The Moral Uselessness of Moral Outrage

8_2Andrew Sullivan has accused Glenn Greenwald of “justifying” terrorism for a post that is largely about the inconsistent use of the word “terrorism.” Greenwald’s response is a thorough and decisive debunking of Sullivan’s accusations, but I wanted add something as a follow-up to my discussion of Sullivan’s incoherence on these issues.  In this latest piece, he doubles down on the completely irrational notion that such incidents as the killing of a soldier in London are “terrorism in its most animal-like form, created and sustained entirely by religious fanaticism which would find any excuse to murder, destroy and oppress Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of God.” That’s my emphasis on the entirely by religious fanaticism clause, because I think it’s telling that Sullivan feels compelled to make such an unworkable generalization, despite hinting in the past that he is aware of the idea that any such act must the result of multiple causal factors working together.

On Sullivan’s account, the London killers were motivated not at all by the politicization of personal grievances I described in my previous post. Rather, we are to imagine that, in the absence of psychological problems or general hardships, they came into contact with “radical Islam” and were simply infected by it (despite having been raised, in the case of one killer, in a devoutly Christian family). We can give no account of why they would be attracted to such extremism except to say that it worked something like a virus. Presumably anyone – even Sullivan – could be corrupted by accidental exposure. It’s not that they were bitter people who were attracted to membership in a group that would allow them to identify as victims and give vent to self-righteous, vengeful rage. Rather, they read the wrong passage in the Koran, or simply listened to the wrong sermon that told them to do something “in the name of God.” “Ok,” they said, in the manner of Abraham asked to put the knife to Isaac. “Sounds pretty messed up, but if God said so who am I to object?” Sullivan might moderate his position here by acknowledging that “entirely by religious fanaticism” is too strong, but that religious extremism is an important causal factor here. But as I’ve tried to show, it is probably far less important than a potent combination of personal and political grievances. That’s because a psychologically plausible account of someone’s motives for killing usually involves their having a grievance of some sort, with a sense of humiliation or powerlessness often playing a critical role.

So Sullivan’s “entirely by religious fanaticism” idea is an incoherent one that I don’t need to rebut a second time. But I think it’s worth saying why such ideas are so attractive to Sullivan and others like him. Greenwald gives his own plausible account of such motivations (including their tribalism), but I think we can expand on this to say that there is a culture among opinion makers (and in some cases, regular journalists) of entitled sentimentality. When positively charged, this sentimentality usually involves promiscuously bestowing the title of “hero” upon human beings who have acted, in the face of difficult circumstances, like actual human beings; when negative, it means trafficking in moral outrage.

Many opinion makers will feel the need, in light of the latest act of terrorism or some other injustice, to make sure to advertise their opinions to the effect that such acts are outrageous, disgusting, and cowardly. It is hard not to detect in the vehemence of such protests at least a little anxiety about being thought – if they don’t testify loudly enough – to be on the wrong side of a very stark dividing line. In so testifying, they implicitly call upon others to testify as well: to yawp their loyalty to human decency or be damned either for their silence or want of volume. Such testimony also reflects an anxiety that their fellow human beings might not harbor such repulsion to terrible crimes – whether out of weak-mindedness or actual malevolence. As this anxiety increases, we are called upon to pledge our hatred not just for such acts, but for their perpetrators, and to partake in a communal desire for vengeance. But this moral commitment itself comes to seem too shallow and ephemeral to satisfy the inflamed moral imagination: we are asked at this point to treat the perpetrators as representatives of some group. Less cautious agitators will define this group quite broadly, as members of some race or religion. More sophisticated agitators will define their groups more carefully: it is criminals who are to be hated, or a certain subset of some religion – the “extremists.” Nevertheless, it is never enough to be repulsed by the act: we must also direct our hatred toward as certain portion of humanity.

This process of demanding loyalty to moments in an escalating cycle of idealization or outrage – to show gratitude to our “heroes” and denounce our anti-heroes – is a common form of social coercion whose power we are seldom aware of unless it is backed up with obvious legal sanctions, as in totalitarian regimes that punish thought crimes. But while most Americans would agree that punishing people for their thoughts and feelings is unjust, they commonly behave as if moral outrage were a proper form of social policing.

I disagree.

Moral outrage is actually a morally useless – and often morally compromising – state of mind. To illustrate the point, consider the mindset of the London killers or the Boston bombers themselves: from their mistaken point of view, their actions were morally justified. The horridness of the acts – blowing people’s legs off or hacking someone to death – is for the perpetrators just evidence of their allegiance to a higher good, a kind of moral sacrifice required in the name of justice (and contra Sullivan, not simply because God said so). To be motivated to do such horrible things, the perpetrators have to work themselves up into precisely the state of moral outrage that their acts function so well in turn to produce in others. (My account here is an extension of Plato’s “no one knowingly does evil” theorem).

When we respond with outrage to such outrage-fueled crimes, we do so in part as a kind of distancing mechanism, driven by the anxiety that abstention is implicit endorsement: to be psychically clean of any implication in the act, we must repudiate it in the strongest terms. Not to do so is to risk common cause with the perpetrators. But as we have seen, outrage achieves precisely the opposite of the distancing to which it aspires by replicating in our own minds the state of mind of the perpetrators. In this way, it is outrage (and not, as Sullivan seems to think, extreme religious precepts) that is properly described as viral; and it is a frame of mind that, while generally not sufficient for violence, sets the stage for it and makes it more likely to occur when other causal factors come to bear. While most of us are not in usual circumstances in danger of acting violently upon such outrage, we certainly would be if our psychological or physical security were compromised. Trafficking in moral outrage means trafficking in a potent kind of drug: some will use it recreationally, some will get addicted, and some will suffer an overdose. Someone who understood and cared about the very serious role that the propagation of moral outrage ultimately plays in causing violence – as opposed to that of religious beliefs – would not so carelessly contribute to it.

But how do we address the anxiety that we cannot enforce morality – in ourselves or others – without such outrage? If we don’t respond loudly and angrily to such a grisly murder on the streets of London, how will others – and we ourselves – keep in mind that such acts cannot be tolerated? And how do we motivate ourselves to fight against society’s frequent injustices, if not through outrage?

The alternative to outrage is sadness. Sadness is not as exciting as outrage, and it doesn’t confer the same protective feeling of toughness. It is not a “fuck you” to the would-be perpetrator of injustice, meant in a sense as a bit of black magic that will ward him off or preemptively intimidate him into submission. Nevertheless, it’s a more mature state of mind that leads to better consequences for a society while sufficiently honoring the moral issues involved. More constructive than outrage at the latest villain du jour or some perceived injustice is to acknowledge the sad state of humanity and get on with the task of trying to understand and improve it – tasks for which outrage is absolutely useless.

I am not suggesting that we can avoid outrage altogether, or that it ought to be simple pushed aside or repressed (nor am I arguing against the general importance of moral sentiments in favor of a Kantian grounding of morality in mere rationality). For most of us outrage is a natural, instinctive reaction to a perceived injustice.  But outrage ought to be sublimated rather than rationalized, and investigated rather than taken at face value. Beware of turning your outrage into laws, policies, maxims for action, theories, or public opinion pieces (the point of which ought to be actual reflection, not spleen-venting). In the world of opinion-making, outrage over some obvious injustice is an intellectually lazy way of achieving and conferring the kind of instantly gratifying agreement that often undermines itself. Author: “Murder is abhorrent!” Comments section: “You bet it is! And I’d love to get my hands on that f-ing murderer!” Subtext: killing people could actually be a lot of fun, and we understand murderers much better than we’d like to admit. Where there isn’t easy agreement over such pressing issues as what bad people terrorists are, we get a cycle of unending verbal abuse in which there is little attempt at actual discourse between opponents – retaliatory bouts of guerilla outrage (not as fun as killing people, but the next best thing).

