Is Moral "Grandstanding" Our Problem?

A new book explains why we should stop some of our online behavior.

Posted Jul 26, 2020

"By the way, the representatives of power invariably come to terms with those who live within the truth by persistently ascribing utilitarian motivations to them—a lust for power or fame or wealth—and thus they try, at least, to implicate them in their own world, the world of general demoralization." - Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth

Philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have just released a new book on their concept of “moral grandstanding.” They once summed up their ideas in an online article subtitled, “There’s a lot of it about, all of it bad.” It’s about how “most” of us “feel uneasy about the way people talk in public about morality and politics” and it suggests we are not wrong to feel this way, that actually there are very deleterious effects on society that result from “grandstanding” efforts.

Moral grandstanding gets analyzed by the authors in terms of a desire to impress which then gets satisfied by a statement that grandstands, but it is basically the use of moral talk for self-promotion. It boils down to this handy practical advice: “When you’re about to contribute to public moral discourse, ask yourself: am I saying this to do good, or look good? Would I be disappointed if nobody thought better of me for saying this?”

If you are answering “to look good” or “yes,” then you are about to moral grandstand. They recommend not clicking “send” or “post” once you figure that out.

As a virtue ethicist, I appreciate how useful advice like this might be. In contrast, the very many published complaints about “cancel culture” are so vague on this very issue. What are these writers recommending Twitter users do? Stop criticizing? Criticize exactly how?

Tosi and Warmke are so much more clear when it comes to the personal responsibility they think we need to take for “moral grandstanding.” We are to try to avoid doing it, and we are also supposed to stop rewarding it with comments that please moral grandstanders. No longer should we be typing “so brave!” underneath potential instances of moral grandstanding. We need to make it embarrassing for moral grandstanders.

If we become aware of the problem of how often we flatter mere "grandstanders," that might keep us from being hoodwinked by the moral grandstanding of figures like Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, the authors argue. (Even though we probably do not think of these two as very successful in their efforts, their attempts to moral grandstand are used as examples a few times in the book.)

Other examples that readers may not have in mind include Twitter users writing things like “I hope you get cancer” to someone they are criticizing. How is this “moral” grandstanding? Well, the authors suggest that, despite these types of comments seeming immoral in the standard, dull, traditional ways, they are a type of “moral grandstanding” when the tweeter might be making the comments in order to get recognition for how passionate they are about some moral issue. 

I imagine that many of the writers passionately opposed to “cancel culture” would find the book’s arguments (if they'll read philosophy!) very easy to adopt. Underneath so many of the claims about our culture being a pernicious “cancel culture” is the exact same kind of suspicion over poor motives.

Tosi and Warmke recommend a lot of caution in general, though. They point out that you can never be quite sure that someone is moral grandstanding, though it’s good to be very suspicious of it anyway. Most practically, in yourself! And they even remind readers that someone can grandstand even when they are sincere and what they are claiming is true. Again, I think these claims would make “cancel culture” critics quite happy. It’s a way to make what they are saying applies to the common Twitter user. 

So what do you think? Should we all sign on and take the “no moral grandstanding” pledge, thereby making the world a far more pleasant place?

I wouldn’t. I feel like our traditional, standard, boring moral categories are going to work better for speech that is wrong. Categories like cruel, cold, uncaring, hyper-critical, hypocritical. I know they don’t work to condemn online commentary in one big broad brush, but I think that’s an OK burden to place on condemners. 

And I also think we move far too quickly if we associate “moral grandstanding” with poor social outcomes because it is as if we are forgetting the political speech that got us to better places (let’s assume when more rights were acknowledged, that was better). For some classic examples: Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau? I don’t know how a person could use more invective in political speech than these three. And their arguments depended so much on people living up to the things they would casually put forward. ("Hold up before them their inconsistencies!")

I count that as a point in favor of casually saying ambitious moral things. A person concerned about “moral grandstanding” would ask we not say these things in the first place and instead focus on what we are doing. (A repeated example from the authors is that if you are tempted to assert something moralistic online, it is far better to take photos of ourselves working in a soup kitchen because then we are doing something good for others.)

I also reject the proposal in favor of the standard moral categories because so much religious practice fails to meet the “grandstanding” tests. This may be for complicated reasons, but no one I have seen in a religious service is not also there because they are “being seen” and “trying to look better.” And I would argue that this is perfectly moral. The authors use, in an unexplained but mocking way, the idea that we moral grandstand so it seems like we are “on the side of the angels.” Let’s put it this way: that does not seem gross or ridiculous to a religious person (and a religious person who is deeply aware of how “not good” they are, at that).

Furthermore, consider the ethical work of schools of thought like the Stoics, or the ancient Greek ethicists generally, who use invective to motivate a person to take morality more seriously than any other project. Even if their insults do not work across time, so many of us count on our loved ones to chide us and give us moral warnings, which are very effective when they are exaggerated. And the work of behavioral scientists like George Ainslie suggests that it is not at all irrational to motivate ourselves in kind of tricky ways. (Maybe we will not “ruin our diet” by having one slice of cake, but it sure can help us to think we will. And then “cheating” on a diet can help motivate us once again, making our goals seem more vivid.)

Finally, there is just something about the idea that we should prioritize others’ reactions to our claims that seems very off to me. I think of Plato’s description of a person twisting in the wind by trying to accommodate the views of others (speed that up if you have to imagine the potential responses of others). The authors suggest that people can moral grandstand even over claims that are true, and that you should still not moral grandstand.

I just cannot imagine a society being able to afford this advice. I’d rather people point out the truth, even at high social costs, causing lots and lots of annoyance and hurt feelings. Just like what happened in the past*, but helpfully.

*I’m reading "Denmark Vesey’s Garden" and it gives examples of how anti-slavery advocates were attacked for moral grandstanding and having “mawkish and false sentiments.” Does anyone care about that now? Should anyone have cared about that then? 

The authors made a big splash with their initial work on this topic a few years ago, and they have engaged critics on lots of issues. Their analytic style and thoughtfulness is such a contrast to how so many of the complaints about "cancel culture" get handled. One example is here. 


Tosi, J. & Warmke, B. (2020) Grandstanding : the use and abuse of moral talk. NYC, NY: Oxford University Press.