The Quiet Poison In American Politics

We're all guilty of "moral grandstanding." At least in Washington.
Jon Hicks via Getty Images

The 2016 elections gave thoughtful Americans plenty of reasons to despair about the state of our democracy. The looming Donald Trump presidency has forced us to confront ugly truths about racism, misogyny and economic inequality. But according to a new paper published in the prestigious academic journal “Philosophy & Public Affairs,” there is at least one more heretofore undetected poison floating in the cocktail that is our politics. If the philosophers behind the paper are right, this problem is amplifying every other malady afflicting American culture.

They call it “moral grandstanding.”

“Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” says Justin Tosi, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan’s philosophy department. “It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Listen to Tosi’s analysis in the latest episode of the HuffPost Politics podcast So, That Happened, embedded below:

We’ve all seen it in annoying tweets and chest-thumping Facebook posts ― items presented as casual observations or political arguments that carry a much different underlying meaning: I am good because I have said this important thing now, here, on the Internet! The social need to be perceived by our peers as being morally upright ― or to pile on, with tribal abandon, with our likes and faves ― has replaced our calling to pursue moral truth. Or to actually engage in morally useful activities.

The problem is extremely common, Tosi argues, something even the best-intentioned of us have succumbed to at some point or another, though some of us are more flagrant and frequent offenders than others. It isn’t restricted to social media. Brian Leiter’s popular philosophy blog cites the paper approvingly, noting that moral grandstanding is rampant even in Twitter-anemic academia, where otherwise intelligent people stake out entire careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments. “I will resist naming the professional philosophers who should read this, but you know who you are,” he writes.

Even more troubling to Tosi and his co-author, Bowling Green State University Assistant Professor of Philosophy Brandon Warmke, moral grandstanding is foreclosing meaningful debates about what the right thing to do might actually be. The nature of a just society is complicated, and the right answer to new issues can be difficult to decipher. Moral grandstanding encourages people to simply stake out successively extreme positions to impress their friends, instead of simply talking to each other. This eliminates nuance and forces people into bizarre partisan camps. People who share a great many moral intuitions become polarized as antagonists.

“It’s like a moral arms race,” Tosi told HuffPost. “It doesn’t really impress people if you’re good at compromising, if you’re good at listening to the other side. It impresses people if you can destroy other people.”

Tosi and Warmke aren’t explicitly talking about all of the political and social debates surrounding 2016, but only a fool would miss the implication. Bernie Bros and Hillary Bots savaging each other over whether the Trump phenomenon was about only race or only economic anxiety, as if the two couldn’t possibly interact. The acid disdain some Democrats directed toward Trump supporters in the general election, and the at times violent hatred Trump supporters hurled at Democrats. A lot of this looked more like perverse moral grandstanding than serious inquiry.

There’s an important difference between moral grandstanding and the simple statement of moral ideas and beliefs, and it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the two (although, yeah, sometimes it is). But Tosi and Warmke see the social status afforded to the most efficient moral grandstanders as blocking out more thoughtful discussion.

“We need to be able to talk to each other about morality,” Tosi says. “Or we need to be able to talk about what justice requires ― what the right thing to do is.”

Otherwise, we are doomed. Read the whole paper here. Then despair again.

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