How is the Internet Changing Moral Outrage?

We don’t need a social scientist to tell us that there’s something different about moral outrage when it’s expressed online. We can see for ourselves that it’s more prevalent, more intense, and often more destructive.

Just how and why the internet and digital media are transforming the way we express outrage is a more interesting question. And in her article “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age,” published last fall in Nature Human Behavior, psychologist Molly Crockett gives some preliminary answers.

Psychological Framework for Expression of Moral Outrage

Crockett begins by providing a basic psychological framework for understanding the expression of moral outrage. First, moral norm violations are the stimuli that evoke moral outrage – an emotional reaction. Second, there are responses to the outrage-provoking stimuli: the subjective experience of moral outrage, along with other factors, motivates one to express the moral outrage through gossip, shaming, or punishment. Finally, there are the outcomes of moral outrage expression – the costs and benefits for both the individual and for society.

Graphic Showing Crockett's Framework for Moral Outrage
Adapted from Figure 1 in Crockett’s article

Using this framework and existing research on moral outrage, Crockett takes a look at how digital media platforms may be promoting the expression of moral outrage and modifying both the subjective experience of it and the personal and social outcomes associated with it.

Stimuli That Trigger Moral Outrage

Digital media changes both the prevalence and nature of the stimuli that trigger moral outrage, Crockett argues. People experience moral outrage when they witness norms being violated, but encountering norm violations in person is rare. One study found that less than 5% of peoples’ daily experiences involve directly witnessing or experiencing immoral behavior. On the internet, however, people learn about numerous immoral acts, much more, in fact, than they do in person or from traditional media.

In the pre-internet age, Crockett says, the function of gossip was to spread news within one’s local social network to communicate who could be trusted. The reason for sharing information about immoral acts was, therefore, to reinforce trust and cooperation within the community. But digital platforms have changed the incentives for sharing such information. “Because they compete for our attention to generate advertising revenue,” Crockett argues, “their algorithms promote content that is most likely to be shared, regardless of whether it benefits those who share it – or is even true.”

Crockett also points to research on virality showing that people are more likely to share morally laden content that provokes outrage. Because such content generates more revenue via viral sharing, she argues, “natural selection-like forces may favour ‘supernormal’ stimuli that trigger much stronger outrage responses than do transgressions we typically encounter in everyday life.”

Responses to Outrage-Provoking Stimuli

Crockett argues that digital media may be changing the way we experience moral outrage. One possibility is that the constant exposure to outrageous content causes “outrage fatigue”: it could be diminishing the overall intensity of the outrage experience, or causing people to be more selective in their outrage to reduce emotional and attentional demands. On the other hand, she says, research has shown that expressing anger leads to more anger, which could mean the ease with which people express outrage online could lead to more subsequent outrage. More research is needed in this area, she says.

Besides changing our experiences of outrage, Crockett says online platforms make expressing outrage online more convenient and less risky. Expressing moral outrage offline requires effort, if only because the outraged person must be within the physical proximity of his target. “Since the tools for easily and quickly expressing outrage online are literally at our fingertips,” Crocket argues, “a person’s threshold for expressing outrage is probably lower online than offline.”

Crockett also suggests that the design of most digital media platforms encourages the habitual expression of outrage. Offline, she says, the stimuli that provoke outrage and the way people respond depend on the context. Social media platforms, on the other hand, streamline outrage-provoking stimuli and the available responses into a “stimulus-response-outcomes” architecture that is consistent across situations: “Clickbait headlines are presented alongside highly distinctive visual icons that allow people to express outrage at the tap of the finger.”

Furthermore, Crockett says, positive feedback for outrage in the form of “likes” and “shares” is delivered at unpredictable intervals, a good reinforcement schedule for promoting habit formation. And so, “just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hunger, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outrage.”

Personal and Social Outcomes of Expressing Outrage

Expressing moral outrage offline carries a risk of retaliation. But online platforms limit this risk, Crockett says, because people tend to affiliate mostly with audiences with whom they agree and where the chance of backlash is relatively low. Moreover, online platforms allow people to hide in online crowds. And as Crockett puts it, “Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.”

Empathic distress is another cost of outrage expression. Punishing and shaming other human beings means inflicting harm on them, and this is unpleasant for most people. Online platforms reduce this unpleasantness, Crockett argues, because it hides the suffering of real people behind their two-dimensional online icons. “It’s a lot easier to shame an avatar than someone whose face you can see,” she says.

