Sports may be on an indefinite hiatus, but many of us still find ourselves in the stands, just not the ones you’re thinking about. When’s the last time you changed your social media profile picture to support a cause you believe in? How about making a statement about political change you want to see in your Facebook status? When you did it, did you ask yourself why you did it? Were you trying to open a dialogue with others about that cause? Or signal your support to your friends and family? Does it matter why you did it?

Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi believe that it does and that we should be asking ourselves these questions more often. In their new book and this Aeon magazine piece, they outline a concept they call “moral grandstanding” that they believe is contributing to the decline of our public discourse about important moral topics.

Moral grandstanding is often rooted in real beliefs and concerns that we have, but when we project a moral standpoint to win points with our peers, there are a number of negative consequences we should consider. Warmke and Tosi explain:

Ramping up happens when discussants make increasingly strong claims in order to outdo one another. Each wants to show greater moral insight and care for justice, and one way to do that is to stake out increasingly extreme claims. When ramping up, discussion devolves into a moral arms race.

This ramping up leads to more polarization as our positions become more extreme and the middle becomes less appealing. But perhaps more importantly, moral grandstanding leads to people taking public discourse around moral topics less seriously overall.

Another consequence of grandstanding is that many people stop taking moral conversations seriously. They become cynical about the moral claims they hear in public discourse because they suspect that the speaker is simply trying to show that his heart is in the right place, rather than trying to help others figure out what we should do or believe. Observers can even come to think that all moral claims are cases of moral grandstanding. In other words, grandstanding devalues the social currency of moral talk.

So, what is the remedy? Should we start looking for examples of grandstanding and calling people out for it on social media? Tosi and Warmke think that would be a mistake and perpetuate the problem. If the root of moral grandstanding is our own motivation, the solution starts with us. We should first look inward at our own intentions before we engage in public discourse and look for ways to enhance the discussion, rather than degrade it.

Photo by Jean Carlo Emer on Unsplash


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