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.


2 thoughts on “The Myth of Moral Outrage

  1. Mark Sloan

    Mike, I have responded over on the site you linked to.

    But perhaps some here would be interested in a short summary of my dissenting position. I see supporting evidence for:

    The emotion moral outrage is real.

    Moral progress is almost entirely summarized as expansion of the “circle of moral concern”.

    The different results obtained when asking about paying to punish before the bad act (generally yes) and after the bad act (generally no) could have been predicted and are fully consistent with moral outrage being a biological adaptation.

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Dear Mark:

      Thanks very much for your comments. I responded over at humansandnature, and re-post that reply here:

      Thank you for your comments. I very much like Peter Singer’s “circles of moral regard” concept. In fact, I wrote about it extensively in Chapter 9 of Beyond Revenge. For example, on p. 189 I wrote that “it’s fatuous to hold that one human life to be less worthy of care and dignity than another just because that life happens to hold a passport from a different country than you do. In Singer’s formulation, the moral universe can be an infinitely expanding one. If we use our reasoning powers wisely, there’s no theoretical upper bound on the number of individuals, or the kinds of individuals, that we can consider worthy of our moral concern, and therefore, our forgiveness.”

      In your response you also wrote, “The different results you got for asking about paying to punish before the bad act (yes) and after the bad act (no) could have been predicted. The value of costly punishment is in dissuading future bad behavior. If all it does is punish past behavior, it is a counterproductive strategy for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups and would not have been specifically selected for in either our biology or moral codes.” I agree with you that the function of punishment is to deter bad behavior in the future (what other kind of behavior can be deterred besides future behavior?), but the psychological mechanism that executes punishment uses past behavior as a cue to predict future behavior. If you’ve harmed me once, you’ve demonstrated a propensity to harm me again in the future. What I did not describe in my essay (please have a look at the Proceedings B paper that I cited) is that people were willing to punish individuals who had harmed them directly. This suggests that people are deterrence theorists when it comes to harms that appear to be relevant to their own welfare: They have an appetite for punishing people who have mistreated them directly. However, they are apparently rather indifferent to harms that have happened to complete strangers. The fact that people were neither angry, nor punitive, toward absolute strangers requires us to reconsider whether we humans have much intuitive regard for the welfare of absolute strangers. I suspect that we don’t. Which, in my mind, makes Singer’s idea of the “expanding circle” even more important. It appears that we must reason our way into extending that kind of regard to strangers; we can’t rely on our own evolved regard for strangers.


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