Online platforms alter not only the personal costs of outrage expression but the rewards as well. When people express moral outrage, they signal their moral quality to others and, thus, reap rewards to their reputation. And given that people are more likely to punish when others are watching, these reputational rewards are at least part of the motivation for expressing outrage. Online platforms amplify the reputational benefits. “While offline punishment signals your virtue only to whoever might be watching,” Crocketts says, “doing so online instantly advertises your character to your entire social network and beyond.”

Expressing moral outrage benefits society by negatively sanctioning immoral behavior and signaling to others that such behavior is unacceptable. Crockett argues, however, that online platforms may limit these and other social benefits in four ways. First, because online networks are ideologically segregated, the targets of outrage, and like-minded others, are unlikely to receive messages that could induce them to change their behavior. Second, because digital media has lowered the threshold for outrage expression, it may reduce the utility of outrage in distinguishing the “truly heinous from the merely disagreeable.” Third, expressing outrage online might make people less likely to meaningfully engage in social causes.

Finally, online outrage expression likely contributes to the deepening social divides we have been witnessing. Based on research suggesting that a desire to punish others makes them seem less human, Crockett speculates that if digital platforms exacerbate moral outrage, in doing so they may increase polarization by further dehumanizing the targets of outrage. Noting the rapid acceleration of polarization in the United States, Crockett warns that if digital media accelerates it even further, “we ignore it at our peril.”

What Next?

At the dawn of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his personal challenge this year is to fix Facebook. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

It’s still unclear what Facebook will look like at the end of the year, but Zuckerberg’s first step is to fix the News Feed so that users will see more posts from friends and fewer, but higher quality, articles from media organizations. These changes may well be for the better, but if Zuckerberg truly wants to make sure that time spent on Facebook is well spent, he might heed Crockett’s call for more research on digital media and moral outrage.

As Crockett points out, much of the data necessary to do such research isn’t publicly available. “These data can and should be used to understand how new technologies might transform ancient social emotions from a force for collective good into a tool for collective self-destruction,” she says.

If Zuckerberg answers the call, maybe other platforms will follow, and maybe the internet will be a more enjoyable place.

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.

The Ties that Bind: The US and its Preferred Tyrant

Many groups in America have experienced an “Othering” while they have engaged in any sort of relationship within the U.S. Groups specifically placed outside of America’s embrace include almost all minorities and the poor. I will not go full anti-Trump administration and pretend it had not been occurring under ever administration since America’s birth. It feels that with even with the state of Puerto Rico will not go down as a new era in American policy. So many are still left without power and the death toll has creeped up close to 1,000 people.

I am here to discuss the U.S’s ongoing failures in Yemen and the bizarro state of America’s Middle East policies. Needless to say the many countries have dipped into the murky waters of the Middle East and left quite a mess. No administration has done “great.” The 2nd Bush administration held a lot of regard towards  the Saudi Arabian rulers despite the general belief that they fund terrorism throughout the Middle East. Their powerful influence in OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) has given them far too much leeway. As a consequence we arrive to modernity, wherein Saudi Arabia is going through a bit of a time itself. They have had the pleasure of avoiding the Trump administration’s travel ban and enjoyed a historically good relationship with the U.S. due to their oil producing status. Tensions have been exceedingly high between Saudi Arabia and Iran for decades and many have suffered.

Sadly, it is now the people of Yemen who suffer the most. Yemen is a smaller country that has more in common with Iran. The Saudi military decided to push for the return to the Sunni leadership and has been bombing in support of the Sunni rebels. And with Yemeni rebels’ minor military action resulting in more Saudi actions will lead to the death of an untold number – likely in the 100’s of thousands if not millions. Currently, the Saudis are blocking any incoming goods/services/people from entering Yemen……with U.S. support. The country has become an island surrounded by waters of people trying to help. None can breach it. Cholera is killing indiscriminately and starvation is claiming young and old lives daily.

Where does the U.S. sit in the scheme of this? We have emboldened Saudi Arabia to the point that they are convinced that this is the best course of action. Saudi Arabia’s enemy, Iran, has been ostracized for too long. The new administration has fluctuated between great disdain and promising to renege on the certification treaty between international powers and Iran. The new administration has ignored the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing. The new administration has even began to support the new young leader in Saudi Arabia who is consolidating more and more power daily.

