Raging Donald Trump

What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?

We bump into quite a bit of moral outrage on the subject of obesity. In fact, Paul Campos and others contend that the language of the “obesity epidemic” is nothing more than an expression of moral panic serving to marginalize people who live at the high end of the normal diversity in body size. Elsewhere, as the U.S. presidential election season cranks up, outrage is everywhere we look. So it’s worth thinking for a moment about the purpose that moral outrage serves.

Writing in both Nature and the New York Times, Jillian Jordan and colleagues propose that moral outrage is not a purely selfless act that promotes cooperation and social order. To the contrary, they say that expressing outrage serves the person who expresses it. They say it makes that person seem trustworthy and confers an evolutionary benefit. In simple terms, people who express outrage get an edge with potential mates and pass on that trait. Jordan et al explain:

Moral outrage is a part of human nature. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the punishment it triggers is sometimes best explained not as a fair and proportionate reaction, but as a result of a system that has evolved to boost our individual reputations — without much care for what it means for others.

In interviews with voters, you can hear how outrage is working for Donald Trump. His supporters are surprising pundits with unshakable trust in Trump because “he tells it like it is.” Listen to one of his speeches and you cannot miss the moral outrage he is voicing. In a very different context, we see moral outrage fueling destructive bias against people with obesity.

Moral outrage is indeed a part of human nature. It can fuel action against injustice. It can drive political change. But it can also lead to harms such as we see in the case of weight bias.

Click here to read more in the New York Times and here to read more in Nature.

Donald Trump, photograph © Gage Skidmore / flickr

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March 2, 2016

One Response to “What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?”

  1. March 02, 2016 at 1:04 pm, Joan Ifland said:

    It should be called an epidemic of food addiction fueled by the food and diet industries.