The prospect of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths doesn't necessarily sway people from their positions on whether going to war is the right or wrong choice. One possible explanation is that people are not weighing the pros and cons at all, but rather using a moral logic of "sacred values"—convictions that trump all other considerations—that cannot be quantified.As an avowed consequentialist, I find this behavior abhorrent. No matter how "right" something feels, we owe it to the real human beings that will be affected by our decision to make a rational decision. That is, we must do the math and then follow through on the results. If going to war results in tens of thousands of deaths, and avoiding war allows a tyrant to roam free killing hundreds every year; then war is obviously not the way to fix the problem.
To try to capture people in the act of making such decisions, psychologist Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research in New York City and anthropologist Scott Atran of École Normale Superieure in Paris challenged people around the world with a series of difficult questions.
They started by surveying 656 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The researchers asked the settlers about the hypothetical dismantlement of their settlement as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides their willingness to violently resist eviction, the subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. If the settlers are making the decision rationally, in line with mainstream models, their willingness to engage in a particular form of protest should depend mostly on their estimation of its effectiveness. But if sacred values come into play, that calculus should be clouded.
When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, the rational behavior model predicted settlers' decisions. But in deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers defied the rational behavior models, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers' willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be. (more)
A common argument against such analysis is that real world situations are messy and cannot be stated in mathematical terms. However, uncertainty is no excuse. Just because there are probabilities involved doesn't mean we should give up and start thinking in terms of "sacred morals".