Fear not. There is a Trump relationship so deeply embedded with a recent arms deal and sending of diplomatic wunderkind Jared Kushner to visit. One thing is for certain: Yemen needs leadership from a larger and better country than the once, at least mildly, helpful America. We prefer to embrace those with the oil than those with disease.

The Ought is Starting a Reading and Discussion Group

The goal of the group is to foster serious discussion of ideas with ethical elements (i.e., the types of ideas featured on the blog) with civility and open-mindedness.

The group is in pilot mode, so it may evolve, but here are some entry points for participation:

Reading Group

Every week or so (or whatever timeframe seems appropriate after we get up and running), we’ll post a link to a reading and try to get a discussion started. The reading could be an article from an academic journal, an essay from a magazine or news site (e.g., The Atlantic, Aeon, The New York Review of Books, The Stone), a blog post, or anything else that’s worth discussing. For now, we’ll pick the readings, but in the future, we may institute some kind of nomination and/or voting process.

General Discussion

This area is for discussing things that may or may not be related to a particular reading. It’s not a free-for-all. Discussion topics should be serious and related to ideas with ethical elements.

The Ought Blog Posts

We welcome discussion of blog posts from The Ought. Feel free to critique, suggest improvements, ask questions, seek clarification, or simply discuss the contents of any post appearing on the blog.

If there is enough interest down the road, we may start a book discussion group. We may also add other features, and we’ll probably solicit ideas and suggestions from you.

You must register before posting on the forum, but it’s free. Go here to sign up.

Don’t let us embarrass ourselves. We need participants for the group to be successful. Tell your friends.

Thomas Nagel on Moral Luck

The philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that for people to find a moral judgment fitting, whatever it is for which the person is judged must be under his control. If it turns out that he didn’t have control over the action, then we ordinarily think that morally judging him is inappropriate. “So a clear absence of control,” he says, “produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.”

This seems pretty uncontroversial, doesn’t it? You can’t be judged for what is not your fault.

The problem, according to Nagel, is that the degree to which we lack control is greater than we ordinarily recognize. It’s in this broad range of influences, over which we have no control, that Nagel identifies what he calls moral luck:

Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.

If we apply consistently the idea that moral judgment is appropriate only for things people control, Nagel argues, it leaves few moral judgments intact. “Ultimately,” he says, “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.”

Four Different Types of Moral Luck

Nagel distiguishes between four different types moral luck. They’re all influences that, because they’re beyond people’s control, should be morally irrelevant.

Luck in How Things Turn Out

These are cases in which moral judgments are affected by an action’s results when those results were beyond the person’s control. Nagel uses as an example a truck driver who accidentally runs over a child. If the driver is without fault, he will regret his role in the child’s death, but he won’t morally blame himself. But if he is the slightest bit negligent – by, for example, failing to have his brakes checked – and his negligence is a factor in the child’s death, then he will morally reproach himself for the death.

This is a case of moral luck because the driver would have to blame himself only slightly if there weren’t a situation in which he had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a child. The driver’s degree of negligence is the same in both cases, but the moral assessment differs based on factors outside of the driver’s control – i.e., whether a child runs out in front of him.

Another example of luck in how things turn out is attempted murder. The intentions and motives behind an attempted murder can be exactly the same as those behind a successful one, but the penalty is, nonetheless, less severe. And the degree of culpability can depend on things outside of the committed murderer’s control, such as whether the victim was wearing a bullet-proof vest or whether a bird flew in the bullet’s path.

From the commonsense perspective that moral responsibility depends upon control, Nagel says, this seems absurd. “How is it possible to be more or less culpable depending on whether a child gets into the path of one’s car, or a bird into the path of one’s bullet?”

Constitutive Luck

One’s character traits are often the object of moral assessment. We blame people for being greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, or ungenerous, and we praise them for having the opposite traits. To some extent, Nagel allows, such character traits may be the product of earlier choices. And to some extent, the person may be able to modify his character traits.

But character traits are largely a product of genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, both of which are beyond people’s control. “Yet,” Nagel says, “people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond the control of the will: they are assessed for what they are like.”

Luck in One’s Circumstances

How people are morally assessed often depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves, even though those circumstances are largely beyond their control. “It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion,” Nagel says, “but if the situation never arises, he will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”

Nagel also gives a more provocative example. In Nazi Germany, he says, ordinary citizens had the opportunity to either be heroes and oppose the regime or to behave badly and support it (and even participate in its atrocities). Many of the citizens failed this moral test. But the test, Nagel argues, was one “to which the citizens of other countries were not subjected, with the result that even if they, or some of them, would have behaved as badly as the Germans in like circumstances, they simply did not and therefore are not similarly culpable.”

