Beyond Futile Outrage
January 24, 2017
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 Parfit 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.
"since we have lost a common ethical backdrop"
We never had such a thing*, what the US government used to have is more agreement about the procedural methods for making decisions and the wealth of a growing empire fueled by capitalism (first racial/slave than industrial) and now as the capitalism grinds to a halt the democratic processes are failing (also not surprising as the political bodies got more diverse, more representative, we have more diversity of interests and so more conflict) under the stresses of limited resources.
Posted by: dmf | January 26, 2017 at 01:38 PM
The question of a common ethical backdrop is a question of situating this in time, at least that is how it lands for me. 'Backdrop' is the key word: we're not talking about any kind of perfect alignment, but rather a shared point of reference.
If I can draw against Charles Taylor's historical work, I would like to suggest that villagers in the late medieval period possessed such a common ethical backdrop, but it is an open question how well that 'travelled'. The 18th century produced a new social imaginary, one that leads up to the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. The 'age of mobilisation' in the early twentieth century shows this common ethical backdrop I refer to. Note that this is not about a perfect alignment of moral thought, but about a shared toolset for thinking about ethical problems. It could be argued that the World Wars helped stimulate these conditions for mobilisation. This ends in the 60s, although the cracks had of course been showing right from the Enlightenment itself, as Taylor is keen to point out. Now, however, we are in a period of intense fragmentation - Taylor's 'Nova effect'... I concur with his historical sense of a shattering of a commonly held frame of reference. I do not see how, for instance, Watergate could have been a scandal without such a common reference.
Such is my reply to your first six words! :) The remainder of your comment seems correct to me as a diagnosis of the situation in the United States. I personally don't see this as significantly contra my claim, though.
You also try to pack in a substantial guerrilla critique by footnoting Stephen Turner's The Social Theory of Practice, which I have not read and therefore cannot adequately respond to. I can therefore only respond to its blurb, in which the knockdown argument is the claim that "there is no plausible mechanism by which a 'practice' is transmitted or reproduced." This is rather odd for me, since it seems apparent that practices are reproduced by habitual learning (the action of the hippocampi), for which the evidence is well-established, right up to the swelling of one of the two hippocampi in London taxi drivers when they master 'the knowledge'. Perhaps Turner's critique carefully demolishes all this, I'm not in a position to say. But as a game designer I would need some convincing that the practices I see transmitted through the play and design of games (such as the use of the right hand to adjust perspective in a three dimensional fictional world) were not tangible examples of practices being transmitted and reproduced. From Turner's title, I wonder if the problem here a critique of sociological applications of 'practice'... again, without reading the book I am not in a position to comment. I would welcome your pushback if you want to fight Turner's corner for him, though.
Finally, greetings from a fellow Zero Books author! Best of luck with Uncertain Futures, and many thanks for your pushback against this piece.
Posted by: Chris | January 27, 2017 at 06:28 AM
I hear you on the frustrating impasse we are witnessing, the name calling, the anger and bitterness.
there is a quote from Leszek Kolakowski i saw floating about, i think Gary Lachman quoted it...
"The sense of being under siege has two tactical consequences, both catastrophic. It requires the besieged to perceive the whole visible world outside the fortress as the enemy, preventing them from swelling their ranks and so strengthening their forces, and cutting them off from all values and possibilities that lie outside. And within the fortress itself it creates a military hierarchy based on blind obedience and intolerant to criticism."
and i know in Chaos Ethics you have advocated dialogue and the seeking of common ground, and i agree that focusing on virtue is a good place to start. These are certainly aims i would applaud.
But i wonder what happens when the people you have an issue with, have no interest in dialogue, they seek to shut down debate, ban protest, use lies and deliberate misinformation to further an agenda that is contrary to reasoned dialogue (I'm not going to say post truth, because i am aware 'facts' are a tricky thing, but you get the gist!). When, God forbid, those forces are in charge and you and I are in the gulag, how does one reason with such forces?
Are there any red lines where we might conceive of resistance being necessary? and should that resistance always be passive?
I'm struggling with these issues, and its driving me quite potty!
I may well be over reacting, and i hope i am, but i don't want to wake up one day with some furious storm troopers marching down the street thinking 'but i tried talking to them'.
Could it be that we seek allies from across the spectrum, find common ground from a broad group of people. After all, not everyone who voted for Trump or to Leave the EU is a demon or a fascist, not every Remoaner or Hilary Clinton voter is a 'Snowflake' cappuccino guzzling Liberal. These are all hopeless cliches, deployed to no effect. Many, maybe most are good people with views and troubles of their own, they are not 'the other', they are you and i.
but is not the case that there will be some who lie outside our definition of 'reasonable', ( I think you characterize it in terms of our home and outer communities). it cannot be an all encompassing, ever expanding bubble of comfort? or can it? What happens when we reach our limit and Moral Horror kicks in?
I guess a re framing of our ethics would require both sides to want to participate in such a re framing? we seem to view everything sadly as a winner take all contest. maybe that is the horrible reality of power?
We can chat more about this in our interview!
Posted by: Justin Robertson | February 03, 2017 at 03:08 PM
"But what if they're not reasonable?" is an important objection I hear often. And part of the problem here, as you suggest, is that moral horror kicks in too early, shutting down even the possibility. But you hit the nail on the head here with this remark:
"Could it be that we seek allies from across the spectrum, find common ground from a broad group of people."
