A couple of articles, appearing a day apart in the New York Times, have a common subject, that being: Where does our sense of morality come from?
In the first, a piece entitled “What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?,” co-authors Jillian Jordan (a graduate student at Yale), Paul Bloom and David Rand (Yale professors), and Moshe Hoffman (a research scientist at Harvard), point out that we humans tend to get huffy when we see other people acting badly. That we do so because we value good behavior is the too-obvious explanation, they say. Then they give an even more obvious explanation, and, claiming to have come up with it all on their own, they proceed to belabor it to death.
Moral indignation only appears to be pure and selfless in nature, the quartet of pointy-heads say. Actually, it is nearer to the opposite: Moral outrage is often self-serving—and they have evidence. In a paper published this week in the journal Nature, they lay out this evidence, buttressing their argument that an expression of moral outrage can serve as an advertisement for one’s self: Look at me—I’m a good person, and I’m disgusted by this bad one.
“Our paper helps address an evolutionary mystery: Why would a selfless tendency like moral outrage result from the ‘selfish’ process of evolution?” the authors assert. “One important piece of the answer is that expressing moral outrage actually does benefit you, in the long run, by improving your reputation.”
I didn’t know that it was a “mystery” as to why someone might condemn bad behavior so as to make his own self look better; nevertheless, our scientists proceed to the unlocking of it. Their paper features “both a theoretical model and empirical experiments.” The model likens our human displays of indignation to male peacocks’ showing off their plumage to females. The experiments, or rather their description of the experiments, which involved anonymous subjects on the Internet, some of which were “signalers” and some “choosers,” are too convoluted for me to understand, I have to say. If you can follow it, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din:
The authors caution that, in their “theory of evolution,” our expressions of outrage are subconscious, not deliberate attempts to show off. They look at their theory as “helping to explain why humans developed a psychology of outrage in the first place.”
That people almost always act from motives of self-interest is hardly a revolutionary idea, and as for moral outrage, I think it’s as easily explained as H. L. Mencken explained Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Which brings me to the second piece in the Times, called “Who Are the Gay Evangelicals?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/opinion/sunday/who-are-the-gay-evangelicals.html) Author Molly Worthen says that anti-gay sentiments among evangelicals seem to be on the wane, which is a good thing, but that many evangelical gays are still reluctant to go so far as to embrace homosexual relationships, because of their faith—which is the bad (in my opinion. Shouldn’t one’s religion be liberating, not constricting? And isn’t it rather an insult to God to think that He cares who’s doing what to whom, and where, in the sexual arena? Doesn’t He have bigger fish to fry?).
Go ahead and be morally outraged, if it makes you feel better.