Welcome to what should be a very engaging and productive discussion of Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s “Moral Grandstanding.” The paper, which appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, is available through open access here. C.A.J. (Tony) Coady has generously provided a critical précis to begin the discussion, which is immediately below. Please join in!

Tony Coady’s critical précis:

The article on “Moral Grandstanding” by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in Philosophy and Public Affairs can be seen as continuing a process of reflection on the limitations or distortions of moral discourse, or even of morality itself, that has been a marked feature of philosophical inquiry in the late 20th and early 21st century. This trend has antecedents, of course, notably in Nietzsche’s critique of traditional morality (mostly based on his view of Christian morality). In more contemporary dress, it can be seen in Bernard Williams’s critique of what he called with palpable irony “the peculiar institution” of modern morality and his advocacy of the need to return to a classical conception of ethics in its stead; in the various debates about the disturbing role of “moral luck” in attributions of moral praise and blame; in the idea that moral reasons, even where relevant, should not be decisive in all practical thinking, notable in Susan Wolf’s article on “Moral Saints”, and more dramatically in Michael Walzer’s “dirty hands” thesis, applicable only to what he calls situations of “supreme emergency” where the necessities of such emergency trump even the deepest moral prescriptions.

More recently, concerns have been raised about the distorting effects on moral and practical thinking of what has been called moralism. As I have had, for good or ill, a particular role in this development I am interested in exploring connections and dissimilarities between moralism and moral grandstanding, and can only hope that readers will find this of some interest as well. I will therefore begin by giving an account of Tosi and Warmke’s interesting article and then summarise below some of my understanding of the different forms of moralism, as I conceive of it, to compare and contrast it (as exam papers used to say) with the authors’ account of moral grandstanding. I will then proceed to air some misgivings I have about Tosi and Warmke’s account of moral grandstanding and its manifestations. I should say at the outset that theirs is a rich discussion and I will not be able to deal with all the matters that they canvas. For various discussions of the phenomenon of moralism I should mentions the papers in What’s Wrong with Moralism (ed. C.A.J. Coady), Craig Taylor’s book Moralism: a Study of a Vice, and the first two chapters of my book Messy Morality: the Challenge of Politics.

Moralism and Moral Grandstanding Compared

One crucial element in moral grandstanding, and one that, as we shall see below, differentiates it from most forms of moralism, is that moral grandstanding in the paradigm case is defined by our authors (hereafter T&W) as essentially involving a motive and an intention to do something that is in fact at odds with the primary purpose or point of public moral discourse and prima facie at least morally dubious and tending to the corruption of public discourse. The “something” involved is an intention to publicly mark the speaker’s “moral respectability” with regard “to some matter of moral concern”. The standing of “moral respectability” may vary in certain respects so that T&W distinguish two senses (as they put it) of this central feature of paradigm cases of moral grandstanding. The first is marked by the desire that the speaker be considered to meet some “minimum threshold” of moral respectability that perhaps few others meet. The second is marked by the desire that others will think the speaker outstandingly moral, meeting a standard of moral respectability far beyond a minimum threshold. Here, the speaker casts herself as “a paragon of morality”. In fact, however, these two “senses” are much closer than T&W’s account suggests; not so much two senses as slightly varied circumstances in the application of one sense of the expression “moral grandstanding”. Both involve the quest for superior moral status: in the first case, this works by portraying oneself as amongst that rare breed who have managed to attain some minimum threshold of moral respectability in a morally dismal world or segment world, in the second, the world is more morally elevated so the speaker’s quest for recognition of superiority requires going well beyond a respectability threshold to the paragon level. But what the T&W call the “recognition desire” is the same quest for superiority in both cases, it is just that the background has shifted. What is often called, usually derisively, “the moral high ground” will be different in different social contexts, but the quest is the same. So, I will treat T&W’s account of moral grandstanding as standardly involving the single intention or recognition desire to establish moral superiority. I will sometimes term this “the defeating intention” in acknowledgement of the effect it has upon the purpose of public discourse. I do not mean that the speaker must always intend to defeat such a purpose, but rather that he intends something that will commonly have that effect. (I will avoid distinctions between motive, desire and intention partly for simplicity of exposition and partly because such distinctions do not seem relevant here.)

