Moral(ly) Outrage(ous)

I’ve been wanting to cover this topic for a long time, however I’ve been rather apprehensive to do so because it may not be the most popular of opinions. Nonetheless, I think it is time to seek some clarity and perspective on the topic by opening up to the counter arguments (or agreements) of anyone reading this.

For a while, I’ve questioned the validity of moral outrage. Moral outrage is a type of anger triggered by the violation of a moral principle by a person/entity that has no direct relationship to the observer (1). This differs from just plain old anger in the following ways. If someone mistreats me or my family, I might get angry, but if someone mistreats a complete stranger, I might be morally outraged. In this way, moral outrage is thought to be a method of maintaining or enforcing certain moral holdings or societal norms.

Although one would assume that moral outrage is rooted in altruism, a recent study by Rothschild and Keefer suggests otherwise. They found that expressing moral outrage can sometimes be a means to solidify one’s own morality and separate oneself from the “perceived wrongdoers,” thus deeming it as a self-serving behavior (2).

Now perhaps you are thinking back on all the times you made a Facebook post condemning some social injustice or denounced any political figure for infringing on the rights of another (been there, done that… many, many times!). Perhaps you consciously did this because you genuinely believed in the cause. Indeed, we AIF Clinton Fellows are literally a bunch of activists! Of course we will speak up against the injustices of the world! I am not here to say that this is wrong. Nonetheless, I do believe that expressing moral outrage is not solely based on selflessness and altruism. In a paper published in Nature, Rand et al. suggest that expressing moral outrage can “serve as a form of personal advertisement,” or in other words, by condemning the “bad,” one improves their reputation as “good” and “trustworthy” (3).

This doesn’t mean that all displays of moral outrage are not consciously genuine. Rothschild mentions that it just means that moral outrage is not solely rooted in altruism and in certain cases, it can be used to uphold the perception of our own moral goodness (4).


A scene from the “Hymn for the Weekend” video… what do you think?

Take this, for example. When Coldplay’s song “Hymn for the Weekend” came out, there was a certain demographic that expressed moral outrage for Coldplay and Beyoncé’s apparent cultural appropriation of Indian culture. I understand this is a very distinct case of moral outrage, but it serves as just one example. And that demographic was not necessarily Indian. This made me feel kind of funny. As an Indian and an American, I loved the video! It portrayed a handful of aspects of the culture so beautifully.  Why was everyone hating it? In addition, every friend and family member I asked in India loved the video, too. Yet there was a group of people waging a war against that video. Oddly enough, despite my own “brownness,” I was excluded from the dialogue. It was between the cultural appropriator and the people who thought they were standing up for the culturally appropriated (aka, the “moral outragers”).

So why do we do this? Perhaps the underlying motivation for this expression of outrage is not to preserve culture nor protect a group, but rather a way of saying “I’m watching… don’t do something stupid.” Or, as Rothschild states, it could serve a defensive function, in buffering oneself from being questioned on their own morality.

Unfortunately, as I’ve observed, such a display of moral outrage sometimes produces an unnecessary fear among others of accidentally being a perpetrator of moral outrage. For example, many visitors to India wonder if it is “appropriate” for them to wear Indian clothes, bangles, mehndi, etc. While I agree that in certain contexts, cultural appropriation is wrong and insensitive, I don’t think it is productive to go so far as to irrationally divide people and cultures into even smaller boxes by saying who can say, do, eat, smell, or wear what. Rule of thumb; don’t assume, just ask. In other words, if we respect people and appreciate their culture, there shouldn’t be such an intense apprehension of accidentally offending them. In the end, this just distracts from real incidents of prejudice.

Furthermore, there are different types of “moral outragers” There are some who express their outrage on behalf of a group of people and work towards the betterment of those communities. There are also those who express their outrage and do nothing more. Now I’m not saying that every person should take action on every issue that they have an opinion on. However, perhaps this is the type of case which fits the findings of Rothschild’s study: why vocalize outrage over injustice that doesn’t affect you? It makes you look good!

As Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami puts it, moral outrage can be thought of as the “Mad-as-Hell” theory of moral progress, or in other words, “I’m mad as hell and won’t put up with this anymore!” sort of rational when driving progress in the face of injustice. I always thought I was fueled by some sort of anger, but I think that effect wears off after a while. In a way, this is analogous to the idea of positive versus negative reinforcement for behavior change (i.e., rewarding a desired behavior or removing an undesired stimulus after a desired behavior is exhibited, respectively). It is accepted that negative reinforcement is good for initiating behavioral change, while positive reinforcement is what helps maintain that change. Additionally, negative reinforcement is not effective in the long run.

Development work raises related questions; do we work towards the betterment of others because it really makes us mad? Or are we in it to serve ourselves? How much of a role does moral outrage play? As activists, how does our speaking up against infringements on human rights differ from moral outrage?

These questions remind me of a late night discussion I had with a few friends in college. You know… one of those 3 AM “deep” conversations in the freshmen dorms. We discussed whether or not altruism can exist completely devoid of any personal gain/gratitude. To set the stage: we were a bunch of biology students, so our perspective was heavily colored by our academic background. Though the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of altruism is the “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others,” we biology nerds had other ideas.



We decided that intrinsic to altruism there must be some sort of personal gain, no matter how big or small. Whether that gain be simply a release of dopamine to make for a “good feeling” from doing good unto others, or something else, there must be a biological basis for such behaviors to exist. And this in itself is a positive reinforcement method; you are chemically rewarded for being altruistic. In terms of moral outrage, as studies have shown, you are rewarded by increasing your trustworthiness or reputation by expressing outrage against wrongdoing. The key here is that these behaviors are all part of our evolutionary history, so they must have some benefit to the individual because evolution is a selfish process.

So my question lies here: is moral outrage a driver of social progress? While on the surface moral outrage seems to be an exhausting behavior, can it be a long-term driver for progress? Because the other argument is that there is a self-serving basis to expressing moral outrage, and therefore could be thought of as a positive reinforcement behavior.

This is just the beginning of my thoughts on these topics and I’d love for the rest to be a conversation among individuals with differing perspectives. So if you have any ideas or opinions whatsoever, please share! I am keen on hearing from you! 🙂


  1. McCullough, Michael. “The Myth of Moral Outrage.” Center for Humans & Nature. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2017.
  2. Rothschild, Zachary K., and Lucas A. Keefer. “A Cleansing Fire: Moral Outrage Alleviates Guilt and Buffers Threats to One’s Moral Identity.” Motivation and Emotion 41.2 (Apr. 2017): 209-229.
  3. Jordan, Jillian, David Rand, Moshe Hoffman, and Paul Bloom. “Opinion: What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?” The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 04 May 2017.
  4. Dolan, Eric W. “Study: Guilt Predicts Expressions of Moral Outrage.” PsyPost, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.
1 Comment
  1. Olivia Waring
    Olivia Waring

    Avan, this is SUCH a well-written, impeccably researched, and thought-provoking piece… Thank you for putting into words what I have always struggled to articulate! Can’t wait to talk more about this with you in person. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *