Welcome to what should be a very engaging and productive discussion of Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s “Moral Grandstanding.” The paper, which appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, is available through open access here. C.A.J. (Tony) Coady has generously provided a critical précis to begin the discussion, which is immediately below. Please join in!
Tony Coady’s critical précis:
The article on “Moral Grandstanding” by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in Philosophy and Public Affairs can be seen as continuing a process of reflection on the limitations or distortions of moral discourse, or even of morality itself, that has been a marked feature of philosophical inquiry in the late 20th and early 21st century. This trend has antecedents, of course, notably in Nietzsche’s critique of traditional morality (mostly based on his view of Christian morality). In more contemporary dress, it can be seen in Bernard Williams’s critique of what he called with palpable irony “the peculiar institution” of modern morality and his advocacy of the need to return to a classical conception of ethics in its stead; in the various debates about the disturbing role of “moral luck” in attributions of moral praise and blame; in the idea that moral reasons, even where relevant, should not be decisive in all practical thinking, notable in Susan Wolf’s article on “Moral Saints”, and more dramatically in Michael Walzer’s “dirty hands” thesis, applicable only to what he calls situations of “supreme emergency” where the necessities of such emergency trump even the deepest moral prescriptions.
More recently, concerns have been raised about the distorting effects on moral and practical thinking of what has been called moralism. As I have had, for good or ill, a particular role in this development I am interested in exploring connections and dissimilarities between moralism and moral grandstanding, and can only hope that readers will find this of some interest as well. I will therefore begin by giving an account of Tosi and Warmke’s interesting article and then summarise below some of my understanding of the different forms of moralism, as I conceive of it, to compare and contrast it (as exam papers used to say) with the authors’ account of moral grandstanding. I will then proceed to air some misgivings I have about Tosi and Warmke’s account of moral grandstanding and its manifestations. I should say at the outset that theirs is a rich discussion and I will not be able to deal with all the matters that they canvas. For various discussions of the phenomenon of moralism I should mentions the papers in What’s Wrong with Moralism (ed. C.A.J. Coady), Craig Taylor’s book Moralism: a Study of a Vice, and the first two chapters of my book Messy Morality: the Challenge of Politics.
Moralism and Moral Grandstanding Compared
One crucial element in moral grandstanding, and one that, as we shall see below, differentiates it from most forms of moralism, is that moral grandstanding in the paradigm case is defined by our authors (hereafter T&W) as essentially involving a motive and an intention to do something that is in fact at odds with the primary purpose or point of public moral discourse and prima facie at least morally dubious and tending to the corruption of public discourse. The “something” involved is an intention to publicly mark the speaker’s “moral respectability” with regard “to some matter of moral concern”. The standing of “moral respectability” may vary in certain respects so that T&W distinguish two senses (as they put it) of this central feature of paradigm cases of moral grandstanding. The first is marked by the desire that the speaker be considered to meet some “minimum threshold” of moral respectability that perhaps few others meet. The second is marked by the desire that others will think the speaker outstandingly moral, meeting a standard of moral respectability far beyond a minimum threshold. Here, the speaker casts herself as “a paragon of morality”. In fact, however, these two “senses” are much closer than T&W’s account suggests; not so much two senses as slightly varied circumstances in the application of one sense of the expression “moral grandstanding”. Both involve the quest for superior moral status: in the first case, this works by portraying oneself as amongst that rare breed who have managed to attain some minimum threshold of moral respectability in a morally dismal world or segment world, in the second, the world is more morally elevated so the speaker’s quest for recognition of superiority requires going well beyond a respectability threshold to the paragon level. But what the T&W call the “recognition desire” is the same quest for superiority in both cases, it is just that the background has shifted. What is often called, usually derisively, “the moral high ground” will be different in different social contexts, but the quest is the same. So, I will treat T&W’s account of moral grandstanding as standardly involving the single intention or recognition desire to establish moral superiority. I will sometimes term this “the defeating intention” in acknowledgement of the effect it has upon the purpose of public discourse. I do not mean that the speaker must always intend to defeat such a purpose, but rather that he intends something that will commonly have that effect. (I will avoid distinctions between motive, desire and intention partly for simplicity of exposition and partly because such distinctions do not seem relevant here.)
