. This quantitatively supports the theory that ethnic partisanship is fundamentally about identity. Central to their ideology is their perception of self, and referential others outside of their group.

Finally, the coefficient on the White Nationalist variable in the sanctity/degradation regression is also highly significant and positive. This supports the notion that ethnonationalist ideologies are based on beliefs of ethnic purity.

Within the other three dichotomies—authority/subversion, harm/care, and fairness cheating—the significance of the variables fluctuates around the .05 significance level with a high of .208 and a low of .036.[61] While some of the variables are statistically significant, they do not approach the level of significance of tests for total morality or the ingroup/outgroup foundation, which are significant at a level over .001. It is unclear which of these are significant findings, chance correlation, or peculiar to the White Nationalist movement. Unlike the ingroup/outgroup and sanctity/degradation foundations, these dichotomies have no identifiable connection to theories of identity conflict and ethnonationalism. Therefore, the significance of these foundations are likely not peculiar to ethnic conflict generally, but will vary significantly depending on the narrative adopted by an ethnonationalist movement.

With regards to the heteroskedasticity observed in the regression, the large variation within the Nationalist group may, in part, be due to the underground nature of the nationalist movement. Because White Nationalist opinion leaders are not subject to the same level of public scrutiny as their mainstream counterparts, they have less incentive to temper their words. On the other hand, prominent leaders attempting to push the movement mainstream may edit their comments more judiciously. These two extremes could contribute to the large variance.

While the results are encouraging for this avenue of inquiry, it is important to recognize the model’s shortcomings. First and foremost, while the ten-year time frame in which samples were collected provides a rudimentary control for the political climate, it should be improved upon in future research. Variables that control for factors such as economic circumstances, electoral conditions, and the state of security could greatly enhance the accuracy of the tests.

Additionally, this research is undoubtedly subject to sampling bias due mostly to the largely subjective process of selecting opinion leaders and editing samples, as well as the inability to collect truly random samples. While it is impossible to completely overcome this bias because of the nature of the methods used, some steps can be taken to improve accuracy. Increasing the sample size, polling scholars in the selection process of opinion leaders, and designing a less subjective method of editing samples are a few examples.

Finally, it is unclear whether or not these findings can be broadly applied to nationalist movements around the globe, or if they are unique to the United States. Further research should explore whether the findings hold across different cultures and languages.


The dichotomy of rationality and irrationality pervasive in the literature on ethnic conflict has created a false dilemma in which actors pursuing self-interested motives are rational and those pursuing all other motives are irrational. It is also inaccurate from a psychological perspective. In order to rectify this, discussions of cognitive processes relevant to ethnic conflict have to be redefined. Instead, ethnic conflict should be understood in terms of intuition (System I) and rationality (System II). Ethnic conflict is motivated by moral judgments conducted by System I. System II then justifies these judgments and uses value rationality, which views moral goals as highly inelastic, and instrumental rationality to mobilize actors around these judgments.

In order to understand what motivates nationalism, it is necessary to understand the intuitive judgments made by actors. Using the moral matrix constructed by Jonathan Haidt to codify these judgments, this paper shows that White Nationalists appeal to moral ideologies more frequently than conservatives and liberals and that they rely heavily on notions of in-group loyalty and purity. These findings support the constructivist explanation for ethnic conflict, which argues that it is motivated by identity and myths of ethnic homogeneity.

This paper introduces many new avenues of inquiry. Further research should examine how the narratives adopted by nationalist movements affect moral matrices and judgment. It should also attempt to link moral paradigms directly with violence. Are certain moral ideologies more prone to certain levels and different kinds of violence? Do appeals to morality wax and wane with proximity to violence? Is it possible to measure the elasticity of individual moral foundations? Furthermore, can this paper’s method of analysis be applied to other extremist ideologies such as terrorist movements or religious cults? Understanding the cognitive processes that lead to partisan action and their moral foundations reveals new dimensions of the causes of violence.

Mike Burnham is a candidate in Georgetown’s Masters of Security Studies program. He graduated from Utah State University in 2013 where he majored in International Relations and Economics. His primary areas of interest include ideology, identity conflict, and substate violence. Shannon Peterson is a Clinical Assistant Professor of International Political Economy in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and is the Director of the Huntsman Scholar Program.  She received her Ph.D. in International Relations from the Ohio State University in 2003. 

(See pdf version for Appendix 1 and 2)


[1] John Mueller, “The Banality of Ethnic War,” International Security, 25 (2000), 62.

[2] Stuart Kaufman, “Symbolic Politics or Rational Choice?: Testing Theories of Extreme Violence,” International Security, 30 (2006), 47.

[3] Athena S. Leoussi, editor, Encyclopaedia of Nationalism (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 148-151.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Hechter, “Nationalism and Rationality” Studies in Comparative International Development, 35 (2000), 4.

[6] Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 206.

[7] Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage” The Atlantic, September 1, 1990, accessed May 12, 2014,

[8] Hechter, “Nationalism and Rationality,” 4.

[9] Ashutosh Varshney, “Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Rationality,” American Political Science Association, 1(2003), 2.

[10] Connor, Ethnonationalism, 195 and Hechter, “Nationalism and Rationality,” 4.

[11] Connor, Ethnonationalism, xi.

[12] Posen, “Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” 28.

[13] Connor, Ethnonationalism, 206 and Hechter, “Nationalism and Rationality,” 3-4.

[14] Mueller, “The Banality of Ethnic War,” 62.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 59.

[17] Ibid, 53 and 60.

[18] Connor, Ethnonationalism, 157-158.

[19] Ibid., 158.

[20] Daniel Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 224.

[21] Ibid., 151.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, 56:4 (2004), 587-589.

[24] Paul Collier, “The Market for Civil War,” Foreign Policy (2003), 40.

[25] Collier and Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” 589.

[26] Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, “ Beyond Geed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, 61 (2009), 5-6.

[27] Nicholas Sambanis, “Do Ethnic and Non-ethnic Civil Wars Have the Same Causes?,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45.3 (2001), 259-282.

[28] Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 34-35.

[29] The Correlates of War codebooks can be accessed via: . All data sets require a minimum of 1,000 battle deaths.

[30] Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence, 43.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Collier, “The Market for Civil War,” 40.

[33] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking: Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 411.

[34] Ibid.

[35] It is important to note that the cognitive and social models presented here are simplified versions of reality. Nationalism and ethnic conflict are complex phenomenon that stem from many different motivations and variables. While the models presented here are enlightening, they are not exhaustive.

[36] Kahneman, Thinking: Fast and Slow, 20-21

[37] Ibid., 20-21, 48.

[38] Kathleen Bawn, “Constructing Us: Ideology, Coalition Politics, and False Consciousness,” American Journal of Political Science, 43 (1999), 305.

[39] Ibid, 305-306.

[40] Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review, 108 (2001), 6.

[41] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Random House, 2012), 36-40.

[42] Ibid., 91.

[43] Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 278.

[44] John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” American Political Science Association, (2005).

[45] Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 278-282.

[46] Ibid., 278.

[47] Ibid., 279.

[48] Ibid., 280.

[49] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization, 46 (1992), 396-397.

[50] Varshney, “Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Rationality,” 2.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 3.

[54] Ibid., 2.

[55] Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 124.

[56] Ibid., 123.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 146-152.

[59] Franke Wilmer, The Social Construction of Man, the State, and War (New York: Routledge, 2002), 68.

[60] Connor, Ethnonationalism, 197.

[61] The care/harm foundation was significant at .036 (see Table 2 in Appendix 2).

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