Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke on Moral Grandstanding

It’s not hard to make the case that the quality of our public moral discourse is low. Determining why it’s low, and then fixing it, is where the work is to be done. In their 2016 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke say that moral grandstanding is at least partially to blame.

Moral grandstanding is what others have come to call virtue signaling, but Tosi and Warmke (who don’t like that phrase) offer a more thorough examination of the phenomenon – a precise definition, examples of how it manifests, and an analysis of its ethical dimensions.

It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’ll summarize the main points below.

Tosi and Warmke’s Definition of Moral Grandstanding

They say that paradigmatic examples have two central features. The first is that the grandstander wants others to think of her as morally respectable (i.e., she wants others to make a positive moral assessment of her or her group). They call this the recognition desire. The second feature of moral grandstanding is the grandstanding expression: when a person grandstands, he contributes a grandstanding expression (e.g., a Tweet, a Facebook post, a speech, etc.) in order to satisfy the recognition desire.

So, the desire to be perceived as morally respectable is what motivates the moral grandstander. Of course, people may have multiple motivations for contributing to public moral discourse, but the moral grandstander’s primary motivation is to be seen as morally respectable. Tosi and Warmke therefore propose a threshold: for something to count as grandstanding, the “the desire must be strong enough that if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.”

The Manifestations of Moral Grandstanding

Piling On is when someone reiterates a stance already taken by others simply to “get in on the action” and to signal his inclusion in the group that he perceives to be on the right side. An explanation of this, according to Tosi and Warmke, comes from the social psychological phenomenon known as social comparison: “Members of the group, not wanting to be seen as cowardly or cautious in relation to other members of the group, will then register their agreement so as not to be perceived by others less favorably than those who have already spoken up.”

Ramping Up is when people make stronger and stronger claims during a discussion. Tosi and Warmke offer the following exchange as an example:

Ann: We can all agree that the senator’s behavior was wrong and that she should be publicly censured.

Biff: Oh please—if we really cared about justice we should seek her removal from office. We simply cannot tolerate that sort of behavior and I will not stand for it.

Cal: As someone who has long fought for social justice, I’m sympathetic to these suggestions, but does anyone know the criminal law on this issue? I want to suggest that we should pursue criminal charges. We would all do well to remember that the world is watching.

The desire to be perceived as morally respectable, according to Tosi and Warmke, can lead to a “moral arms race.” Ramping up “can be used to signal that one is more attuned to matters of justice and that others simply do not understand or appreciate the nuance or gravity of the situation.”

Trumping Up is the insistence that a moral problem exists when one does not. The moral grandstander, with her desire to be seen as morally respectable, may try to display that she has a “keener moral sense than others.” This can result in her identifying moral problems in things that others rightfully have no issue with. “Whereas some alleged injustices fall below the moral radar of many,” Tosi and Warmke say, “they are not missed by the vigilant eye of the morally respectable.” So, in their attempt to gain or maintain moral respectability, the moral grandstander tries to bring attention to features of the world that others rightly find unproblematic.

Excessive Emotional Displays or Reports are used by the moral grandstander to publicly signal his moral insight or conviction. Citing empirical findings of a positive relationship between strength of moral convictions and strength of emotional reactions, Tosi and Warmke reason that excessive emotional displays or reports “could be used strategically to communicate to others one’s own heightened moral convictions, relative to others.” Grandstanders, in other words, may use excessive emotional displays or reports to signal that they are more attuned to moral issues and, thus, should be viewed as more morally insightful or sensitive.

Claims of Self-Evidence are used by the moral grandstander to signal her superior moral sensibilities. What is not so clear to others is obvious to the grandstander. “If you cannot see that this is how we should respond, then I refuse to engage you any further,” the grandstander may say (example by Tosi and Warmke). “Moreover,” Tosi and Warmke point out,” any suggestion of moral complexity or expression of doubt, uncertainty, or disagreement is often declaimed by the grandstander as revealing a deficiency in either sensitivity to moral concerns or commitment to morality itself.”

The Ethics of Moral Grandstanding

According to Tosi and Warmke, moral grandstanding is not just annoying but morally problematic. One major reason is that it results in the breakdown of productive moral discourse. And it does so in three ways.

First, it breeds an unhealthy cynicism about moral discourse. If moral grandstanding occurs because grandstanders want simply to be perceived as morally respectable, then once onlookers view this as a common motivation for moral claims, they’ll begin to think that moral discourse is merely about “showing that your heart is in the right place” rather than truly contributing to morally better outcomes.

The second reason grandstanding contributes to the breakdown of public moral discourse is that it contributes to “outrage exhaustion.” Because grandstanding often involves excessive displays of outrage, Tosi and Warmke think that people will have a harder time recognizing when outrage is appropriate and will find it harder and harder to muster outrage when it’s called for. Tosi and Warmke’s worry is that “because grandstanding can involve emotional displays that are disproportionate to their object, and because grandstanding often takes the form of ramping up, a public discourse overwhelmed by grandstanding will be subject to this cheapening effect. This can happen at the level of individual cases of grandstanding, but it is especially harmful to discourse when grandstanding is widely practiced.”

The third reason moral grandstanding harms public moral discourse is that it contributes to group polarization. This, Tosi and Warmke explain, has to do with the phenomenon of social comparison. As is the case in moral grandstanding, members of a group are motivated to outdo one another (i.e., they ramp up and trump up), so their group dynamic will compel them to advocate increasingly extreme and implausible views. This results in others perceiving morality as a “nasty business” and public moral discourse as consisting merely of extreme and implausible moral claims.

In addition to its effects on public moral discourse, Tosi and Warmke argue that moral grandstanding is problematic because the grandstander free rides on genuine moral discourse. He gains the benefits that are generated by non-grandstanding (i.e., genuine) participants, while also gaining the additional benefit of personal recognition. This, they say, is disrespectful to those the moral grandstander addresses when he grandstands.

Individual instances of moral grandstanding can also be disrespectful in a different way, Tosi and Warmke argue. Moral grandstanding, they say, can be kind of a “power grab.” When people grandstand, “they sometimes implicitly claim an exalted status for themselves as superior judges of the content of morality and its proper application.” They might use grandstanding as a way to obtain higher status within their own group, as a kind of “moral sage.” Alternatively, they might dismiss dissent as being beneath the attention of the morally respectable. Tosi and Warmke maintain that this is a problematic way of dealing with peers in public moral discourse:

…because in general we ought to regard one another as just that—peers. We should speak to each other as if we are on relatively equal footing, and act as if moral questions can only be decided by the quality of reasoning presented rather than the identity of the presenter himself. But grandstanders seem sometimes to deny this, and in so doing disrespect their peers.

The final reason that Tosi and Warmke offer for the problematic nature of moral grandstanding is that it is unvirtuous. Individual instances of grandstanding are generally self-promoting, and “so grandstanding can reveal a narcissistic or egoistic self-absorption.” Public moral discourse, they point out, involves talking about matters of serious concern, ones that potentially affect millions of people:

These are matters that generally call for other-directed concern, and yet grandstanders find a way to make discussion at least partly about themselves. In using public moral discourse to promote an image of themselves to others, grandstanders turn their contributions to moral discourse into a vanity project. Consider the incongruity between, say, the moral gravity of a world-historic injustice, on the one hand, and a group of acquaintances competing for the position of being most morally offended by it, on the other.

In contrast to the moral grandstander’s motivation for engaging in public moral discourse, the virtuous person’s motivation would not be largely egoistic. Tosi and Warmke suggest two possible motivations of the virtuous person:

First, the virtuous person might be motivated for other-directed reasons: she wants to help others think more carefully about the relevant issues, or she wants to give arguments and reasons in order to challenge others’ thinking in a way that promotes understanding. Second, the virtuous person might be motivated for principled reasons: she simply cares about having true moral beliefs and acting virtuously, and so wants others to believe what is true about morality and act for the right moral reasons. All we claim here is that the virtuous person’s motivation, unlike the grandstander’s, is not largely egoistic.

Because of its morally problematic nature – it’s bad for moral discourse, it’s unfair, and it’s unvirtuous – Tosi and Warmke take themselves “to have established a strong presumption against grandstanding.”

So, before you send that morally laden Tweet, think about your motivations. Do you genuinely want to contribute to moral discourse, or do you just want recognition?

The Case for Moral Doubt

This article was originally published in Quillette.

I don’t know if there is any truth in morality that is comparable to other truths. But I do know that if moral truth exists, establishing it at the most fundamental level is hard to do.

Especially in the context of passionate moral disagreement, it’s difficult to tell whose basic moral values are the right ones. It’s an even greater challenge verifying that you yourself are the more virtuous. When you find yourself in a moral stalemate, where appeals to rationality and empirical reality have been exhausted, you have nothing left to stand on but your deeply-ingrained values and a profound sense of your own righteousness.