It might be objected that the first sense need not involve a quest for superiority since on the face of it, the desire to exhibit moral respectability is compatible with the moral grandstander merely wanting to bring herself up to the standard that everyone, or almost everyone else has already achieved, so that she is intent only on showing that she is not wretchedly morally inadequate, but, as we shall see, T&W do not really mean to include this case, which would in any event be very rare. With regard to the first sense, they talk, for instance, of the moral grandstander wanting “others to think of her simply as meeting some normative baseline whereas others fail to do so” and of her wanting to be “seen as merely morally respectable in a world where she thinks that precious few meet even that minimum threshold” (p.200).
What then is the primary purpose or point of public moral discourse that the quest for superiority is defeating? This purpose or point, according to the authors, is primarily to “improve people’s moral beliefs” but grandstanding has three effects deleterious to this end: (1) it promotes increased and unhealthy cynicism about moral discourse, (2) it leads to “outrage exhaustion” so that people become suspicious of expressions of moral outrage even when they are justified and required, (3) it contributes to group polarization whereby people tend to move to more extreme positions. T&W explain the prevalence of these effects by reference to five typical ways that grandstanding manifests itself in public discourse. These are: piling on, ramping up, trumping up, excessive outrage, and claims to self-evidence. Piling on consists in unnecessarily joining others in moral declamation; ramping up is making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion; trumping up is insistence upon the existence of a moral problem where there is none; the ideas of excessive outrage and claims of self-evidence are non-technical terms needing no immediate clarification.
The significant role of this defeating intention is one thing that separates moral grandstanding from moralism. Most moralistic utterances are not essentially dependent on a defeating intention of this sort, though such an intention may be present in some cases. Moral grandstanding standardly requires the defeating intention, though T&W allow for some very peripheral examples where it might not.
Consider what I have called moralism of scope which is the advancing of moral judgements into areas where they are irrelevant or of less significance in the circumstances than they purport to be. It can also encompass the intrusion of heavy moral artillery into contexts where much lighter weaponry is appropriate. For instance, the questions of whether to take a shower or a bath, whether to take a walk in this direction or that, whether to go to this movie or that, are all questions that can sometimes have a moral dimension to them, but are often beyond, or, perhaps better, beneath moral consideration. Clearly, they do not normally involve issues of justice, or courage, or humility, or duties of one sort or another. Someone who thinks they always do is likely to be a victim of a sort of moral neurosis, the one often described in religious textbooks of moral theology as “scrupulosity”. The phenomenon charted by moralism of scope indeed overlaps with that sketched by the category of trumping up, but unlike the connection given by moral grandstanding we can describe roughly what such moralism amounts to without ascribing to the agent some unworthy intention. Perhaps his activities and thoughts are at odds with the purpose of public moral discourse (if they occur in a public arena) but we don’t have to describe him as seeking some advantage to himself, though sometimes this may be true. In fact, such as person may well be seeking “to improve people’s moral beliefs”” though misguidedly.
Similarly, with the other categories of moralism that I sketched in my book. Just to take one more: moralism of abstraction is the commitment to high level moral principles to a degree that obscures the complexities of applying such principles in specific circumstances that require discerning judgement. (I think this is the burden of one of the complaints Bernard Williams makes of traditional morality altogether and in a different way of much moral philosophy.) It is a distortion of morality that can particularly plague many high-minded discussions of international affairs. Again, those who fall into such moralism needn’t have any sort of self-inflating intention nor any lack of interest in the point of public discourse that concerns our authors.
In both cases, and in several of the other categories I sketched in Messy Morality it is of course possible that transgressions of scope and of abstraction could embody the grandiose intention (the “vanity project” as T&W call it at one point) of moral grandstanding, but not necessarily.
Moral Grandstanding a different type of moral failing
It seems rather that moral grandstanding belongs to a different type of moral failing. It is akin to the vices of hypocrisy, insincerity, and exploitation insofar as they manifest in speech. Moral grandstanders, in the paradigm range, aim at inflating their own position vis-a-vis that of their audience and this self-inflating intention betokens a lack of sincere desire to promote the primary ends of (public) discourse. I take it, however, that they may sincerely believe the moral positions that they declare. So in the “characteristic manifestation” of piling on, the speaker may well be expressing a sincerely held belief in uttering the moral belief that p as an echo of what others have said. His insincerity consists not in urging a belief that he doesn’t hold, but in purporting to advance one project when in fact he is aiming for a different, and disguised, end. By contrast, the paradigmatic hypocrite is uttering propositions that she either does not believe, doesn’t fully believe, or does not live by, while professing full belief or adherence. Hypocrites may overlap with grandstanders when they seek the same position of superiority, but need not do so since when they behave (and speak) in a way that seeks to put them on the same or higher moral level as their audiences they characteristically do not hold or hold strongly enough the relevant moral beliefs at all. Both grandstanders and hypocrites will strive to utter or manifest true moral propositions or those their audience is believed to hold true (if you worry about truth for moral claims, then use the appropriate substitute for getting it right) and often enough will succeed in doing so. That the speaker is false (deliberately puts herself in a false, deceptive position) in both grandstanding and hypocrisy does not make her utterances false, though they are, in something like Austin’s sense, infelicitous. Of course, people can be hypocritical without saying anything, but rather by deliberately behaving in ways that manifest a moral conviction that they don’t have. But here we are concerned, as the authors are, with vices or distortions of discourse.
Another phenomenon that the authors compare their account of moral grandstanding with is Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit in his book On Bullshit. Frankfurt sees bullshit as occurring when an agent purports to engage in a certain practice but flouts the justifying norms and primary purpose of the practice by manifesting indifference to those aims. One of Frankfurt’s illustrations of bullshit at work is a practical rather than speech example, namely, that of spit-and-polish and red tape in military and governmental contexts which “do not genuinely contribute, it is presumed, to the ‘real’ purposes of military personnel or governmental officials, even though they are imposed by agencies or agents that purport to be conscientiously devoted to the pursuit of those purposes”. In the case of military activities, we might add drill parades and other ritualistic paraphernalia, and, to make a mildly patriotic point in this connection, I should point out that it has been argued that the currency of “bullshit” as a dismissive term of the kind Frankfurt analyses can be traced to its origins amongst Australian troops in Europe in World War I where it was offered as a caustic comment on the British addiction to such rituals. (See Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1963); Partridge is cited in Norman Dixon’s fascinating book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which has a chapter on the damaging nature of military bullshit.)
But although bullshit has affinities with grandstanding, notably in the flouting–purpose feature, it differs in intentionality since someone who speaks bullshit may not have any unworthy defeating intention. This is clear from the point made in such remarks as “That’s bullshit and you know it” where the clear implication is that, by contrast, there are cases where the speakers utters bullshit without any idea that it is such. Indeed, some speakers correctly accused of speaking bullshit may have a sincere desire to advance the truth in spite of their utterance signally failing to do so.