We generally get better from Sullivan, who is often a champion of open mindedness and opponent of “epistemic closure.” More than any other public opinion maker I know of, Sullivan is willing to air opposing opinions in their strongest light without reacting defensively. He’s not afraid to admit to being wrong, or to publicly change his mind. But at his worst, he fits into a media culture that believes that there is something salutary (or at least profitable) in its expressions of moral outrage. There are few things that I think would improve public discourse more than for major opinion makers to treat these expressions as a bad habit that ought to be given up.

 -- Wes Alwan



  1. says


    I think the key to your comment is your desire to ground human behaviour in a Kantian framework. A framework which has been heroically attempted many times in the past and has always failed. As Hume observed rationality is the slave of the passions, not the reserve and even such a tightly reasoned and beautiful Kantian theory such as that advocated by John Rawls has largely been debunked by Sandel, Nozick and the communitarian critics.

    What’s upsetting you isnt Greenwald or Sullivan, it’s human nature. Perhaps Vulcans could act the way you want us to act but humans don’t act that way. And whether they should act that way is also questionable. I think this supposedly mature reasoned way of acting of yours is a rather parochial northern European way of acting and probably not very healthy mentally or spiritually. Why not rage and fume and get it out and then move on to the reasoned argument later as they do in Mediterranean and Celtic countries and indeed in most of the world? This stiff upper lip attitude of yours reminds me of George Costanza in the Serenity Now episode. Serenity now – insanity later.

    • Geoff says

      Adrian, your opening line – “I think the key to your comment is your desire to ground human behaviour in a Kantian framework” – seems to directly contradict what Wes has written.

      nor am I arguing against the general importance of moral sentiments in favor of a Kantian grounding of morality in mere rationality

      i.e Wes is explicitly NOT arguing for Kant and IS explicitly acknowledging the role of moral sentiment.

      The latter half of your response seems also based on missing Wes’ stated position

      I am not suggesting that we can avoid outrage altogether, or that it ought to be simple pushed aside or repressed…

      Indeed, I think Wes would be happier if people, having got the rage out, then took the time to contemplate the facts in a calmer manner. The problem is that that seems rarely to happen. The modern world seems to keep people on the storm surge of Moral Outrage – not much thinking is done.

    • Clifford Smith says

      “What’s upsetting you isnt Greenwald or Sullivan, it’s human nature. Perhaps Vulcans could act the way you want us to act but humans don’t act that way.”

      Wes is a Vulcan?

  2. Tobe says

    Their premises are right, their conclusion ill minded wrong. A very sad story. RIP for the dead soldier.

  3. Joseph JG says

    Maybe moral outrage is the perception of injustice in its most animal-like form. Like that video where the monkey is outraged at getting a piece cucumber instead of a grape.

  4. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    I remember having an interesting discussion with a lawyer once who said she was raised to believe that prejudice (moralizing, etc.) is lazy thinking. (Lucky lawyer.) And we can add that sublimation is hard work.

  5. Jarrod says

    Can’t help but do some Freudian posturing of my own:

    Evil act committed > People get outraged in order to distance themselves from evil act (causing massive amounts of violence as a result) > Wes writes outrage laden post denouncing outrage in order to even further distance himself from the initial evil act (and the violence caused by the outrage) > I write this post in order to distance myself from the recognition of my distancing, my acts of violence and my inability to feel sad instead of outraged.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


      Point well taken.

      The purpose of outrage is not just to distance in a fearful or even cowardly way from conflict, but to separate with strength and force from that which devalues in order to maintain what is valuable, to protect and to defend with courage what one values.

      So the process of valuing to me starts with honoring a “NO!” to that which devalues first (not mere distancing), and only then can sadness have meaning, so that we can go forward with wisdom.

      • Geoff Edwards says


        I like what you said here:

        but to separate with strength and force from that which devalues in order to maintain what is valuable

        The issue, to my mind at least, is that outrage is increasingly an end in itself. It is what instead should happen after that – how we respond in the longer term after justifiable anger has subsided -that seems important to the criticisms of Greenwald and Wes.

        As a reading of Sullivan’s article suggests, if you simply run with outrage and fail to follow up with a calmer period of analysis you risk making a right hash of things, assuming that Sullivan’s article was not a deliberate misrepresentation.