Those people who would have behaved as badly as the Germans who supported the Nazi regime but didn’t find themselves in such circumstances were morally lucky. What they did or didn’t do was due circumstances beyond their control.

Luck in How One is Determined by Antecedent Circumstances

This is essentially the problem of free will and moral responsibility. The extent to which the laws of nature and other circumstances that precedes one’s actions and choices (i.e., antecedent circumstances) seems to shrink the areas in which people are responsible for their actions. Nagel doesn’t expound upon this problem, but he does point out its connection to the other kinds of moral luck:

If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament no subject to one’s will, or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices, then how can one be responsible even for the stripped down acts of the will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?

Nagel’s Solution

Nagel doesn’t think there is a solution to the problem moral luck poses for moral responsibility and moral judgment. The problem arises because the influence of things not under our control causes our responsible selves to vanish, making those acts that are ordinarily the objects of moral judgment mere events. “Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self,” Nagel says, “and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised.”

The Three Levels of Ethics

It’s hard to come up with a definition of ethics that is both precise and satisfactory to everyone. But it helps to think about the levels at which ethical discussion and analysis take place.

Most concrete ethical issues involve questions about what we ought to do in a given situation. Underlying these questions are more abstract ones about right and wrong and good and bad more generally. And some discourse in moral philosophy is even more abstract.

Philosophers divide ethics into into three different levels, which range from the very abstract to the concrete: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Understanding these levels is a good step toward grasping the breadth of subject.

Metaethics

Metaethics is the most abstract and philosophical level of ethics. Where normative and applied ethics seek to determine what is moral, metaethics concerns itself with the nature of morality itself. It deals with the following types of questions:

  • What does it mean when someone says something is “good” or “right”?
  • What is moral value, and where does it come from?
  • Is morality objective and universal, or is it relative to specific individuals or cultures?
  • Do moral facts exists?

These and other metaethical questions are important, but if you’re trying to figure out if a particular action is right or wrong, you might never get there pondering them. On the other hand, questions like Why be ethical? or Why do the right thing? are metaethical questions that are important for anyone interested in ethics. And they’re not so easy to answer.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with the appropriate standards for right and wrong behavior. Normative ethical theories establish prescriptions – whether by foundational principles or good character traits – for how one ought to act or live. The following are prominent normative ethical approaches:

  • Virtue Ethics focuses on a person’s moral character. Virtue ethicists say we ought to develop virtuous characteristics – such as generosity, courage, and compassion – and exhibit virtuous behavior. This is different from other normative theories that propose more precise principles and rules for conduct.
  • Deontological theories emphasize one’s moral duties and obligations. They focus on the act itself, as either intrinsically good or bad, regardless of its consequences.
  • Consequentialist theories determine whether something is right or wrong by looking at its consequences. The ethical thing to do is that which has the best  consequences (i.e., results in the most benefit, happiness, good, etc.) among the alternatives.

Applied Ethics

Applied ethics consists of the analysis of specific moral issues that arise in public or private life. Whereas normative ethics attempts to develop general standards for morality, applied ethics is concerned with specific moral controversies. Abortion, stem cell research, environmental concerns, and the appropriate treatment of animals are all applied ethics issues.

Applied ethics can use normative ethical theories, principles or rules derived from such theories, or analogical reasoning (which analyzes moral issues by drawing analogies between alike cases). Context-specific norms or expectations, such as those characterizing a particular profession (e.g., medicine or journalism), arrangement (e.g., an agreement between two parties), or relationship (e.g., the parent-child relationship) are also relevant to applied ethical analysis.

Bioethics, business ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, and media ethics are all applied ethics fields.

The different levels of ethics can overlap and inform one another. Normative theories, for instance, are based on metaethical assumptions (or even explicit metaethical propositions), such as the existence or non-existence of objective and universal notions of right and wrong. And, as noted above, applied ethics can draw on normative theories to resolve moral disputes. Metaethical perspectives can also drip into applied ethical analysis. A moral relativist, for example, may contend that a practice deemed egregious by his own culture’s standards is truly morally permissible, or even obligatory, in the culture in which it occurs.

Despite the overlap between the three levels, distinguishing between them is useful for clarifying one’s own views and analyzing those of others.