Liam Kofi Bright is a philosophy PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University. He primarily works on social epistemology and the philosophy of science.
Liam Kofi Bright
Recently an interesting new paper (forthcoming in Philosophy and Public Affairs) by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke has been generating discussion on the philosophy blogosphere. The paper is concerned with characterising and condemning `moral grandstanding’. To morally grandstand is to produce some public moral utterance or act that is, in the typical case, aimed at convincing an audience that the utterer or actor is an especially moral person. (I add “the typical case qualification” because they allow that some non-paradigmatic instances can arise from other pernicious motives, or naivety. I’ll set that aside in what follows.) The authors give a more detailed analysis of the kind of behaviours that typically accompany moral grandstanding that I am not going to go into here, but which I’d recommend checking out by reading the paper itself. I’m going to be largely critical, but let me begin by saying what I like about this paper. I like the fact that this is an attempt to give serious outline and defence of an idea that is popular on the right at the moment. The idea in question is that there has been some kind of pernicious cultural change that has led to people constantly `virtue signalling’. But what does this mean and why is it pernicious? The author’s analysis of moral grandstanding can be seen as answering that question. I also like the fact that they have raised this issue to salience in the philosophical community, because I think it proper for philosophy to try and speak to, and sophisticate, contemporary moral debate. What is more, I think the paper is very accessible, and will therefore be a real contribution to public discourse.
The authors give a number of arguments against grandstanding. I summarise the conclusions here. Grandstanding, we are told, makes us cynical about morality and thereby undermines the proper function of public moral discourse, it will lead to group polarisation wherein we become more extreme and entrenched in our moral views, it exhausts our ability to feel outraged about injustice, and renders us unvirtuous agents who will not treat our peers as equals. Despite finding their arguments to these effects interesting, I did not come away convinced, and in the remainder of the post I explain why.
First, Justin Weinberg pointed out what seems to be a rather serious flaw in this — “if moral grandstanding promotes cynicism, so must doing things that encourage people to interpret moral utterances as instances of grandstanding, such as writing a paper like theirs”. Weinberg’s post is largely tongue in cheek, but I think this is a serious problem. Their own arguments speak against writing and publishing this paper.
Grandstanding is said to make us cynical by convincing us that morality is a fraud, and it makes us unvirtuous by having us come to see ostensibly moral actions as opportunities to grab power and prestige over others. Even when focussing on other of their arguments, a large part of the discussion in the paper turns on ways in which grandstanding makes us cynical and unlikely to see public moral discourse as a source of self- and other- improvement. But it’s not quite right to pin this effect on grandstanding itself. The reason grandstanding make us cynical is precisely that people `unmask’ it. On its face, moral grandstanding is passionate moral exhortation. It is (allegedly — more on this below!) cynicism inducing when we sees through this surface appearance. If only we refused to break the spell, not point out the underlying self-interest, allow people to self-delude themselves that they are just taking a stand for what is right, then many of the problems the authors identify would simply cease to be problems. Indeed, this seems to have affected the authors: some of their worries concern the possibility that grandstanding has/will become the main sort of public moral discourse; that seems maximally cynical already! In short, the problem with grandstanding on this analysis largely results from people complaining about grandstanding! (The irony here seems similar to that which we see when folk say that ‘people are not ready’ for a leader from group X; often the primary source of worry is the people making that very utterance!)
Second, as I believe was being raised by Eric Schliesser, I think that the authors make some assumptions that they are not dialectically entitled to. I came away from their piece still wondering: what is wrong with wanting people to think you are good? Isn’t it a good thing that people are socially rewarded for virtue? They worry in various ways that moral grandstanding will perhaps lead to a kind of excessive zeal: but I recall it being said, by a figure I would guess some people who worry about grandstanding would rather like, that after all extremism in defence of liberty is no vice. What’s so bad about using one’s public utterances to move people towards being more strenuously committed to justice? What’s so bad about using one’s utterances to, say, rally the moral troops, and, what’s more, make oneself look good as one does so? In general, it doesn’t make me cynical about people to learn that they want to look good in their communities and use ostentatious commitment to moral principle to achieve this; what is so bad about that?
