The Psychology of Moral Grandstanding

In the latest piece for the Big Think and Institute for Humane Studies video series, Brandon Warmke, an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, explains what moral grandstanding is, and the consequences that come from it.

“Grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” says Warmke. “Grandstanders are moral show boaters who use public discourse as a vanity project. They aren’t really concerned about helping people or contributing to a conversation. They want to be seen as having spectacular super human insight to what is just.”

Grandstanding can take many forms. First, it can come in the form of “piling on.” This is when people join in on a shame fest for someone who’s misspoken or engaged in a small infraction. These people want to signal to their group that they have a heightened sense of justice, so they pile on in cases of public shaming and blaming.

Another form grandstanding can take is “ramping up.” This involves people trying to out-do each other in public discourse.

Warmke notes: “What happens in conversation, is once people reveal their positions about how much they care about or how affected they are by some problem, you can now look like you don’t care enough. In order to beat someone else in the moral race, you have to out-do them. This often results in people taking more extreme stands than they might otherwise do on reflection, because when the world is watching, you must show that you care more.”

Warmke argues that grandstanding has bad consequences. It contributes to political polarization, it increases levels of cynicism about moral talk and its value in public life, and it causes outrage exhaustion. Grandstanding is also disrespectful and reveals bad character.

“Imagine a group of acquaintances who are, on the one hand, discussing a world-historic injustice, and on the other, fighting or arguing about who’s most offended by it. In our view, this is just not how a virtuous person would engage in discourse.”

This video is one in an extended series about civil discourse. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

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