Some worries about the account of Moral Grandstanding
Turning from comparisons with other forms of dubious moral utterance to the merits of T&W’s account of moral grandstanding, I have a couple of concerns about it. First, I worry somewhat about the potentiality of the allegation of moral grandstanding to inhibit genuine moral condemnation. Consider the manifestations called piling on and ramping up. T&W cite studies in social psychology on what is called “social comparison”, and an article by Cass Sunstein in support of “one way to understand piling on” that shows its negative features. These studies seem to show a certain likelihood of a convergence within groups related to individuals’ desire to maintain their reputation within the group and their self-conception. There is no doubt that this can be a feature of both piling on and ramping up, but there are plenty of examples of both where this self-regarding feature would be absent or quite incidental. A desire to be in solidarity with others in opposing injustice is, on the face of it, entirely healthy and morally commendable, and may spring from the need to show an oppressed group or individual that their support is widespread. In the case of piling on, it may not “substantively advance discussion” (as T&W put it) but that is not the only significance of public moral discourse, and, in certain contexts, not the primary one. The authors say elsewhere that “the aim of public moral discourse is to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world.” (p.210) Showing solidarity by public endorsement of statements by others in your group may well aim at the second part of that disjunction since the oppressed may well take heart from seeing widespread condemnation of their oppressors and the oppressors may well be deterred by it. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the intention is not a defeating one. (Actually, if we omit the last sentence of the example that T&W give on p. 204 of piling on—the pompous and cringe-making bit about “the right side of history”—the example could well be one that illustrates my point.)
As for ramping up, there are plenty of situations that require someone to ramp up tepid moral responses to an injustice. The shocking facts around clerical (and other institutional) child sex abuse that have gradually come to light in the last 20-odd years should remind us that the initially mild responses and evasions in moral discourse, and the inadequate moral remedies proposed were in dire need of ramping up. Some of those who did ramp up moral discussion may have wanted to show their moral respectability, but many others were simply concerned directly for the victims. Nor is the desire to show one’s moral respectability necessarily an unworthy one when there is a lot of moral corruption in the vicinity. Unless one is a sort of hyper-Kantian, the desire to be in good moral standing with others (or, at any rate with other good people) seems an unexceptional motive that is not in necessary conflict with a concern to know what is morally good and to pursue it as such.
Similar points could be made about the other “manifestations” of moral grandstanding, such as “excessive outrage”. A good deal turns of course on what is excessive and that will be relative to the gravity of the offence or immoral behavior. Opinions will differ upon the assessment of such gravity and hence on what is excessive, but outrage itself is not necessarily a bad emotion, nor need it be correlated with some reprehensible defeating intention. T&W cite empirical evidence that strong emotions are correlated with firm moral convictions. One might wonder whether this is another instance in which solemn social science has come up with a conclusion already obvious to common intelligence, but unless we think that firm moral convictions are somehow a dubious category then it is appropriate that our emotional life should be responsive to them in the right contexts. Of course firm moral convictions can be wrong and the outrage associated with them dangerous, but the lack of conviction and capacity for outrage is also dangerous. W.B. Yeats’ powerful lines descriptive of a dark future in his poem “The Second Coming” puts the dilemma well: “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. T&W are aware that moral outrage has its place, conceding indeed that moral outrage is “wholly fitting” in the face of “plenty of injustices” (p.211), but their stress on the negative effects of “excessive” outrage could tend to spread suspicion of the positive role this emotion can have.
T&W might reasonably reply that they are not claiming that their various “manifestations” are invariably signs of moral grandstanding. So at one point they say of piling on that “one way to understand piling on” is as an expression of social comparison (p. 204), and more generally even the strong claim that grandstanding “often” (p. 205) manifests itself in ramping up does not entail that ramping up (and the other manifestations) must often be a sign of grandstanding. Yet they also sound a note that seems stronger still when they state, for instance, that “psychological research on social comparison offers an explanation for why ramping up occurs”, and it seems that this explanation in terms of preserving self-image rather than aiming at the truth is one they endorse. More generally, the authors’ concentration on the manifestation phenomena as “the characteristic ways that grandstanding is manifested in public discourse” at least carries with it the suggestion that we should usually be suspicious of these displays as genuinely aimed at epistemic advancement and be vigilant for the existence of the defeating intention.
