The Case for Being Skeptical of Moral Outrage

If, as the research shows, our moral outrage is highly sensitive to actions but not consequences, we might want to treat feelings of moral outrage—whether others’ or our own—skeptically. Photograph by Vjacheslav_Kozyrev / Flickr

The episode last month at the Lincoln Memorial, involving the boys from Covington Catholic High School, and a Native American man, was like so many Internet-born controversies before it: It spawned vituperative reactions, reactions to the reactions, and sweeping meta-analyses of the reactions to the reactions. Altogether it was exactly the type of politically charged commotion that nobody could seem to resist weighing in on. Yet at the heart of it was a misinterpreted, arguably meaningless event driven by an emotion that social media is making more and more familiar to all of us: moral outrage.

Moral outrage is the powerful impulse we feel to condemn bad behavior, and it serves the important role of holding wrongdoers accountable and reinforcing social norms. Yet moral outrage, at least on Twitter and other similar platforms, appears no more effective at reinforcing social norms than it is at driving people to theatrically overreact to the behavior of strangers. After all, it’s hard to see how things like doxxing minors or throwing shaving blades down the toilet, in protest of an earnest Gillette ad on “toxic masculinity,” help uphold ethical standards.

One recent study offers insight into moral outrage that helps to clarify why so much online discourse has devolved into pointless noise and fury. Researchers asked 1,065 participants, across four experiments, to read about hypothetical moral transgressions and offer judgments, such as how angry they were about the transgressions and how much empathy they felt for the victims. What the researchers found is that participants’ expressions of moral outrage were mostly independent from their empathy for the victims of the transgressions. What triggered moral outrage in their study was whether a particular behavior seemed intrinsically wrong—that is, wrong even if it didn’t harm anyone.  

This research implies that when we angrily condemn someone’s actions on Twitter, we do so with little regard for the consequences of the ostensibly immoral action we’re condemning. And this tendency makes us easy prey for outrage bait. For example, as professor of law, science, and technology at Columbia Law School, Tim Wu, pointed out in his book The Attention Merchants, social media companies have financial incentives to propagate content that appears to reveal a moral violation, no matter how substantial, because moral violations grab attention.

Of course, many seemingly immoral actions that pop up on the Internet do indeed have harmful consequences and merit attention. But if, as the research shows, our moral outrage is highly sensitive to actions but not consequences, we might want to treat feelings of moral outrage—whether others’ or our own—skeptically.

One reason is that an action’s “intrinsic wrongness” is often in the eye of the beholder. Two people can look at the exact same behavior and, depending on factors like what social groups they belong to or their personal relationships to the people involved, draw radically different moral conclusions. In one study, for example, researchers assigned each of their participants to one of two groups based on their performance on a computer task that was unrelated to the true goal of the study. They then asked each participant to observe another person—who was either part of the participant’s group or an outsider—as that person made a moral decision and acted on it. It turned out that on average, participants who observed an ingroup member rated that person’s behavior as fairer than those who observed an outgroup member, even though the behavior was the same for both groups.

The Covington Catholic story is an apt example of how subjective moral judgments can be: Some people praised the boys’ “exemplary and respectful behavior” while others likened the standoff between the boys and the Native American activists to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.

Considering whether a given behavior has actually done harm may help us avoid fruitless online shouting matches, not only because the very act of weighing consequences can force us to slow down and think a bit more, but also because considerations of harm can be used as an objective measure of moral wrongness. The moral philosophy of utilitarianism is based on the idea of producing “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and many of its proponents use the scientific method to determine what kinds of behaviors will do just that. Arguments about right and wrong are often based on conflicts between subjective values, but embracing some measure of utilitarianism could serve to anchor moral debates in a shared reality.

Good and bad consequences can be difficult to quantify, of course, and people may disagree about which consequences deserve the most attention. But still, recognizing the biases of moral outrage and deliberately shifting some attention from actions themselves to their real-world effects, may, at the very least, keep us from blowing a fuse over behavior that hasn’t really caused anyone to suffer.

Scott Koenig is a doctoral student in neuroscience at CUNY, where he studies psychopathy, emotion, and morality. Follow him on Twitter @scotttkoenig.

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