So whether we're talking Trump's 'closed borders' versus liberal universalism in the US or Brexit versus Remain in the UK, the supporters in each case are diverse and the majority are open for discussion - provided discussion is actually still open. The problem is that moral horror shuts it down completely. So if we come in all guns blazing about closing the borders to Muslims (which is horrifying to liberals, myself included), it actually makes it harder to have the discussions we need to have with the people who think that is a good idea, and might not if we could engage them from any angle other than liberal universalism.
It's vital to remember that the populace are not the regime, and this is especially important in the US, although it matters everywhere! It is perfectly possible, and sensible, to resist the current ruling power and engage in dialogue across the populace. In fact, it's the best way to resist any government. This ninety day travel ban seems to me designed to drive a wedge between two halves of the population, and once the moral horror kicks in, the administration has effectively a free pass as dialogue becomes impossible between "raving" liberals and "cowardly" conservatives. That allows them to get away with anything : we have to play it smarter than that.
Looking forward to our dialogue/interview!
Posted by: Chris | February 03, 2017 at 05:43 PM
Thank you Chris
Yes, i certainly see that point, and wholeheartedly agree. I guess what I'm asking is .....
are there no limits to whom we should attempt dialogue with? a moral imperative which cannot be violated? I'm conscious of getting into one of those, 'What if a bomb was tied to your child' or trolley problem type of ethical dead ends here, but I'm wondering if we have a limit after which we cannot find any kind of acceptance of views that we consider 'beyond the pale'.
Posted by: Justin Robertson | February 03, 2017 at 06:13 PM
sorry i should have also added...
is there a difficulty in deciding where a regime starts and stops?
do strident supporters of regimes need resisting, or just the instruments of power?
is it ok to confront individuals within the regime, but not their supporters?
seems like there might be a grey area here?
anyway much to ponder.
i go to commune with Bacchus
Posted by: Justin Robertson | February 03, 2017 at 06:24 PM
If the question is, at what point should we refuse to talk to someone, it feels like jumping the gun somewhat. Talk, as they say, is cheap - too cheap to deny it as an option. Now of course, when we try to talk to someone it might fail... we aren't guaranteed to be able to have a conversation just because we try. But why shouldn't we try? I think, for instance, of programmes that bring offenders into contact with their victims and make them talk to one another. These are radically more effective than prison at reducing re-offenders.
Now of course, our horror at what other people say and do might make it impossible to start a conversation - but I don't believe there is any imperative that demands we don't talk to someone. And I would be suspicious of any attempt to make this argument. I would find it incredibly hard to talk to those who committed the atrocities in Rwanda... but then I think of the efforts that were made towards reconciliation in South Africa and think that there is much to be said of dialogue as an alternative to vengeance.
When I started talking to people in the US about their political and religious situation, I heard a lot of people say (talking about the nebulous 'others') "they can't be reasoned with!". To which I asked: "Have you tried?" The assessment that someone can't be reasoned with seems to correspond to an untested assumption that dialogue was impossible. Yet I didn't find anyone I couldn't talk to, for all that I found some that seemed a little crazy, or whose positions were not terribly well thought out. Mostly, however, I learned a great deal about the motives and values of people who not that long ago I would have judged "impossible to reason with."
As for "is there a difficulty in deciding where a regime starts and stops?" - yes, absolutely! But the thing with supporters is that they have their reasons for doing what they do (ones that are usually not as simple as blanket terms like 'racism'), and understanding what those reasons are can be tremendously helpful - certainly more helpful than vehemently opposing them and causing them to dig their heels in even further.
Reinforcing divisions, entrenching them, is largely how we got into this mess in the first place (a news service that prioritises drama does not help matters!). You can undermine a regime by pulling away its support - and although that's a tough path, it also prevents another similar regime from coming into power. And why not 'fight the battle' on every available front, including diplomacy? We seem to have forgotten that it is even an option.
Many thanks for the thoughtful questions!
Posted by: Chris | February 04, 2017 at 10:47 AM
Thank you Chris
Look forward to this and other subjects in the interview.
All the best
Posted by: Justin robertson | February 04, 2017 at 11:04 AM
Thanks for alerting us on Twitter of these comments, Chris!
Very interesting stuff. And it's nice to have a moral counselor. :-)
I was wondering: do you really believe that a regime can be toppled by talking people out of supporting it? And additionally that once that has happened, such a regime would never come back? Is this not something people tell themselves in order to feel less powerless?
Posted by: MeneerSamyn | February 05, 2017 at 06:23 AM
Whether a regime can be toppled by reducing its political support depends on the regime and the magnitude of the opposition that can be mustered against it. Let us not forget that the Klerk government in South Africa and the British Raj in India were both ended peacefully in this way. It is less clear whether Saddam Hussein could have been removed from power like this - although since nobody ever tried, we'll never know.
You may be right that there is an element of self-comfort in telling ourselves that matters can be brought to a peaceful close - just as there is an element of vengeance in telling ourselves that only violence can end a regime. My point is only that we should not close down the possibility of peaceful transitions of power, since these are actually better at producing lasting change than violent revolutions. South Africa never returned to Apartheid... India remains a sovereign nation. These victories should remind us of the power of non-violent resistance.
As for posting the comments to Twitter, it's a feature Typepad added that I only recently realised was such a boon. It alone seems to have rescued the comments here at Only a Game from complete obscurity!
With unlimited love,
Posted by: Chris | February 05, 2017 at 07:23 AM