The Ethics of Moral Outrage


Kayhan Parsi

Publish date

January 6, 2016

by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. –Aristotle

The year 2015 produced a mind numbing number of events that triggered intense social media anger. From the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion to the CEO who jacked up HIV/AIDS drugs, it seemed everyone had an excuse to be angry. With the ubiquity of social media, we now all have convenient outlets for our anger when someone displays extreme assholery.

This wasn’t always the case. I recall when I was a high school student, I read something in the local newspaper that triggered indignation and even anger on my part. I took that anger and wrote a letter to the editor. That same letter was then vetted by someone on the newspaper staff; a week or two later, my letter appeared in the local paper. Today, there is no filter. With a few strokes of a keyboard (or on a smartphone), we can quickly dispatch our anger and even contempt. The question is what deserves our anger and whether we have an ethical obligation to mitigate our anger or channel it in a productive way. There’s a moral difference between the righteous anger that produces social movements such as Black Lives Matter or White Coats for Black Lives and the anger that is triggered by something mindless, trivial or even stupid. For instance, the New York Times recently reported on the rise of the microcomplaint. It seems nothing is too small to complain about. A delayed flight (or lack of WiFi) will result in several angry tweets addressed to the airline. Poor service at an establishment may result in a negative Yelp review. The challenge here is to determine what truly merits our anger and more importantly how do we respond in an ethically appropriate way. Are there events that deserve our righteous anger or even moral outrage?

Esquire/NBC recently published the results of their survey documenting the level of anger of Americans. It seems that perceived disenfranchisement is what causes a great deal of anger. Yet actual disenfranchisement does not cause the same level of anger. According to the survey, disparities of anger exists between genders, races, and income levels. Paradoxically, whites are angrier than African Americans, who are more likely to believe that the American Dream is still alive and well. “Their optimism in the face of adversity suggests that hope, whatever its other virtues, remains a potent antidote to anger.”

And there is a difference between anger and moral outrage. Moral outrage requires both anger and disgust. Simple anger is not enough. Anger is often the response when our sense of fairness is violated. But moral outrage escalates this level of emotional response to something else. (Remember the two characters Anger and Disgust in Inside Out? If they had simply joined forces, they could have become moral outrage.) According to the Esquire/NBC survey, the one issue that unites everyone in their anger is the issue of gun violence. This one issue seems to go beyond anger and takes us to moral outrage. Yet even moral outrage does not seem to be enough to influence legislation in this country.

As the opening quote by Aristotle suggests, getting angry is easy. Even experiencing moral outrage has become easier because of the avalanche of information that is at our fingertips. The challenge is how to respond to moral outrage in an ethically appropriate and effective way. Not everything merits our moral outrage. With finite time and limited resources, we all have to reflect on what constitutes true moral outrage and then further reflect on the response such outrage deserves. Medical students who experienced moral outrage organized into the aforementioned White Coats for Black Lives movement. Protestors in Chicago have demonstrated moral outrage toward police killings of African Americans. Although scholars have attempted to examine the role of emotions in our political life (see Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements), we have yet to critically reflect on how moral outrage is amplified in the era of social media and how to best ethically respond to such outrage. As Cynda Rushton has stated, we “should distinguish between moral outrage that is grounded in principled discernment and action from an impulsive, unreflected emotional reaction that lacks sufficient grounding in ethical values or standards.” Such an approach would go a long way toward recognizing true moral outrage and be more discerning and disciplined about our responses to it.

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