On the Legitimacy of Virtuous Indignation

As noted in an earlier post, Mark Shapiro has informed us that he is “outraged” about the publication of the Journolist e-mails. Of course, as I write this, virtuous indignation is as common as dirt on both sides of the political spectrum, but the incident illustrates something I’ve occasionally referred to before; the disconnect between what morality is and how it is perceived.

Morality is a term used to describe certain manifestations of human behavioral predispositions hard-wired in the brain as we evolved. As such, it does not and cannot have any legitimacy in itself. However, when Shapiro tells us that he is outraged, he is not merely describing his emotional response to a given external stimulus. His statement also implies the claim that his outrage is actually legitimate and justified. Rationally, however, this is nonsense.

Since time immemorial, philosophers have been seeking a logical basis for the legitimacy of morality. None of them has ever succeeded in finding one, for the very good reason that the existence of such a basis is impossible. Good and evil are not real objects, things in themselves independent of human emotional traits. Rather, they are the outcome of subjective processes that cause us to perceive them as real objects and things in themselves. We all share this illusion, presumably because the perception of good and evil as real things is effective in promoting our survival, or at least was effective in times very unlike the present. As a result, when Shapiro says he is outraged, we immediately understand what he is talking about. He is referring to moral good and evil, things that we also experience as real, independent objects, and that most of us actually believe are real, independent objects in spite of the fact that they cannot actually exist outside of our imaginations. As a result, our response is not simply to reply “So what? What difference does your current emotional state make to me?” Rather, we wrack our brains for arguments to demonstrate that Shapiro is mistaken in his belief that he has correctly identified the “real” moral good, and to substitute a different, more legitimate version of our own.

In fact, one person’s emotional response can be no more “objectively legitimate” than another’s. As one of the quatrains of the “The Rubaiyat” puts it;

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d

The “ethics experts” of our own day are just the modern versions of the people the poet Omar was talking about. They are no closer to the truth than the Persian sages and prophets of long ago. In spite of the increasingly common acceptance of recent scientific revelations about what morality actually is, they continue as before, chasing the illusion. Before one announces one’s outrage to the world, it is well to consider the fact that one is declaring allegiance to just such an illusion.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply