February 28, 2016

Sunday Read: What's the Point of Moral Outrage?


There was an interesting article in today's New York Times by Jillian Jordan, Paul Bloom, Moshe Hoffman, and David Rand titled What's the Point of Moral Outrage? After noting that many humans seem to have "an appetite for moral outrage," the article poses the following question:
Why do we get so mad, even when the offense in question does not concern us directly?
After mentioning the commonly heard answer that our outrage derives from our selfless commitment to justice, the authors refer to their paper in Nature that suggests something a bit different from an evolutionary perspective: our moral outrage is often self-serving.
We suggest that expressing moral outrage can serve as a form of personal advertisement: People who invest time and effort in condemning those who behave badly are trusted more.
Thus, one of the reasons some people are quick to express moral outrage may be that doing so improves their reputation in the group. This reminds me of virtual signaling in some ways. Of course, the tricky thing about explanations derived from evolutionary psychology is that they do not imply conscious motivation (i.e., it it is not necessary to assume that people express outrage because they are trying to boost their reputations or status).

I thought the article was an interesting read. Perhaps this is one way we might seek to understand our outrage culture, with its emphasis on call outs, public shaming, and other forms of punishment.
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