The Moral Public: Intent, Noncombatant Immunity, and American Public Support for War

Does the U.S. military's killing of foreign civilians impact American public support for war? The question remains a source of academic debate between three scholarly camps in international relations and social psychology. The “strategic public” camp points to the public’s indifference and preoccupation with winning wars, whereas the “tribal public” camp points to an alternative mechanism rooted in social psychology to explain American indifference to civilian casualties: out-group bias. However, the “moral public” camp sees a public moved by legal norms. Despite the centrality of intent in just war theory and international humanitarian law, neither camp has considered the degree to which public attitudes towards the military force are affected by the intent behind civilian harm. Drawing on theories of moral psychology, this project argues that public support for war decreases as the intent behind civilian harm shifts from (i) intentional to (ii) foreseeable but unintentional to (iii) accidental—a distinction codified in humanitarian law in the norm of noncombatant immunity. This project advances a psychological theory of the moral public to demonstrate that public concern for intent is driven by moral intuition, not the internalization of legal norms as emphasized in the “moral public” camp. These claims are empirically tested using original survey experiments that examine the effect of intentional, foreseeable and accidental civilian killing by U.S. counter-terrorism operations on subjects' support for war. This project also uses case studies to determine whether U.S. officials believe public support for war is influenced by the norm of noncombatant immunity.


Treatment Format and External Validity in International Relations Experiments” with Sarah Kreps. 2019. International Interactions 45(3): 1-19.

Political scientists use short vignettes or mock news stories to embed treatments in experimental survey designs. We investigate whether the choice of format entails a trade off between internal and external validity. On the one hand, short vignettes may improve internal validity by isolating key variables without overloading respondents with information, thereby mitigating satisficing and improving data quality. On the other hand, mock news stories may improve external validity by approximating the circumstances under which individuals consume political information, which may enhance the credibility of the information. We find no evidence, however, that short vignettes mitigate satisficing more than mock news stories. Nor do we find that mock news stories enhance individual perceptions of the credibility of the information. Instead, we find that short vignettes are susceptible to confounding, which mock news story mitigate. These findings have important implications for debates about the use of survey experiments in political science.

Tellez v. Dole: Nicaraguan Banana Workers Confront the U.S. Judicial System” with Armin Rosencranz. 2014. Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 7(2): 113-142.

Doling Out Environmental Justice to Nicaraguan Banana Workers: The Jose Adolfo Tellez v. Dole Food Company Litigation in the U.S. Courts” with Armin Rosencranz and Nicole Balloffet. 2009. Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3(1): 161-180.

As recognized by the United Nations, a dominant feature of the contemporary global economic system is the impunity enjoyed by transnational corporations for human rights abuses they commit in the Global South. During the post-WWII era, foreign victims of corporate abuses committed abroad were denied access to the U.S. judicial system on grounds of forum non conveniens, a legal doctrine that authorizes a court to reject a foreign plaintiff’s case on grounds that the plaintiff’s home nation’s courts are a more appropriate forum. In the late 1990s, Latin American governments began enacting statutes to counter the forum non conveniens doctrine. This development opened the way for the landmark Tellez vs. Dole case, which marks the first time that a jury in the United States found the Dole Food Company liable for its abuses outside of U.S. borders. On November 5, 2007, a Los Angeles jury awarded six banana plantation workers from Nicaragua over $3 million in damages from Dole, as well as the Dow Chemical Company, for knowingly causing the workers’ sterility by exposing them to toxic pesticides. However, in a remarkable development the judge dismissed with prejudice this case on grounds that a vast conspiracy had been orchestrated by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Nicaraguan judges, and others to defraud Dole and U.S. courts.

In these articles, we explore the rollback of the jury’s historic verdict. We focus on the legal defense strategy that Dole’s attorneys employed after the Tellez jury verdict. We show that the strategy aimed to discredit the DBCP plaintiffs, as well as Nicaraguan legal institutions, and that Judge Chaney facilitated this strategy by disabling the adversarial process. We then review evidence that challenges Dole’s version of events and suggests that the judge’s method of evaluating evidence was flawed. Ultimately, we conclude that the judge’s socio-cultural biases facilitated Dole’s defense strategy and placed the foreign plaintiffs at an unfair disadvantage.


“War of Words: How Presidential Rhetoric and Anti-War Messages Compete for Public Opinion” with Sarah Maxey (Loyola University Chicago)

U.S. presidents have first-mover and information advantages in the build-up to military intervention. These advantages enable them to set the terms of the debate and block channels for dissent. However, as the president works to bolster support by making the public case for intervention, anti-war organizations and political elites counter and attempt to undermine official justifications for action. To what extent does the president control the narrative of intervention? Under what conditions, if any, can anti-war messages successfully challenge the president’s account of the conflict and block the domestic mobilization of support for military action? We employ a multi-method design, combining analysis of movement statements and presidential justifications in recent interventions with survey experiments to evaluate the effect of official narratives on the salience of anti-war appeals. The results suggest anti-war appeals can influence the public, but the most effective messages do not correspond with those most often deployed by anti-war organizations. More broadly, the findings highlight the conditions under which the public and civil society can work together to hold the president accountable for foreign policy decisions.


Survey Format and the Trade-Off Between Internal and External Validity” with Sarah Kreps. 14 February 2019. Political Violence at a Glance.

Another Look at the New ICRC Survey: Glimmers of Hope?” with Sarah Kreps. 13 December 2016. Just Security.

Kenya’s Criminal Assault on Famine-Stricken Somalia.” 18 December 2011. Truthout.