The research about moral outrage that has been circulating – Maggie's, Neoneocon, with some discussion at Reason, and Scott Adams’s timely blogging about moral outrage and "dopamine puppets.". The paper itself is here. Spoiler alert: the more I thought about it, the less I liked it.
I tried to take an immediate step back on this, as I do with anything that tells me what I want to hear. Then I tried to look at it with a more critical eye. In the interim, Bethany reminded me that one of her rules is to be suspicious of any research in which the results are too good.
It is odd that an academic paper in a social science would be targeting things that liberals get outraged about more than conservatives: climate change and labor exploitation. Bowdoin, at least, is a liberal school, and we keep hearing that psychology departments have almost no conservatives in them. So the stereotype of this sort of research would be that it would be finding evidence to throw conservatives under the bus, but this one calls into question the motivations of people who are outraged about liberal causes, rather the reverse of Jonathan Haidt’s initial research (now significantly improved). Perhaps it’s the packaging, but it sure looks like Social Justice Warriors are being called out more than others are.
It may not be meaningful, as the causes are things that are generally shared, not exclusive to liberals. Most people believe there is at least something to worry about with climate change, and plenty of conservatives are anti-globalists for the precise reason that corporations getting away with exploitation abroad is one reason why jobs are lost in America, where we have standards. The subjects were not divided by political sympathies in any way, and nothing about this was measured. Also, having a non-American outgroup to blame might be universal enough that it overwhelms internal political categories.
Still, it would be interesting if some causes that outraged conservatives had been included, or could be included in the future. Non-liberals of many types also get morally outraged - me, for example. Are feelings of personal guilt, and related avenues of being able to express disapproval also part of the equation for libertarians, paleocons, anarchists, and populists? My initial check of my internal states suggests that my “outrage” is usually directed at people using bad logic for self-serving reasons. (We’re getting into a potential infinite loop here, as that is what the research is about.) I experience that more as frustration and irritation – though perhaps that is only how I clean it up for myself. Is that moral outrage? Sometimes it is. What personal guilt would be driving that – assuming the research is true, and applies to that topic?
Which brings me to my next caution. The research describes temporary states of primed guilt and mild outrage. It doesn’t address chronic feelings of guilt or sustained outrage. It would make sense that some similar mechanism applies in the chronic as it does in the acute – but maybe not. If Scott Adams’s reference to dopamine and feeling good are the key, that might only be reliable in the short term, and different mechanisms might have to take over for those of us who are perpetually guilt-ridden and/or outraged.
Next, I am suspicious of priming as a technique. I don’t reject it altogether, as sometimes casts of mind can be influenced and the results seem to hold up. But research that relies on some types of priming have not replicated. Those may just be the ones I recall reading about, and it may not be a suspect technique. Or more likely, it may be something that works in a general and mild way, but researchers have gone wild with the new toy and made claims for it that can’t be sustained.
But the largest difficulty is one that used to be a minor obsession of mine. Motivation is complicated. On our opponents we pretend that if we have discovered a bad motive of theirs, it is the only motive that matters. We dislike this when someone applies it to us, however. Yet everyone's motives for everything they do are mixed. So even if this research shows that Social Justice Warriors are influenced toward moral outrage because it helps them to feel good about some guilt of their own, that doesn't show that it is their only motivation, or even the better portion. They might have some very decent motives to go along with it. That is what is most common in humans, after all.
This relates to the claim sometimes advanced that altruism does not exist anyway, because even generous acts "feel good." This accusation becomes ridiculous when the generous act is throwing oneself at a wild animal so that others can get away, which doesn't "feel good" for very long. But I don't think we even have to go that far. It is likely true that no act of fallen humanity is 100% selfless. Yet we are aware in both ourselves and in others when actions have been more selfish. We may not know anyone who is purely altruistic, but we know ourselves, and we know when we have been worse and have not lived up to our best selves. Therefore, some altruism is rising and falling in us throughout the day and throughout our lifetimes. We can also observe what looks much the same in others, though we must be more tentative about judgments here.