OUTRAGEOUS! The Psychology behind morality, mass indignation and self righteousness.

This is a post about the way people react to the ‘bad things’ going on in the world. Or rather, the way people react to the ‘bad things’ they learn about from the news, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or their classmate/workmate, which are by no means exhaustive of the bad things going on in the world.

The illustrations in this post are by Pawel Kuczynski, a brilliant Polish satirical artist and illustrator which you can check out here.

1385815_603773366353858_1504917352_n.900x600I would like to direct your attention to how morality causes mass indignation, and how in turn this leads to self-righteous behaviour. I shall keep this very brief and technical, so as not to contribute to the various rants and political positions being upheld at this very moment about events happening in the world.

Let us begin with the question of MORALITY. Collins dictionary defines it as ‘conformity, or degree of conformity, to conventional standards of moral conduct’. Pretty accurate, although I do quite prefer Nietzsche’s description of it as the ‘herd-instinct in the individual’. What you need to understand is that morality does not rest on absolute truths of what is right and wrong in universal terms. It rests rather, upon conventional and agreed sets of rules and guidelines, which vary significantly amongst different groups.

So if morality is not an objective truth, but rather a human/social construction, you may ask why exactly it is that we need it. I suggest it is comparable to the ‘social contract’ advocated by luminaries such as Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke and Rawls. We need morality, to get along with other people, because we are all different and self-interested, and the world would be absolute chaos if we didn’t have it. In some ways, morality is a partial sacrifice of the self, for the benefit of the community: we agree to give up a part of our independence of thought and action, in other to live harmoniously with other people. The reasons behind this, behind why man is a social animal and why we need other people, is a subject I’m not going to go into right now.

What you do need to understand is that for whatever reason, we do make this sacrifice and that this ‘giving up a part of oneself’ to the community, is not an easy sacrifice to make. Just think about all those fuzzy moral questions that continue to raise serious debates: homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, contraception, animal ethics, torture, slavery, war… the list could go on a while. My point is: morality is a sacrifice, and a big one at that.

And yet some people break this contract, undermining the effort you put into keeping this world order going. Hence comes the INDIGNATION: the feeling of shock and anger which you have when you think that something is unjust or unfair. I work so hard to keep up something, and then you wankers just come and blow shit up and ruin it. Not cool. What did I even work for?

And here we come to the point in which we decide to share our indignation with all the other animals in our group. After all, these moral law-breakers have ruined the outcome of my efforts, so I need to find some other way to benefit from my work. This leaves me with my final point, which is SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS, which Mr. Collins again describes as ‘having or showing an exaggerated awareness of one’s own virtuousness or rights’. Some of the synonyms listed are: sanctimonious, smug, superior, complacent, hypocritical, goody-goody (informal) and holier-than-thou. This pretty much means that someone exhibiting self-righteous behaviour is not just saying ‘look at me I’m great’, they are saying ‘look at me, I am better that these other people and I want you all to know’.

So what does this have to do, you may ask me, with my desire to share my indignation with others? The answer to this question resides in the reasons as to why you share such information and/or to the barely existent reflections you make upon the consequences of this rather simple act.foto8discorsosporco.900x600
So I ask all of you: when you post an indignant post, or share a picture to express your solidarity with victims of an event, what exactly, are you trying to achieve? I’m pretty sure the standard response to this question is that you want to ‘raise awareness on an issue’. But if that is the case, I ask you again, is there not perhaps a better way you could be doing such a thing? Is expressing your indignation really worth your time and energy? The effect of adding your post to the millions of other online shares is really minimal compared to the useful things you could be doing with you time. If you are so interested in a particular cause, why is it that the only moments in your life in which you contribute to it, are those in which the information hits you right in the face? And why have you chosen to take a stance in this cause, and ignored the millions of other ‘outrageous’ things that go on in the world?

I’ll answer the question for you. You are not writing to implement change, you are doing it because it makes you feel good. Because it puts a safe distance between you and these outrageous moral law breakers. Your message is not going to implement change and you know it: it is the same as many other thousands of messages, and their counter-messages, with the sole purpose of increasing public indignation and making the topic a hot potato all over the world, perhaps because it is someone’s interest that it be so.

ces-oeuvres-poignantes-qui-remettent-tout-en-question-444915.900x600This leads to another argument: are we a group or are we, as Nietzsche classed us ‘a herd’? Since I am not here to take a political stance, but rather to attempt to give a technical explanation behind mass behaviour, I shall leave you to reflect upon this question yourself. Let us just leave it at the notion that a herd implies the presence of a shepard, and perhaps of his sheep dogs. And that if that were the case, Foucault’s insights on how learning and information are the best form of power in governing masses, are pretty insightful in understanding how morality and indignation can be easily used to direct and influence the masses.

But regardless of political positions, or who’s ‘side’ you are on, and who decide to point your finger at, what you are doing, yet again, is blaming Hitler for Nazism and WWII. Do yourself a favour and read ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: on the Banality of Evil’ in which Hannah Arendt attends and reflects upon the trial of nazi architect and executioner Adolf Eichmann.


