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If You’re Not Continuously Outraged, You Must be a Horrible Person!!!

Summary:
[embedded content] Today on Facebook I read a comment from someone saying he hates America because so many Americans are apathetic about politics and current events. (He didn’t offer any comparative stats about apathy in other countries, so I don’t know how much he also hates Canadians, Mexicans, or the Swiss. Presumably, he despises almost everyone in the world, since very few people are highly engaged.) The argument seems to be something like this: Horrible things are happening everyday. If you are either A) unaware of those things or B) aware of them but not outraged by them, then you must be a bad person. After all, good people have the right kind of knowledge and have the right emotional responses to things. The right response to horrible injustice is immense outrage. The

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Today on Facebook I read a comment from someone saying he hates America because so many Americans are apathetic about politics and current events. (He didn’t offer any comparative stats about apathy in other countries, so I don’t know how much he also hates Canadians, Mexicans, or the Swiss. Presumably, he despises almost everyone in the world, since very few people are highly engaged.)

The argument seems to be something like this: Horrible things are happening everyday. If you are either A) unaware of those things or B) aware of them but not outraged by them, then you must be a bad person. After all, good people have the right kind of knowledge and have the right emotional responses to things. The right response to horrible injustice is immense outrage. The right response to tragedy is immense sadness.

Is it, though? On the contrary, continuous outrage or sadness is often a sign of pathological narcissism.

First, as the philosophers at Blue Öyster Cult remind us, every day is filled with tragedy.  151,000 people die a day. Spare me the nonsense about death giving more meaning to life. These 151,000 people will be missed and mourned by their loved ones, and rightly so. But for the rest of us, it’s impossible to have any kind of functional life if we feel as strongly as those mourners. Being a functional human being means not feeling every horrible thing deeply. Time is scarce. Our “emotional energy” is scarce. We have to budget our outrage.

As for the narcissism part, read The Elephant in the Brain or Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi’s forthcoming book Moral Grandstanding (coming out with Oxford next year). What’s really going on, most of the time, is that people expressing such outrage are trying to demonstrate that they are morally better than other people. Much of the time, outrage is moral masturbation. The people who express outrage do so in order to demonstrate to others that they have increased moral sensitivity and a stronger than normal concern for ethics than others do. Thus, they are better people, and should be admired.

Bob: “Did you see the news?
Charlie: “No. What happened?”
Bob: “Trump said he believes the Saudis.”
Charlie. “Oh. Yeah, well, so it goes.”
Bob: “I was up all night shaking with anger. I can’t understand how other people can get on with their lives and watch the World Series in times like these.”
Charlie: “I watched game 1. 8-4 Red Sox. Good game.”
Bob: “What the hell is wrong with you? So you think murdering journalists doesn’t matter?”
Charlie: “Huh? I didn’t say that.”
Bob: “Well, your actions say it. The very fact that you are not trembling with anger, like I am, demonstrates how morally insensitive you are, you know, compared to me.”

Bob needs to grow up. But I’m not mad at Bob. What would be the point?

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Author: Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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