This Will Shock No One: Moral Outrage is Self-Serving, Says Reason

New research out, and the science is settled! We all knew this. Hell, Zuckerberg built an empire on this: what would Facebook be without self-serving moral preening? A platform to share baby and cat pictures, basically.

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.

Well bowl me over with a feather. I will admit I’m one of those odd ducks that doesn’t feel guilty about a whole hell of a lot. If anything, I feel guilty over the fact that I don’t feel guilty about much. Maybe I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with my mom when she was terminally ill. I kind of feel bad about that. Wish I had been more interested in getting to know my paternal grandparents before they died when I was in my early 20s. I probably also don’t do enough to mix with and help people who are truly needy. I’m more of a person to lose touch than keep in touch.

But that’s all my cross to bear, not any of yours. Maybe that’s a difference. It’s not that I, and people like me, don’t have guilt: we internalize it. I don’t need to make my failings as a person your failings as a person. But if there’s anything people are bad at these days, especially on social media, its internalizing things. This rings true:

4 thoughts on “This Will Shock No One: Moral Outrage is Self-Serving, Says Reason”

  1. Hmm. I recall a certain rabbi 2,000 years pointing out that people prefer to be seen as a good person rather than be a good person. The former is easy, the latter is often hard. Much outrage displayed on social media is simply the lengthy prayers for show of modern day Pharisees.

  2. The protests by the students in Parkton seem to hit both buttons – feelings of personal culpability because they all joked about Cruz being a school shooter, and need to reinforce their status as morally superior.

  3. Which is why I use Facebook to share cat pictures and bad [excellent] puns, not other stuff.

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