The issue of Polarization and “Extremes”
There is another issue that I do not have time to address fully here but will flag briefly. It concerns one of the defeating effects on public moral discourse that T&W discuss, namely, group polarization. Their claim is that both piling on and trumping up will lead groups considering some significant question of public concern to move towards more extreme positions. They cite Sunstein’s use of the social comparison phenomenon in support of this, the idea being that the “desire to maintain their reputation and their self-conception” produces a group dynamic that tends to push the members of the group “to advocate increasingly extreme views”. T&W claim that has three bad consequences: (a) it “increases the likelihood that that participants advocate false views”, (b) “it encourages an impression in persons not associated with the group that morality is a nasty business and that moral discourse consists primarily of extreme and implausible claims”, and (c) the views of different groups within which grandstanding occurs will can become more polarized (for these claims see pp211-12).
But all of this relies on the idea that “extreme” views are a bad thing and this thesis is not supported by the empirical social science invoked by Sunstein and others, nor could it be. In fact such research treats “extreme” not as a value-laden concept but merely as a statistical notion. In a group of 10 if 8 hold belief p and 2 hold belief q then q is an extreme belief whatever its content. Similarly, if the 8 hold that p tentatively and the 2 hold it very firmly then the 2 are extreme in their belief. The actual example T&W (and Sunstein) give is instructive. We are asked to imagine that after a highly publicized school shooting a group of people in the community gather to consider proposing new gun control measures, and most tentatively support new measures, but after deliberation the group tends to move towards the enthusiastic support advocated by the minority. This is supposed to be group polarization and a bad thing.
Against this, it is surely pretty clear that movement toward “the extreme” in such cases may be good or bad depending on whether the extreme is true or false, good or bad, and whether the process of arriving at it is epistemically and morally or normatively respectable. The contemporary political fashion for branding all “extreme” views, i.e., often those not in accord with the comfortably privileged “sensible centre”, as wrong, bad, or dangerous, needs much closer scrutiny. In the gun control example we need more detail on what exactly the “extreme” position is, but, as a bemused outsider to the spectacle of American gun culture, I suspect that the extreme view is a good one. (Why not try changing the example to a group in the North gathering to consider the bombing of a black church during a service in Alabama in the 1960s and, after deliberation, adopting the “extreme” decision to go on civil rights protests in the South?)
Whether the process was morally and epistemically appropriate depends on other matters, one being whether the psychological studies on social comparison and conclusions from them are valid. My suspicion is that like some other studies in social science on moral matters they need more critical philosophical assessment than are often given to them. (I have cast a cold eye on some such studies pertaining to moral dilemmas in my “Reason, Emotion, and Morality: some Cautions for the Enhancement Project” in The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate, eds. Clarke, Coady, Giublini, Sanyal, and Savulescu, Oxford University Press, Oxford, (2016). An excellent related critique of neuro-science studies on morality is Berker, S. ‘ The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, (2009).)
I should also note that the discussion of polarization is not entirely clear about what the term means. Is it merely a relation within a group or is it supposed to extend to polarization between different deliberating groups within the wider society caused by “social comparison” effects? Either way, there is room for debate about whether polarization is as unhealthy for a particular group or a society as is often assumed. Obviously a good deal turns on how polarization has come about, and it need not come about as a result of some regrettable process such as moral grandstanding, since it is sometimes based on profound differences in outlook on fundamental moral and political issues and/or on divergent class interests. Widespread ongoing consensus may well betoken a stagnant society.
I term most of these reflections on the detail of T&W’s account of moral grandstanding “worries” rather “objections” because I think their very interesting article has identified something genuine about a pathological tendency that can afflict moral discourse, and my primary purpose is to buttress their insights by a reminder that some of the things they cite as manifestations of moral grandstanding can actually manifest something quite different, non-pathological and indeed morally positive. It would be unfortunate if a proper concern for the exposure and criticism of moral grandstanding obscured that reality.
(My thanks to my colleague Andrew Alexandra for some helpful suggestions about this contribution.)4