Moral Outrage as a Dark Side of Moral Goodness

Understanding Reactions toward the Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Posted Jul 24, 2012

Penn State students shocked by NCAA sanctions
It has been another emotionally draining week at Penn State, where we are still dealing with the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. I have my own opinions about who has behaved rightly and wrongly since the infamous 1998 shower incident, but I do not think it is appropriate to share those opinions on this blog. What I want to write about today is the way in which I understand the vitriol I have seen expressed by many people toward those who have defended Joe Paterno and those who have asserted that Penn State has been treated too harshly. Again, just because I work for Penn State, I am not defending its supporters or anyone associated with the institution from the severe criticism I have seen. Neither am I agreeing with the critics. I simply wish to express my understanding of the level of moral outrage that I have seen coming from so many people, including, most recently, the president of the NCAA.

To accomplish this goal, I am writing about my understanding of morality itself as a set of psychological mechanisms that evolved through natural selection. After this somewhat lengthy introduction, I apply this understanding to the moral outrage expressed toward Penn State.

I subscribe to a naturalistic account of morality. I believe that our feelings about what is morally good or bad are rooted in the way the human brain evolved through natural selection. And I emphasize that word feelings. In contrast to objective properties of the universe, such as the boiling and freezing points of water, what is "morally good or right" is not an objective characteristic of behavior that can be discovered by empirical investigation and logical inference. Judgments of moral goodness and badness are gut reactions, emotional reflexes. Only after our emotions reflexively assess something as good or bad do we (sometimes) rationalize these judgments with higher-level thinking (see the work of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt).

A consequence of this naturalistic view of moral-goodness-as-emotional-reflex is that it makes no sense to inquire about what is "truly" or "actually" moral because emotions are neither true nor false—they simply are. In contrast to wrong response of "5" to the question "What is 2+2?" we do not judge a response of disgust to the smell of rotting food as right or wrong. A gag reflex is a gag reflex. But this point is sometimes less clear to us when we enter the domain of moral disgust. While one person feels disgusted by homosexual behavior and judges it as morally wrong, another person feels equally disgusted by homophobic behavior and judges it as morally wrong. Whereas some believe that actual moral goodness/badness exists, objectively and independently of human judgment, so that it is possible to determine whether homosexual or homophobic behavior is actually morally good or bad, I say that people who believe this are being fooled by their feelings. Our feelings about goodness/badness are so automatic, immediate, and compelling that they impress us as being as objectively correct as our perceptions of the sizes and shapes of objects around us.

woman expressing disgust
Supporting the illusion of the existence of moral truths is our use of the words "right" and "wrong" as near-synonyms for both "good/bad" and "true/false." Certain questions do have clear right and wrong answers in the sense of true or false. The answer "5" to "What is 2+2?" is wrong (false). But the answer is not wrong in the sense of morally bad. On the other hand, the question of whether homosexuality or homophobia is wrong is meaningful, from my perspective, only if "wrong" means the feeling of moral badness. When people try to claim that it is meaningful to say that the wrongness of homosexuality or homophobia expresses a moral truth, they might be confusing moral feelings of right/wrong with objective facts about what is right or wrong.

If moral judgments are not about truth, what are they about? From a naturalistic point of view, I think that morality is about regulating social behavior in such a way that genes are passed down from one generation to the next. Because members of our species have been absolutely dependent on each other since time immemorial, it has always been impossible for all members of a group to act completely exploitatively toward one another. That scenario would have ended in disaster. It is in our own self-interest to regulate our own behavior and to attempt to regulate the behavior of others so that the necessary amount of cooperation occurs to allow survival and reproduction. (Being fooled by our feelings into thinking that moral principles are objectively true is useful in giving the rules more legitimacy for social regulation. But this is a topic I will explore some other time.)

"Being good" is therefore not the conscious pursuit of timeless moral truths, but about following emotional instincts that further the survival of our genes. From this perspective, acting morally is a cold-hearted business strategy, regardless of any warm, fuzzy emotions that may accompany moral behavior. One of my favorite Richard Dawkins quotations, from his book, River Out of Eden, is relevant here: "Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose." So it is with morality. When human beings, as a part of nature, act in what we call moral ways, our behavior is neither objectively good nor bad, but, rather, callously indifferent to any sort of "higher" purpose. The "purpose" is merely passing on our genes. From this point of view, we can better understand certain moral behaviors that appear on the surface as dark, angry, mob-like lynch parties as functional survival mechanisms. As dark as moral outrage might appear to the targets of the anger, the anger and retribution are regarded by many as perfectly moral and appropriate because the anger and retribution feel "right." This feeling of rightness is a legacy of human evolution.

book cover Moral Origins
The dark side of moral goodness that I want to examine here is a phenomenon described by Michael Shermer in a pair of book reviews he wrote for eSkeptic, the online newsletter of the Skeptics Society. In his review of Chrisopher Boehm's Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, he writes about Boehm's theory concerning one strategy that human groups have employed to prevent free-riders, cheaters, bullies, and manipulators from exploiting an environment of cooperation, namely, the evolved desire to punish and shun such exploiters. Moral outrage and taking pleasure in punishing wrong-doers motivated our ancestors to keep misbehavior in check. Shermer explains as follows:

"[W]e evolved the social technology of shaming and shunning free riders who violated social norms, along with the desire to punish those who attempted to unfairly gain an upper hand against naïve group members or those who could be exploited by powerful alpha-male bullies. This explains why we not only practice but often even enjoy 'moralistic punishment' against those who cheated or bullied us. It’s a powerful emotion based in evolutionary logic that I felt the full visceral effect of during the revenge scene from the film The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo that followed the pornographically brutal rape scene of the central character Lisbeth Salander. There’s a deep emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing a bully get his comeuppance. It’s an evolved moral emotion necessary to deal with the realities of a social life that includes bullies and cheaters."

angry mob
Shermer's statement sets the stage perfectly for an understanding of the galvanized outcry against individuals who are perceived as enablers of Jerry Sandusky's pedophilic behavior. Following Boehm's theory, it makes sense that people are suspicious about powerful, alpha males who may have acted in a morally inappropriate way to further their own interests. Pedophilic abuse itself is a crime in which the powerful exploit the vulnerable, triggering the strongest kind of rage against both the criminal and those who are thought to have enabled that behavior. These feelings are so strong that any person who might question their legitimacy would automatically be added as a target of the outrage. I am really not surprised to see so many angry attacks against Penn State and so many gleeful celebrations about the sanctions recently handed down by the NCAA. Everyone is acting according to his or her evolved nature.

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