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The Devoted Actor as Parochial Altruist: Sectarian Morality, Identity Fusion, and Support for Costly Sacrifices


We explore how Darwinian notions of moral virtue and parochial altruism may relate to the emerging cognitive framework of the devoted actor who undertakes extreme actions in defense of group values. After a brief discussion of the theoretical framework, we present exploratory data resulting from interviews of 62 Lebanese individuals of varying religious backgrounds (Sunni, Shia and Christian) in Beirut and Byblos (Jbeil) in a time of heightened tension owing to spillover from the Syrian civil war. Analytic measures focused on willingness to make costly sacrifices for confessional (religious) groups and sectarian values, as a function of the degree to which people perceived universal and parochial values to be morally important, and considered their personal selves “fused” with their group. Sectarian moralists who fused with their religion expressed strong willingness to support costly sacrifices for the group, whereas people who fused with their religion but moralized universal values over sectarian ones were least likely to support costly sacrifices. In addition, when people believed that they had control over their future, fusion increased support for costly sacrifice and desired social distance to outgroups. These results have implications for notions of religion as both a booster and buffer to costly sacrifices, and the impact of identity fusion for and against extreme actions.

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