Here I think that what is going on is that a lot of their arguments are trading on there actually being substantial moral disagreement. My guess is that for one reason or another their image of the moral grandstander is somebody they strongly disagree with. Indeed, when noting their problems with group polarisation they put it thus: ““[t]his effect not only increases the likelihood that participants advocate false views; it also 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.” Quite so; if the group is wrong. Likewise, I think the ‘outrage exhaustion’ they worry will be induced by too much moral grandstanding is only an issue if one would not otherwise be inclined to be outraged at whatever is in question. For, if it turned out the grandstander is making people more often do what I think they ought, these things complained of here may actually make moral discourse as a whole seem more righteous. Without the assumption of substantial moral disagreement with the grandstander, moral grandstanding seems no more inherently problematic than guns are inherently problematic: where problems arise they depend rather on the particular use these tools are put to, and in other circumstances they can be beneficial. There may well be good reasons to regulate when people make use of these tools, but it is some kind of category error to condemn the tools themselves.
One could say in return that what is cynicism inducing about moral grandstanding, what is genuinely problematic in the act itself rather than the uses it is put towards, concerns the fact that it involves people Acting For The Wrong Reasons (AFTWR). The Kantian sounding thought here would be that the good moral agent should just want to do right for the sakes of right, and in so far as they have other motives behind their purportedly moral utterances/acts they are AFTWR. Now personally I always recoil in horror from ethical theories wherein AFTWR features as a worry — I am aghast to learn that it is not enough for the moralist that they regulate my behaviour, how I interact with others; but now they must also discipline my mind, I may not even have the sanctuary of my own reasons! Maybe that’s just because I read too much Foucault and now I am ruined.
But even setting aside my post-structuralist quibbles, I think that this Kantian response takes us back to the above point. It is dialectically granting too much to grant that moral grandstanding is AFTWR. I take it that part of what is up for debate when we wonder about moral grandstanding just is whether or not moral actions which are intended to make us look good are permissible. With that open, why is wanting to look good for doing what is right a wrong reason to act? At most I can see that maybe if looking good was all I cared about then that is just obviously very unpleasant of me — but no reason is ever presented to suppose that moral grandstanding is unaccompanied by genuine moral concern. What is more, if Xunzi really is right, and people are not (without significant social moulding) disposed to care about the good, then moral grandstanding actually seems like a nice second best solution: producing in people a derivative concern for the good, as a useful means of socially looking good.
This dialectical point brings me to what I take to be a future-work suggestion for the authors, or others interested in the topic. I actually think this is a paper that would have benefited from being less secular. The authors couch their arguments in a kind of neutral secular (even sometimes pagan — i.e. Aristotelean) terminology. But underlying some of their concerns, I would claim, seems to be an especially Christian idea that they do not give adequate discussion or defence of. Matthew 6:2-4 has Christ say “So when you give to the needy, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be praised by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” I think it is the felt moral pull of this ideal that sways people against moral grandstanding. Now, one way of reading the passage from Matthew is to see it as a call to do good things things for the right reasons. In which case this is no advance. But perhaps Christ’s claim here could be defended on other grounds. And if one could find some way of independently justifying the Christian virtue of secretive goodworks then one could derive some of their arguments against moral grandstanding. But without a defence of this or something like it, I think the question is being begged — I do not yet grant that it is wrong to want people to think well of you for being moral, and so I do not yet grant that acts of moral grandstanding (acts which realise this intent) are wrong.
That is how I would go, if I were to work on this further. But before signing off I should like to sound a note of scepticism. For some time now I have harboured a suspicion about the outsized role of moralising in public life. I suspect that moralising against moral grandstanding is itself an example of moral overreach, moral condemnation where none is needed. The sympathy I have for Tosi and Warmke’s paper is this: I think they are right that there is a phenomenon of moral grandstanding, and that it is irritating when people do it. But, I don’t see why moral argument is needed beyond this. Moral grandstanding is irritating, annoying, makes social spaces just that little bit less bearable; it is like wearing garish clothing, or playing saxophone loudly, or playing U2 songs at all. Why must we wheel in the theoretical apparatus of virtues or a functional analysis of the purpose of moral discourse to condemn such things? Now, I’ve recently been reading enough Confucian philosophy to not feel comfortable neatly separating morality from social nicety, so I am open to persuasion on this point. But as it stands, despite the efforts of Tosi and Warmke, I am not convinced that there is a moral issue here at all.