Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving, Say Psychologists

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason, March 1, 2017

When people publicly rage about perceived injustices that don’t affect them personally, we tend to assume this expression is rooted in altruism—a “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” But new research suggests that professing such third-party concern—what social scientists refer to as “moral outrage”—is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one’s own status as a Very Good Person.

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To test this guilt-to-outrage-to-moral-reaffirmation premise, Rothschild and Keefer conducted five separate studies assessing the relationships between anger, empathy, identity, individual and collective guilt, self perception, and the expression of moral outrage.

For each study, a new group of respondents (solicited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program) were presented with a fabricated news article about either labor exploitation in developing countries or climate change. For studies using the climate-change article, half of participants read that the biggest driver of man-made climate change was American consumers, while the others read that Chinese consumers were most to blame. With the labor exploitation article, participants in one study were primed to think about small ways in which they might be contributing to child labor, labor trafficking, and poor working conditions in “sweatshops”; in another, they learned about poor conditions in factories making Apple products and the company’s failure to stop this. After exposure to their respective articles, study participants were given a series of short surveys and exercises to assess their levels of things like personal guilt, collective guilt, anger at third parties (“multinational corporations,” “international oil companies”) involved in the environmental destruction/labor exploitation, desire to see someone punished, and belief in personal moral standing, as well as baseline beliefs about the topics in question and positive or negative affect. Here’s the gist of Rothschild and Keefer’s findings:

  1. Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target. For instance, respondents who read that Americans are the biggest consumer drivers of climate change “reported significantly higher levels of outrage at the environmental destruction” caused by “multinational oil corporations” than did the respondents who read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.
  2. The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” For instance, participants in study one read about sweatshop labor exploitation, rated their own identification with common consumer practices that allegedly contribute, then rated their level of anger at “international corporations” who perpetuate the exploitative system and desire to punish these entities. The results showed that increased guilt “predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer due to increased moral outrage at the target.”
  3. Having the opportunity to expressoutrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “ingroup immorality.” Study participants who read that Americans were the biggest drivers of man-made climate change showed significantly higher guilt scores than those who read the blame-China article when they weren’t given an opportunity to express anger at or assign blame to a third-party. However, having this opportunity to rage against hypothetical corporations led respondents who read the blame-America story to express significantly lower levels of guilt than the China group. Respondents who read that Chinese consumers were to blame had similar guilt levels regardless of whether they had the opportunity to express moral outrage.
  4. “The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.

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