Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Myth of Moral Outrage

This year, I am a senior scholar with the Chicago-based Center for Humans and Nature. If you are unfamiliar with this Center (as I was until recently), here’s how they describe their mission:

The Center for Humans and Nature partners with some of the brightest minds to explore humans and nature relationships. We bring together philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, artists, political scientists, anthropologists, poets and economists, among others, to think creatively about how people can make better decisions — in relationship with each other and the rest of nature.

In the year to come, I will be doing some writing for the Center, starting with a piece I that has just appeared on their web site. In The Myth of Moral Outrage, I attack the winsome idea that humans’ moral progress over the past few centuries has ridden on the back of a natural human inclination to react with a special kind of anger–moral outrage–in response to moral violations against unrelated third parties:

It is commonly believed that moral progress is a surfer that rides on waves of a peculiar emotion: moral outrage. Moral outrage is thought to be a special type of anger, one that ignites when people recognize that a person or institution has violated a moral principle (for example, do not hurt others, do not fail to help people in need, do not lie) and must be prevented from continuing to do so . . . Borrowing anchorman Howard Beale’s tag line from the film Network, you can think of the notion that moral outrage is an engine for moral progress as the “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” theory of moral progress.

I think the “Mad as Hell” theory of moral action is probably quite flawed, despite the popularity that it has garnered among may social scientists who believe that humans possess “prosocial preferences” and a built-in (genetically group-selected? culturally group selected?) appetite for punishing norm-violators. I go on to describe the typical experimental result that has given so many people the impression that we humans do indeed possess prosocial preferences that motivate us to spend our own resources for the purpose of punishing norm violators who have harmed people whom we don’t know or otherwise care about. Specialists will recognize that the empirical evidence that I am taking to task comes from that workhorse of experimental economics, the third-party punishment game:

…[R]esearch subjects are given some “experimental dollars” (which have real cash value). Next, they are informed that they are about to observe the results of a “game” to be played by two other strangers—call them Stranger 1 and Stranger 2. For this game, Stranger 1 has also been given some money and has the opportunity to share none, some, or all of it with Stranger 2 (who doesn’t have any money of her own). In advance of learning about the outcome of the game, subjects are given the opportunity to commit some of their experimental dollars toward the punishment of Stranger 1, should she fail to share her windfall with Stranger 2.

Most people who are put in this strange laboratory situation agree in advance to commit some of their experimental dollars to the purpose of punishing Stranger 1’s stingy behavior. And it is on the basis of this finding that many social scientists believe that humans have a capacity for moral outrage: We’re willing to pay good money to “buy” punishment for scoundrels.

In the rest of the piece, I go on to point out the rather serious inferential limitations of the third-party punishment game as it is typically carried out in experimental economists’ labs. I also point to some contradictory (and, in my opinion, better) experimental evidence, both from my lab and from other researchers’ labs, that gainsay the widely accepted belief in the reality of moral outrage. I end the piece with a proposal for explaining what the appearance of moral outrage might be for (in a strategic sense), even if moral outrage is actually not a unique emotion (that is, a “natural kind” of the type that we assume anger, happiness, grief, etc. to be) at all.

I don’t want to steal too much thunder from the Center‘s own coverage of the piece, so I invite you to read the entire piece over on their site. Feel free to post a comment over there, or back over here, and I’ll be responding in both places over the next few days.

As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing some additional writing for the center in the coming six months or so, and I’ll be speaking at a Center event in New York City in a couple of months, which I will announce soon.

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Happy International Forgiveness Day!

August is a notoriously slow month for news (and blogging). It’s also somewhat bereft of holidays and official days of observance. According to the web site Holiday Insights, August does host a few official holidays (that is, days of observance that were established by presidential proclamation or acts of Congress). These include U.S. Coast Guard Day, National Lighthouse Day, Aviation Day, Senior Citizen’s Day, and Women’s Equality Day. The unofficial August holidays, I have just learned, also include National Dog Day, Presidential Joke Day (on August 11, 1984, President Reagan joked into a live microphone that the U.S. had officially outlawed “Russia” and would begin bombing five minutes thereafter), and Vesuvius Day (take a guess). But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: August is a month in which we’re not encouraged to be mindful of very much.

Even so, over the past couple of years, I’ve become rather fond of today, the first Sunday in August: This is the day on which a group called the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance is trying to establish a worldwide observance of International Forgiveness Day. I don’t know anything about this group, other than what is posted on their web site, but their self-described mission is “to evoke the healing spirit of Forgiveness worldwide.” I don’t think they’re taking their cues from scholarly writings or scientific research on forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking. Instead, it appears to be a truly grassroots movement, trying on a very small scale to encourage forgiveness not only as personal tool for overcoming anger and resentment, but also as a way of repairing relationships between individuals, communities and conflict groups.

For the past 18 years, according to their web site, they have hosted an “International Forgiveness Day” event, and today is no exception. So if you’re out in the Bay Area today, and are curious, you might consider getting out to San Rafael to see what they’re up to. Also, their web site indicates that they will be live-streaming the event here, so I suppose you could celebrate remotely from your deck chair or porch swing.

But perhaps even that feels like more effort than the heat will permit you to expend. I sympathize. If that’s the case, consider sparing a thought for forgiveness today. Or raise two cheers for forgiveness. Or why not make a forgiveness day gazpacho? (This is my plan.) I can think of many worse things to celebrate on a slow, muggy Sunday in August.