Moral outrage: Evil or necessary?

Don Evans

Many thanks, Floyd, for your penetrating comments on moral outrage. You’ve stimulated me to probe my own experience further, trying to understand what it is about moral outrage that makes it important me.

In many undergraduate seminars on Human Nature I asked the students whether there is any action that, for them, could never be justified no matter what positive consequences it caused. Most students usually had an answer: torturing an individual or poisoning a whole population or dropping an atomic bomb on a city.

In the ensuing discussion, many, like me, felt a need to modify their position so it’s a little less rigid:

Such an action might be justifiable, but only in terms of monumental positive consequences such as preventing an enormous disaster.

When I asked the students what it is about the action that moves them to rule it out completely or to require such a stringent justification a few students said:
It’s forbidden by God.
Others, however, referred to a “gut-feeling”, some sort of bodily emotion in response to an atrocity.

As I pondered your comments, Floyd, I realized that what I feel is this:
I have a gut-feeling of moral revulsion, a mixture of horror, shuddering and abhorrence.

In my own experience, however, I’m aware that when I feel moral revulsion I also often feel moral outrage. For example, when I watch an “action-movie” or a news-channel on TV I feel moral outrage towards the Bad Guy who inflicts an atrocity on an individual or a community. If he’s not punished I’m disappointed.

On reflection It’s clear to me that moral outrage is something potentially evil. Sometimes people who feel it commit an atrocity, or support a government in doing so. For example, American moral outrage concerning 9/11helped to fuel the launching of the disastrous wars in Afgahnistan and Iraq. As you point out, moral outrage can cloud our judgment. Indeed, sometimes I wonder whether my response simply indicates a residue of unconscious anger left over from my traumas in infancy. I feel thoroughly reconciled with the individuals who harmed me, but maybe something remains that still spills over to others. Yet my hunch is that moral outrage is intrinsically human, arising from both our evolutionary history and from our spiritual origins.

Whatever its origins, it seems to me that it is connected to moral revulsion, which is a crucial experience for human beings. If we humans were to lose all sense of moral revulsion, relying solely on cool reasoning concerning consequences, the future for humankind would look very bleak. We would have turned into computers! Of course such cool reasoning is important in the context of our everyday judgments at work and elsewhere, as you rightly point out. But sometimes people do terrible things. The appropriate human response needs to be more gutsy than dispassionately pointing out the negative consequences of their actions.

Do we need to feel only the revulsion, not the punitive anger? That might seem to be a simple solution, but it’s not. Both moral outrage and revulsion involve excluding Bad Guys from (i) our acceptance as fellow human beings and (ii) our love, our compassion and appreciation as fellow human beings.

Both you and I deplore a “moralism” that focuses on obeying and disobeying rules, rules that unambiguously distinguish actions as “right” “wrong”. In my own view, though rules are sometimes are useful (e.g. we need them when people line-up for an event) we must fully subordinate rules to love. In the examples you give, it’s clear that love as compassion moves you to try to empathize with others, replacing snap judgments of “right” and “wrong” by an empathetic awareness of how they understand what they are doing.

Where I disagree with you, however, is when you depict “moralism” as acting on behalf of an “other”, whether this other be “God” or “the children”. You don’t seem to see the crucial difference between these two. Where morality is equated with obedience to a divine command that we punish wrongdoers we act “on behalf of God” as God’s subordinates. If our “God” is an authoritarian King beyond human all moral restraints we tend to become ruthless crusaders on His behalf.

In contrast with this, where we act “on behalf of children” we are initiating something on their behalf. We try to protect them from atrocities (e.g. rape) or liberate them from oppression (e.g. slave labour). It seems to me that this arises from our moral revulsion concerning rape and child slavery. It inherently involves some moral denunciation of the individuals or institutions responsible.
There is nothing inherently fanatical and ruthless about denunciation of atrocities and oppression perpetrated by people in power against marginalized individuals and groups, whether these be children or women or gays or blacks or religious minorities or homeless poor or aboriginals. Sometimes advocates of a particular cause become extreme in their judgments (e.g. the feminist in the sixties who allegedly shouted, “If they can send one man to the moon, why can’t they send them all?”). But if denunciation is tempered by a sense of our common humanity, it need not lead to unrestricted hatred. People who initiate new movements to reduce social injustice need extreme dedication, courage and perseverance to rally others in challenging the powers-that-be. It seems to me that the motivation for this usually requires a gut-feeling of revulsion in response to atrocities and oppression. Some moral outrage is often included. Need it be? After a liberation-movement has won considerable support and a previously-oppressed group is less vulnerable, it can seem unemotionally obvious to many that they should not be adversely treated and that moral outrage is no longer appropriate.

Later in the book (pages 46-7) I ponder moral outrage in the context of the deep wisdom expressed in the words of an African medicine-man, Mandaza, “Oh what terrible things WE HUMANS do to each other”. He blurted these words out as his whole body sobbed in anguish and grief and mourning. Eventually he referred to 9/11 and the Holocaust. His identification with “WE HUMANS” prevents him from dividing humankind into two distinct groups: “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”. We’re all in this together.



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