Arendt described how the officer, far from being a vehement anti-Semite, was a rather innocuous and banal individual. He followed his orders without thinking or asking questions or considering the effects of his actions. The pain of his victims was not apparent to him, nor was his active role in their suffering. It was not hatred that caused him to act as he did, but rather the lack of self-awareness and judgement. The book received much criticism and Arendt was accused by many of justifying the criminal, which in truth was far from what she was doing. She was simply pointing out that if it weren’t for the millions of people, who just went on with their lives and performed their duties without asking questions, Nazism would have probably remained a crazy man’s romanticised idea of a ‘perfect’ society.

It is easy to find a scape goat and point your finger towards authority, much less so to accept the responsibility of being an accomplice in a faulty world order, who only laments things gone wrong when they hit you in the face, whereas the rest of your time your only concern is to get on with your daily life and routine.

My suggestion to you is stop thinking about and lamenting what people should be doing, start looking at what they actually are doing, why they are doing it and why you know about it, and then decide how to react to it. Stop making yourself feel better for not doing anything, by pointing at and comparing yourself publicly to greater evils. And understand that you do not have power over other people, unless you have power over yourself and you development. Spend your time on thinking about your own character and actions, before shooting down those of others. Only then will you be able to come up with ideas and ways to ‘change the world’ and if it is your desire to do so, to help others.


5 thoughts on “OUTRAGEOUS! The Psychology behind morality, mass indignation and self righteousness.

  1. Although I appreciated this post I think right now is actually the time for a show of solidarity among liberal western people against islamic extremism, and perhaps less of this kind of thing. Commendable that we’re always thinking critically over here, but, you know, wise up for a second and recognise what’s just happened.


    1. Dear treatwilliams,

      I’m afraid you may have entirely misunderstood the point of my post. Firstly, there was absolutely no reference to ‘islamic extremism’ or ‘liberal western people’. The article was intentionally un-political. My observations, which did, as you rightfully assumed, pop into my chaos fuelled mind following the reaction to recent events in Paris, are really a wide scale examination of group behaviour, which goes much further than this event. Words that come to mind are, for instance, Charlie Hebdo, KONY 2012 and 9/11.

      As for your suggestion that posts similar to the one I have published, are not currently desirable, I care to disagree with you. I wholeheartedly believe that attempts at understanding human behaviour and using them to drive progress and improvement, are viscerally and untiringly desirable to humanity. Of course, on this matter, we can agree to disagree.

      Regardless of the misunderstanding, I would be interested in knowing why it is you think right now a show of solidarity is important, and why this show ought to be reserved to the class of ‘liberal western people’ and who it is you insert in such class. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

      Regarding the final accusation to ‘wise up’ which I believe I ought to take as personal, it is completely inopportune and unrelated to the post. I do recognise ‘what just happened’ (again, supposing you refer to the Paris events), or at least I have tried my very best to, through thorough research and reflection.

      Just to keep my record clean, I’d like to point out that I am deeply aware of the dangers of Islamism and have done a fair amount of research regarding the severe human rights violations that go on in areas such as the Kashmir region, North-East India, Pakistan, Xinjiang and Tibet. I might actually publish some of my work on this website in the near future. Similarly I have done much work on the relationship between media and politics, and the risks of Islamophobia and mediatization.

      Quite simply, none of these issues were the the subject of my article.

      With these further clarifications, I hope you will be able to approach this piece with a different set of mind. By all means, do feel free to share your thoughts and ask me any questions!




      1. Wow…blinded by vocab here. Think anyone would forgive me for assuming the post was a comment on the recent events and their fallout. I think same said reasonable person would agree with me in thinking there was a hint of the apologism for this stuff so often, going on in the post. Eg- ‘faulty world order’. That kind of thing is putting my back up is all. But perhaps I got you wrong. Lets just agree to disagree though, as you say. I’m no match for your collosal erudition.


      2. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound pretentious or anything. English isn’t my first language and I’ve learned to write in a way that is waaay too technical. By faulty world order I meant a whole load of things that disturb me about humanity. Eg. working for the wrong motives, lack of enthusiasm and self-awareness, obsession, hypocrisy, poor mental health on a global scale, superficiality, boredom, war, etc. etc. etc. I’ll stop myself:-)

        All the best,



      3. I realised you were Italian when I looked at my stats after the last exchange of comments. Your English is impressive actually. I thought you were trying to steamroller me with technical language but I can see now it’s a second language thing. Re: our messed up lives in the west- hey, nobody’s perfect. But we try don’t we? We have this huge culture of dissent which is very healthy, to be fair. (What do people like Chomsky say about the fact that his stuff does get published and has a huge influential audience?) Islam, on the other hand, in that part of the world has bred an undeniably GENUINELY awful, intractable sickness, which US foreign policy only has a little bit to do with.


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