So I said something to this effect to a fellow Berean a few months back. As I had watched some of the craziness on the far left, especially running up to and after the election, it seemed to me that many of them felt almost a moral buzz as they could get angry at those that think like I do. For just one example, there is considerable righteous indignation that we have any immigration restrictions, because those advocating are not-so-in-the-closet racists. Those with this righteous indignation then feel morally superior to those that don’t have this level of outrage. My Berean colleague–being a good Berean–responded something to the effect, “could be true, but that may just be your perspective.” His attitude is well worthy of emulation, since we are all prone to confirmation bias. Perhaps I am just seeing what I want to see?
So I read with interest an article from Elizabeth Brown in Reason a few weeks ago documenting the latest social science research which seems to confirm some of what I have been observing. Further, it provides a rationale for why people feel good about being outraged: it assuages their guilt for any possible complicity in the current state of affairs. So when a young white progressive wants to be very angry at “white privilege,” his or her very anger and outrage enables them to deal with the benefits they may have received from this privilege and also enable them to feel they’ve done their part to solve the problem. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to show up to a protest with a sign than to move into a troubled neighborhood and try to be a light in the darkness? It also helps explain that as the world actually seems to get better, the outrage only increases.
Brown offers a nice summary of Rothschild and Keefer’s findings (although the full article is linked above), which I copy below.
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.
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.”
Having the opportunity to express outrage 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.
“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.
Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” Study five used the labor exploitation article, asked all participants questions to assess their level of “collective guilt” (i.e., “feelings of guilt for the harm caused by one’s own group”) about the situation, then gave them an article about horrific conditions at Apple product factories. After that, a control group was given a neutral exercise, while others were asked to briefly describe what made them a good and decent person; both exercises were followed by an assessment of empathy and moral outrage. The researchers found that for those with high collective-guilt levels, having the chance to assert their moral goodness first led to less moral outrage at corporations. But when the high-collective-guilt folks were given the neutral exercise and couldn’t assert they were good people, they wound up with more moral outrage at third parties. Meanwhile, for those low in collective guilt, affirming their own moral goodness first led to marginally more moral outrage at corporations.
So what do you think? Do some people just like to be outraged? And if so, how do we come together as one people when one group feels better by being angry about another group? Of course this isn’t the total explanation; Rothschild and Keefer’s report only claims that guilt-relief is another supplementary explanation to traditional noble pursuit of justice ideals. Yet it seems to me that it is indicative of the complexity of our coming together across the political divide.