April Fools on Me: That Insidious Root Sin
Even authentic outrage is influenced by implicit strategic calculations.
• Jillian Jordan & David Rand
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Two psychologists have written an article at the New York Times about Virtue Signaling, a phrase used to counter some of the expressions of moral outrage that are so pervasive in our day.
Expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality. In response, there have been criticisms of expressions of outrage as mere “virtue signaling” — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.
Behind these critiques is a flaw in thinking, the authors say. When the question is framed in binary terms, “Is this person genuinely outraged or is he/she merely virtue signaling?” this fails to recognize a unity within our psyches that does not allow such a one or the other evaluation.
You may not realize it, but distinguishing between genuine and strategic expressions of indignation assumes a particular scientific theory: namely, that there are two separable psychological systems that shape expressions of moral outrage. One is a “genuine” system that evaluates a transgression in light of our moral values and determines what level of outrage we actually feel. The other is a “strategic” system that evaluates our social context and determines what level of outrage will look best to others. Authentic expressions of outrage involve only the first system, whereas virtue signaling involves the second system.
This theory may be intuitively compelling, but new research suggests that it is wrong. Psychological studies reveal that a person’s authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.
Or, in other words, our motives are always mixed. Even when expressing outrage at injustice done to others, we simultaneously have an eye on looking appropriately “righteous” to those who are watching.
Jesus had a few things to say about this.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt. 23:27-28)
Now, the authors have an important point to make, and I get it. They are looking at this question from one particular angle. The very fact that I am multitasking when exercising judgment and expressing moral outrage doesn’t mean my outrage isn’t real. A certain amount of virtue signalling does not automatically cancel out the genuineness of my appropriate condemnation of injustice or evil.
What our findings show is that asking whether outrage is “pure” is the wrong question. Even authentic outrage is influenced by implicit strategic calculations. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with evolutionary theories that hypothesize that morality arose precisely as a way of signaling one’s trustworthiness in cooperative endeavors.
But this also shouldn’t strike you as cynical. In fact, we view our findings optimistically. They suggest that if an individual is motivated by a desire to signal her virtue, that does not necessarily mean she is faking her outrage. Of course, people do sometimes fake or exaggerate their outrage to look good. Our point is that the presence of strategic motives does not itself make a moral reaction inauthentic.
That’s something to keep in mind the next time you are tempted to dismiss something as mere virtue signaling.
However, I read this article with Jesus’ words in mind and it hit me from precisely the opposite perspective.
Nothing I do, no judgments I pronounce, are free from self-interest and the desire to advance my own standing.
I suppose there are degrees of sinfulness and selfishness involved in that, and that a good share of it is relatively harmless. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all my “righteousness” is infused with me thinking about me and how I might look to you.
It must be April Fool’s Day when it takes an article in the Times to blow my cover and help me remember that.