Why does our world suddenly seem to be filled with outrage, yet nothing changes? When our moral intuitions provoke anger, we voice our hatred or cynicism online and somehow feel that is enough. Nothing changes, since we have lost a common ethical backdrop against which we can adequately even discuss our ethics, let alone bring about any kind of change. Of the three ways of conducting moral thought, we have abandoned one of them, and corrupted the other two, thus our moral intuitions have lost their force, since the context that gave them meaning has broken down. The result is anger against other people who do not share our values, with no possibility of a productive dialogue that can bring about a new state of affairs. This is the paralysis brought on by outrage culture.
To bring about changes requires a common standard, and the problem with contemporary ethical thought is that we do not understand our moral mythos well enough to maintain a shared basis for judgement. As moral psychologists have reported, the tendency is for us to have an emotional response to a situation (e.g. outrage), then afterwards to dress it up in justifications (e.g. demonisation of a particular identity) – what Jonathan Haidt waggishly dubbed ‘the emotional dog and his rational tail’. However, I break with the psychologists who advance this theory at the conclusions they draw from it, which amount to perilous assumption that moral philosophy has no role, as well as questioning their research methods, which are in adequate to most of the conclusions being drawn.
Haidt’s idea that our moral intuitions are embedded in our social connections is substantially correct, but it is not significantly contra to the views of any philosopher, as J.W. Gray and others have argued. What’s missing in Haidt’s social intuitionist model is how the social intuitions became set up: he has forgotten the role of history in establishing common standards of moral judgement, and once this is taken into account it becomes clear that contemporary morality is intimately connected to moral philosophy. Indeed, as Alasdair MacIntyre outlined in After Virtue thirty five years ago, the nature of this moral catastrophe is the lack of connection between our habits of judgement and their philosophical roots, which can be traced across the span of European history. Attempting to remove philosophy from consideration, as key moral psychologists such as Haidt argue, is to deepen the crisis, not resolve it, and Haidt ultimately ends up advancing an impotent argument for the status quo. We will get nowhere if we fail to situate the ethical crisis within its cultural history.
The three key approaches to morality are concerned with the qualities of agents (virtue), the nature of actions (duty), and the consequences that result (outcomes). I contend that all three forms of moral thinking are vital, but it is important to remember that for the majority of the recorded history of our species, the concept of virtue has been the primary vehicle of morality. Whatever grasp individuals may or may not have had of their wider situation, the idea that it is a good thing to be brave, polite, patient, generous, or kind was easy to grasp – even if it was not always so easy to put into practice. MacIntyre’s After Virtue traces the history of virtues up to their contemporary near-demise, supplanted by two new moral systems devised in the Enlightenment. Fistly, Kant’s duty-based philosophy that leads to human rights, but then inexplicably devolves into posturing about ‘having a right’ in situations where nothing of the kind applies. (Here, Haidt is right: moral philosophy is not entailed in people’s moral judgements: but in this case that is precisely the problem.) Secondly, John Stuart Mill’s outcome-based utilitarianism that begins by aiming at ‘maximising the good’ yet leads to contemporary corporate consequentialism that merely maximises profit. What’s more, these kind of consequentialism, which judge purely by outcome, are systems that no longer resembles morality at all, as the late Derek Partfit accused.
Thus we are beset by moral disasters, as we have all but lost one key way of thinking about ethics and broken the others such that otherwise laudable moral systems have become corrupted distortions of themselves. This is the nature of the two major disasters of contemporary ethics – the moral disaster of individualism, which confuses selfishness or paternalism for collective responsibility, and the moral disaster of consequentialism, which boils down complex situations to the point that decisions are easy to make, and in the process destroys the essential context of every ethical challenge. In terms of the disaster of individualism, there is an urgent need to repair our broken concepts of rights now that nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have abandoned them while individuals still angrily invoke ‘their rights’ without any understanding of what that claim implies. There is an even more vital requirement to reconfigure the kind of consequentialist thinking that leads both nations and corporations to act in appalling ways because their definitions of what is good is reduced to the merely calculable, substituting expediency for any concept of ethics. Neither of these recovery projects has much hope of success without a substantial reboot of moral thinking, and the academic community cannot achieve this – not without engaging with the wider populace it has been regrettably isolated from.
Reawakening an interest in the qualities of moral agents might be the best chance of reconfiguring our devastated moral mythologies, because we can have productive discussions concerning virtues without requiring much in the way of theoretical meanderings. What’s more, virtues are qualities that form a set that no-one would expect everyone to possess, making it easier to foster virtues in practice since the moral standard that they set is attainable by everyone in at least the minimal case of expressing at least one virtue. Rules and consequences suggest an absolute, all-or-nothing approach to morality that seems to require (when not approached with care) superhuman powers. Yet virtues sit firmly within human experience, and the key objection against virtue ethics is their failure to be absolute, which only serves to show how hypnotised by the Enlightenment’s moral systems we have become. Besides, if we can rescue virtues, we can rescue rights and outcome-focussed ethics too. One step at a time.
Outrage culture is the product of people who project morality against others, and rarely use it to judge themselves. There is a natural tendency to do this, one that has been well known by philosophers and indeed religious teachers for many centuries. What is conspicuously absent today is what in Chaos Ethics I call moral representation, which is to say, shared reflection on our ethical values and judgements, something also suggested as necessary by Haidt’s social intuitionist theory. We need to represent our moral positions to each other in part because once our anger is engaged, productive discussion is blocked by moral horror (what psychologists term cognitive dissonance), and so the reflective aspect of morality – which is far more important than we usually recognise – never occurs. If there is a lesson we should take from moral psychology it is not that we should abandon the study of our historically-embedded moral systems but that we have failed to adequately maintain the social basis of moral judgement. We are no longer conducting any viable form of morality, and we really have become the caricature that Haidt imagines, dressing up our emotional reactions in convenient justifications.
To overcome this impasse requires new discourses, and it is my suggestion that we start by talking about virtues since we can recognise what is good in a person – or a cyborg – without it setting off our moral horror, which closes us off from difficult to accept ideas. Too much of our ethical practice has become a sustained outpouring of vitriol against what we perceive as evil; often, what we judge as evil without ever stopping to consider the complexities of the situations. Whether we are talking about those who voted to leave the EU in the United Kingdom, or those who voted for a popularist demagogue in the United States it is not enough to angrily shout ‘racism! racism!’ and expect this to suffice for politics – or for ethics. Perhaps if we can recover some perspective on the good, we can stop being so ineffectually obsessed with raging at the evil we see everywhere around us. Outrage culture is either impotent or blindly vengeful – neither of which are terribly helpful. To get beyond this, we have to learn to talk about morality in ways that can cross easily between any religious or secular tradition, and virtues might just provide a way of doing this.
This post is a edited from sections of the piece run last week, What is Cybervirtue?, which I have edited and re-run (as What is Cybervirtue? Version 2.0) without this discussion within it. The opening image is Rage by Sarah Goodyear, which I found here on her Artdoxa page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.