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AIG: Moral Outrage May Be Bad for Your Health March 17, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.
Tags: , , ,

The exploding populist anger regarding bonuses paid to AIG executives is entirely justified. The very people who caused a lot of this mess are receiving tax-payer financed bonuses rewarding their incompetence.

But moral outrage is a cheap emotion. It is easy to generate, costs the outraged person nothing, and makes her feel better, relieving the frustration of pent up feelings by “letting of steam”. It also permits the outraged person the illusion that they have done something even though the emotion requires no action.

Most importantly, moral outrage is cognitively impoverished. One can feel and express moral outrage without ever considering the consequences of doing something to rectify the injustice.Thus, it is a dangerous emotion.

Via Mark Blumenthal at Politico:

In the survey released just today by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans say they are “angry” about the government “bailing out banks and financial institutions that made poor financial decisions” (39% say they are bothered but not angry, only 12% are not bothered). Not surprisingly, this anger translates into considerable skepticism about bailouts of banks and financial institutions:

62% say the federal government has spent too much on “large banks and other financial institutions in danger of failing,” 8% say it is spending too little and 21% say the amount is about right (Newsweek [pdf]).

59% oppose “giving aid to U.S. banks and financial companies in danger of failing,” while 39% favor it (USA Today/Gallup).

50% disapprove of “the federal government providing money to banks and other financial institutions to try to help fix the country’s economic problems,” 39% approve (CBS/New York Times [pdf]).

The attitudes reflected in this poll (which was taken before the latest AIG flap) represent perilous times. As Ed Kilgore writes:

The growing frenzy over AIG’s insistence on providing $165 million in employee bonuses…reflects an entirely legitimate belief that this scandal will serve as a popular tipping point between widespread unhappiness and marching-in-the-streets popular outrage over government bailouts of the financial sector.

But for many reasons, we may have to live with the outrage and get over it. AIG was writing insurance for much of the securities trading business—trillions of dollars worth of securities all backed by this very weak link. If it can no longer function (even as a ward of the state), the already seriously weakened financial system may head over a cliff.

The moral consequences of this happening are frightening and the devastation would be felt by millions of ordinary, innocent people around the globe. Ironically, it may be that the only people who understand these transactions well enough to unpack and reassess them are these whiz-bang fraudsters who are getting the bonuses. (Here is that story via Kevin Drum)

As odious as the bailouts are, there may be no other alternative if we want to avoid catastrophe, a point that seems lost on many of the people participating in the above poll.

Far be it for me to defend utilitarianism in toto (or condemn a little moral outrage)—but consequences do matter. And moral outrage ignores them.

Moral outrage tastes good, but it contains very little nutrition and in large portions can be really bad for your health.



1. Paul Moloney - March 18, 2009

Well said.

2. Nina Rosenstand - March 19, 2009

We’ve had somewhat of a difference of opinion about the value/non-value of moral outrage before on this blog, and I believe we’re talking about two different phenomena. This is how I read your definition (not that it doesn’t speak for itself): moral outrage is a dangerous group mentality, a refuge for those who prefer others to think for them, a phony mantle of righteousness without any of the risks that a true commitment entails. And if so, I’d agree—this is the downside of the moralizing stance (it used to be “bourgeois,” but now I think it can be found all over the political spectrum), letting feelings rule one’s judgment, and seeking safety in shrill numbers. But when I’ve deplored the lack of moral outrage in previous posts, I’ve focused on the lack of passion, the lukewarm-to-cold “could care less” (hate that non-grammar expression), the “it’s too far away for me to care,” or “it’s happening to others, not to me” attitude. (Okay, so I’ve grown up with Kierkegaard.) What I’ve been advocating is the commitment, the engagement in issues that, either because of real or potential dire consequences, or on principle, have a bearing on our fellow human (or non-human) beings, present and future. Sometimes all one can do is voice an opinion. And talk does matter, and it has consequences. Which means that some expressions of outrage in the present situation are absolutely ethically justified (as you pointed out). In addition, they are coming from a perspective of care, for the nation as well as for individuals (and coming from the left and the right). Having passion doesn’t mean one is always right, of course, because one comes from a certain emotional perspective, but at least one cares, and perhaps one cares enough to be willing to change one’s mind if necessary, taking rational arguments into account. To borrow from Aristotle: At the right time, for the right reason, in the right amount, etc. What makes it the right amount? I suppose it would be a matter of what the situation requires, also an Aristotelian concept. Adjustments are in order, at all times. So the Golden Mean? Maybe ethical outrage!

3. Paul Moloney - March 19, 2009

When Dwight spoke about moral outrage, I had in mind those that, when they experience such outrage, feel good about themselves and then do nothing.

After reading Nina’s comment, I would have to further qualify myself and think that there is a moral outrage based on intelligence and one based on mere emotion. Moral outrage based on intelligence, though, can affect us emotionally. Moral outrage based on emotion only does not seem to stimulate us intellectually.

4. Dwight Furrow - March 21, 2009


You are right. Moral outrage is justifiable but only when it is accompanied by practical reason, especially an assessment of consequences.


I agree that lack of moral outrage can be a moral failing as well. But whether outrage is itself an expression of care or not depends on how it is expressed. I’m skeptical that outrage by itself requires any ethical commitment (unlike the motive of care which does). It can often be used as an easily manufactured substitute for genuine care. This controversy over the bonuses, while understandable, is a bit of a distraction from the larger issues regarding the proper approach to revamping and revitalizing credit markets.

5. Moral Outrage Redux « Philosophy On The Mesa - March 23, 2009

[…] 23, 2009 Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow’s Posts, Ethics. trackback I wrote last week that moral outrage is a cheap emotion—easy to generate but demanding very little from […]

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