  6. Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

    I think there’s a lot to be said about the tribal aspects of outrage and it ties into the chemical/hormonal aspects of anger … “trafficking in moral outrage means trafficking in a potent kind of drug” … remember when you were doing drugs (he asked hypothetically)? You always had friends around, co-conspirators.

  7. Profile photo of Lynda says

    I’m always surprised at the kind of moral outrage we see in the media. It can be the start of a bigger, smarter effort toward a goal but its usually the empty barrels having at it again to sell info or to get on TV or to use as an excuse for ridiculous behavior.
    I’m tired of this kind of ‘passion’, its usually pathology anyway.
    Thanks for this, Wes.

  8. says

    What’s interesting about attacks from people like Sullivan on the arguments made by people like Greenwald is what they demonstrate about how we perceive terrorist motivations.

    Trying to come up with a theory of the political motivations behind attacks like this is seen on its face by many as a justification of them. Even granting that it’s not, it shows the inability of people to defend the foreign policy of their own countries. Rather the question must be dismissed out of hand for fear that what we find underneath will in some way betray (rightly/wrongly) a twisted sense of justice.

  9. Profile photo of Tammy says


    I think this particular blog is well thought out and I agree with you. This topic is some major thinking, in my opinion and experience, that takes a good amount of time for this kind of clarity.

    I’ll start by saying the Islamic faith in not the only faith we should be mindful of re outrage. That goes without saying and can be found in both secular and religious isms. That said, last year I decided to invest my time in an attempt to understand the Islamic faith. I went to a philosophical lecture feat. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan titled “Moving the Mountain/Facing a New World.” It was the most somber philosophical/inter-faith lecture I have attend thus far. It was sobering and silent. In all the lectures I’ve attended I’ve never been to one ushering such silence among the listeners.

    I read an article in the WSJ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Problem of Muslim Leadership on this topic. And, I will say, it is very similar to what Daisy Khan said last year. I’ll post both the article and lecture, which maybe anyone interested can find the lecture on the Web free. Otherwise, the 2 minute intro, perhaps, will give a feel for the tone of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s talk. Enjoyed this blog and thank you.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        No problem, Wayne.

        The full lecture is on YouTube ( At 32. minutes Daisy Khan states what I have wrestled with about Muslims and American foreign policy. Khan takes a stand, which if I’m hearing Wes and understand what he is saying, is a position that has merit and clarity emerges–accountability. My thoughts are this is where religion and political philosophical lines are blurred at home and abroad.

        If you listen to the lecture I’d appreciate your feedback!

  10. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    I have a word from Zarathustra:

    I am the primordial rage that has never been quelled. The bad-to-the-bone evil that seeks revenge. The scream that must be heard around the world. The desparate, the destitute, the hopeless with no recourse but to strike out.

    I do not even know you, I do not care to know you, you are my Enemy, the violator and destroyer of my soul. You know who you are: the proud, the just, the self-conceited, the person in power, the violater of my soul, in the name of your own God which has gone slouching toward Bethleham.

    And you talk to me about personal justice, about social justice, about reasonability and responsibility? A bullit to your brain. Justice is just another word for nothing left to lose. Justice is impossible, has always been impossible, will always be impossible. Just you see! See your history, see your fate.

    Outside of recognition of these truths, you have no hope. You will continue to support the “Good” in oppostion to the “Evil,” as if you know, and circle the wagons against your foe. Social and personal justice be dammned.

    You do not even have the power to institute such concepts if you tried. Why not? They are not institutable–you can not legislate justice–you are powerless to legislate justice. That is the good news. Legislation was never meant to be the solution to the problem of being human. You are.

    You can stop this mayhem, this violence, this injustice–all by yourself, in your own world, one person’s world at a time. You can administer the violence of inviolable peace that stands against the injustice toward yourself, or toward others by your own will, your own valuation based on the violence of protection, preservation and compassion in the face of destructiveness. You can refuse to violate others.

    You can refuse to violate your self. But not without an inviolable commitment to value all of who you are, and all of who we are.

    Thus spake Zarathustra.

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