You have a few options at this point. You can defiantly insist that you’re the one with the truth – that you’re right and the other person is stupid, morally perverse, or even evil. Or you can retreat to some form of nihilism or relativism because the apparent insolubility of the conflict must mean moral truth can’t exist. This wouldn’t be psychologically satisfying, though. If your moral conviction is strong enough to lead you into an impassioned conflict, you probably wouldn’t be so willing to send it off into the ether. Why would you be comfortable slipping from intense moral certainty to meta-level amorality?

You’d be better off acknowledging the impasse for what it is – a conflict over competing values that you’re not likely to settle. You can agree to disagree. No animosity. No judgment. You both have dug your heels in, but you’re no longer trying to drive each other back. You can’t convince him that you’re right, and he can’t convince you, but you can at least be cordial.

But I think there is an even better approach. You can loosen your heels’ grip in the dirt and allow yourself to be pushed back. Doubt yourself, at least a little. Take a lesson from the physicist Richard Feynman and embrace uncertainty:

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell – possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

If Feynman can be so open to doubt about empirical matters, then why is it so hard to doubt our moral beliefs? Or, to put it another way, why does uncertainty about how the world is come easier than uncertainty about how the world, from an objective stance, ought to be?

Sure, the nature of moral belief is such that its contents seem self-evident to the believer. But when you think about why you hold certain beliefs, and when you consider what it would take to prove them objectively correct, they don’t seem so obvious.

Morality is complex and moral truth is elusive, so our moral beliefs are, to use Feynman’s phrase, just the “approximate answers” to moral questions. We hold them with varying degrees of certainty. We’re ambivalent about some, pretty sure about others, and very confident about others. For none of them are we absolutely certain – or at least we shouldn’t be.

While I’m trying only to persuade you to be more skeptical about your own moral beliefs, you might be tempted by the more global forms of moral skepticism that deny the existence of moral truth or the possibility of moral knowledge. Fair enough, but what I’ve written so far isn’t enough to validate such a stance. The inability to reach moral agreement doesn’t imply that there is no moral truth. Scientists disagree about many things, but they don’t throw their hands up and infer that no one is correct, that there is no truth. Rather, they’re confident truth exists. And they leverage their localized skepticism – their doubt about their own beliefs and those of others – to get closer to it.

The moral sphere is different than the scientific sphere, and doubting one’s moral beliefs isn’t necessarily valuable because it eventually leads one closer to the truth – at least to the extent that truth is construed as being in accordance with facts. This type of truth is, in principle, more easily discoverable in science than it is in morality. But there is a more basic reason that grounds the importance of doubt in both the moral and scientific spheres: it fosters an openness to alternatives.

Embrace this notion. It doesn’t have to mean acknowledging that you don’t know and then moving on to something else. And it doesn’t mean abandoning your moral convictions outright or being paralyzed by self-doubt. It means abandoning your absolute certainty and treating your convictions as tentative. It means making your case but recognizing that you have no greater access to the ultimate moral truth than anyone else. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong and that your beliefs are the ones requiring modification. Allow yourself to feel the intuitive pull of the competing moral value.

There’s a view out there that clinging unwaveringly to one’s moral values is courageous and, therefore, virtuous. There’s some truth to this idea. Sticking up for what one believes in is usually worthy of respect. But moral rigidity – the refusal to budge at all – is where public moral discourse breaks down. It is the root of the fragmentation and polarization that defines contemporary public life.

Some people have been looking for ways to improve the ecosystem of moral discourse. In one study, Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg demonstrated that when you reframe arguments to appeal to political opponents’ own moral values, you’re more likely to persuade them than if you make arguments based on your own values. “Even if the arguments that you wind up making aren’t those that you would find most appealing,” they wrote in The New York Times, “you will have dignified the morality of your political rivals with your attention, which, if you think about it, is the least that we owe our fellow citizens.”

Affirming your opponent’s values is indeed worthy. But if there is a normative justification for utilizing Willer and Feinberg’s antidote to entrenched moral disagreement, it seems to be the presumption that you, the persuader, are the righteous one and just need a salesman’s touch to bring the confused over to your side. Attempting to persuade others is inherent to moral discourse, but there’s something cynical and arrogant about using their own moral values against them, especially when you don’t hold those values yourself. Focusing solely on how to be the most persuasive also ignores another objective of moral discourse – being persuaded.

And the first step to being persuaded is doubting yourself.