It might be objected that the first sense need not involve a quest for superiority since on the face of it, the desire to exhibit moral respectability is compatible with the moral grandstander merely wanting to bring herself up to the standard that everyone, or almost everyone else has already achieved, so that she is intent only on showing that she is not wretchedly morally inadequate, but, as we shall see, T&W do not really mean to include this case, which would in any event be very rare. With regard to the first sense, they talk, for instance, of the moral grandstander wanting “others to think of her simply as meeting some normative baseline whereas others fail to do so” and of her wanting to be “seen as merely morally respectable in a world where she thinks that precious few meet even that minimum threshold” (p.200).

What then is the primary purpose or point of public moral discourse that the quest for superiority is defeating? This purpose or point, according to the authors, is primarily to “improve people’s moral beliefs” but grandstanding has three effects deleterious to this end: (1) it promotes increased and unhealthy cynicism about moral discourse, (2) it leads to “outrage exhaustion” so that people become suspicious of expressions of moral outrage even when they are justified and required, (3) it contributes to group polarization whereby people tend to move to more extreme positions. T&W explain the prevalence of these effects by reference to five typical ways that grandstanding manifests itself in public discourse. These are: piling on, ramping up, trumping up, excessive outrage, and claims to self-evidence. Piling on consists in unnecessarily joining others in moral declamation; ramping up is making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion; trumping up is insistence upon the existence of a moral problem where there is none; the ideas of excessive outrage and claims of self-evidence are non-technical terms needing no immediate clarification.

The significant role of this defeating intention is one thing that separates moral grandstanding from moralism. Most moralistic utterances are not essentially dependent on a defeating intention of this sort, though such an intention may be present in some cases. Moral grandstanding standardly requires the defeating intention, though T&W allow for some very peripheral examples where it might not.

Consider what I have called moralism of scope which is the advancing of moral judgements into areas where they are irrelevant or of less significance in the circumstances than they purport to be. It can also encompass the intrusion of heavy moral artillery into contexts where much lighter weaponry is appropriate. For instance, the questions of whether to take a shower or a bath, whether to take a walk in this direction or that, whether to go to this movie or that, are all questions that can sometimes have a moral dimension to them, but are often beyond, or, perhaps better, beneath moral consideration. Clearly, they do not normally involve issues of justice, or courage, or humility, or duties of one sort or another. Someone who thinks they always do is likely to be a victim of a sort of moral neurosis, the one often described in religious textbooks of moral theology as “scrupulosity”. The phenomenon charted by moralism of scope indeed overlaps with that sketched by the category of trumping up, but unlike the connection given by moral grandstanding we can describe roughly what such moralism amounts to without ascribing to the agent some unworthy intention. Perhaps his activities and thoughts are at odds with the purpose of public moral discourse (if they occur in a public arena) but we don’t have to describe him as seeking some advantage to himself, though sometimes this may be true. In fact, such as person may well be seeking “to improve people’s moral beliefs”” though misguidedly.

Similarly, with the other categories of moralism that I sketched in my book. Just to take one more: moralism of abstraction is the commitment to high level moral principles to a degree that obscures the complexities of applying such principles in specific circumstances that require discerning judgement. (I think this is the burden of one of the complaints Bernard Williams makes of traditional morality altogether and in a different way of much moral philosophy.) It is a distortion of morality that can particularly plague many high-minded discussions of international affairs. Again, those who fall into such moralism needn’t have any sort of self-inflating intention nor any lack of interest in the point of public discourse that concerns our authors.

In both cases, and in several of the other categories I sketched in Messy Morality it is of course possible that transgressions of scope and of abstraction could embody the grandiose intention (the “vanity project” as T&W call it at one point) of moral grandstanding, but not necessarily.

Moral Grandstanding a different type of moral failing

It seems rather that moral grandstanding belongs to a different type of moral failing. It is akin to the vices of hypocrisy, insincerity, and exploitation insofar as they manifest in speech. Moral grandstanders, in the paradigm range, aim at inflating their own position vis-a-vis that of their audience and this self-inflating intention betokens a lack of sincere desire to promote the primary ends of (public) discourse. I take it, however, that they may sincerely believe the moral positions that they declare. So in the “characteristic manifestation” of piling on, the speaker may well be expressing a sincerely held belief in uttering the moral belief that p as an echo of what others have said. His insincerity consists not in urging a belief that he doesn’t hold, but in purporting to advance one project when in fact he is aiming for a different, and disguised, end. By contrast, the paradigmatic hypocrite is uttering propositions that she either does not believe, doesn’t fully believe, or does not live by, while professing full belief or adherence. Hypocrites may overlap with grandstanders when they seek the same position of superiority, but need not do so since when they behave (and speak) in a way that seeks to put them on the same or higher moral level as their audiences they characteristically do not hold or hold strongly enough the relevant moral beliefs at all. Both grandstanders and hypocrites will strive to utter or manifest true moral propositions or those their audience is believed to hold true (if you worry about truth for moral claims, then use the appropriate substitute for getting it right) and often enough will succeed in doing so. That the speaker is false (deliberately puts herself in a false, deceptive position) in both grandstanding and hypocrisy does not make her utterances false, though they are, in something like Austin’s sense, infelicitous. Of course, people can be hypocritical without saying anything, but rather by deliberately behaving in ways that manifest a moral conviction that they don’t have. But here we are concerned, as the authors are, with vices or distortions of discourse.

Another phenomenon that the authors compare their account of moral grandstanding with is Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit in his book On Bullshit. Frankfurt sees bullshit as occurring when an agent purports to engage in a certain practice but flouts the justifying norms and primary purpose of the practice by manifesting indifference to those aims. One of Frankfurt’s illustrations of bullshit at work is a practical rather than speech example, namely, that of spit-and-polish and red tape in military and governmental contexts which “do not genuinely contribute, it is presumed, to the ‘real’ purposes of military personnel or governmental officials, even though they are imposed by agencies or agents that purport to be conscientiously devoted to the pursuit of those purposes”. In the case of military activities, we might add drill parades and other ritualistic paraphernalia, and, to make a mildly patriotic point in this connection, I should point out that it has been argued that the currency of “bullshit” as a dismissive term of the kind Frankfurt analyses can be traced to its origins amongst Australian troops in Europe in World War I where it was offered as a caustic comment on the British addiction to such rituals. (See Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1963); Partridge is cited in Norman Dixon’s fascinating book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which has a chapter on the damaging nature of military bullshit.)

But although bullshit has affinities with grandstanding, notably in the flouting–purpose feature, it differs in intentionality since someone who speaks bullshit may not have any unworthy defeating intention. This is clear from the point made in such remarks as “That’s bullshit and you know it” where the clear implication is that, by contrast, there are cases where the speakers utters bullshit without any idea that it is such. Indeed, some speakers correctly accused of speaking bullshit may have a sincere desire to advance the truth in spite of their utterance signally failing to do so.

Some worries about the account of Moral Grandstanding

Turning from comparisons with other forms of dubious moral utterance to the merits of T&W’s account of moral grandstanding, I have a couple of concerns about it. First, I worry somewhat about the potentiality of the allegation of moral grandstanding to inhibit genuine moral condemnation. Consider the manifestations called piling on and ramping up. T&W cite studies in social psychology on what is called “social comparison”, and an article by Cass Sunstein in support of “one way to understand piling on” that shows its negative features. These studies seem to show a certain likelihood of a convergence within groups related to individuals’ desire to maintain their reputation within the group and their self-conception. There is no doubt that this can be a feature of both piling on and ramping up, but there are plenty of examples of both where this self-regarding feature would be absent or quite incidental. A desire to be in solidarity with others in opposing injustice is, on the face of it, entirely healthy and morally commendable, and may spring from the need to show an oppressed group or individual that their support is widespread. In the case of piling on, it may not “substantively advance discussion” (as T&W put it) but that is not the only significance of public moral discourse, and, in certain contexts, not the primary one. The authors say elsewhere that “the aim of public moral discourse is to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world.” (p.210) Showing solidarity by public endorsement of statements by others in your group may well aim at the second part of that disjunction since the oppressed may well take heart from seeing widespread condemnation of their oppressors and the oppressors may well be deterred by it. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the intention is not a defeating one. (Actually, if we omit the last sentence of the example that T&W give on p. 204 of piling on—the pompous and cringe-making bit about “the right side of history”—the example could well be one that illustrates my point.)

As for ramping up, there are plenty of situations that require someone to ramp up tepid moral responses to an injustice. The shocking facts around clerical (and other institutional) child sex abuse that have gradually come to light in the last 20-odd years should remind us that the initially mild responses and evasions in moral discourse, and the inadequate moral remedies proposed were in dire need of ramping up. Some of those who did ramp up moral discussion may have wanted to show their moral respectability, but many others were simply concerned directly for the victims. Nor is the desire to show one’s moral respectability necessarily an unworthy one when there is a lot of moral corruption in the vicinity. Unless one is a sort of hyper-Kantian, the desire to be in good moral standing with others (or, at any rate with other good people) seems an unexceptional motive that is not in necessary conflict with a concern to know what is morally good and to pursue it as such.

Similar points could be made about the other “manifestations” of moral grandstanding, such as “excessive outrage”. A good deal turns of course on what is excessive and that will be relative to the gravity of the offence or immoral behavior. Opinions will differ upon the assessment of such gravity and hence on what is excessive, but outrage itself is not necessarily a bad emotion, nor need it be correlated with some reprehensible defeating intention. T&W cite empirical evidence that strong emotions are correlated with firm moral convictions. One might wonder whether this is another instance in which solemn social science has come up with a conclusion already obvious to common intelligence, but unless we think that firm moral convictions are somehow a dubious category then it is appropriate that our emotional life should be responsive to them in the right contexts. Of course firm moral convictions can be wrong and the outrage associated with them dangerous, but the lack of conviction and capacity for outrage is also dangerous. W.B. Yeats’ powerful lines descriptive of a dark future in his poem “The Second Coming” puts the dilemma well: “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. T&W are aware that moral outrage has its place, conceding indeed that moral outrage is “wholly fitting” in the face of “plenty of injustices” (p.211), but their stress on the negative effects of “excessive” outrage could tend to spread suspicion of the positive role this emotion can have.

T&W might reasonably reply that they are not claiming that their various “manifestations” are invariably signs of moral grandstanding. So at one point they say of piling on that “one way to understand piling on” is as an expression of social comparison (p. 204), and more generally even the strong claim that grandstanding “often” (p. 205) manifests itself in ramping up does not entail that ramping up (and the other manifestations) must often be a sign of grandstanding. Yet they also sound a note that seems stronger still when they state, for instance, that “psychological research on social comparison offers an explanation for why ramping up occurs”, and it seems that this explanation in terms of preserving self-image rather than aiming at the truth is one they endorse. More generally, the authors’ concentration on the manifestation phenomena as “the characteristic ways that grandstanding is manifested in public discourse” at least carries with it the suggestion that we should usually be suspicious of these displays as genuinely aimed at epistemic advancement and be vigilant for the existence of the defeating intention.

The issue of Polarization and “Extremes”

There is another issue that I do not have time to address fully here but will flag briefly. It concerns one of the defeating effects on public moral discourse that T&W discuss, namely, group polarization. Their claim is that both piling on and trumping up will lead groups considering some significant question of public concern to move towards more extreme positions. They cite Sunstein’s use of the social comparison phenomenon in support of this, the idea being that the “desire to maintain their reputation and their self-conception” produces a group dynamic that tends to push the members of the group “to advocate increasingly extreme views”. T&W claim that has three bad consequences: (a) it “increases the likelihood that that participants advocate false views”, (b) “it encourages an impression in persons not associated with the group that morality is a nasty business and that moral discourse consists primarily of extreme and implausible claims”, and (c) the views of different groups within which grandstanding occurs will can become more polarized (for these claims see pp211-12).

But all of this relies on the idea that “extreme” views are a bad thing and this thesis is not supported by the empirical social science invoked by Sunstein and others, nor could it be. In fact such research treats “extreme” not as a value-laden concept but merely as a statistical notion. In a group of 10 if 8 hold belief p and 2 hold belief q then q is an extreme belief whatever its content. Similarly, if the 8 hold that p tentatively and the 2 hold it very firmly then the 2 are extreme in their belief. The actual example T&W (and Sunstein) give is instructive. We are asked to imagine that after a highly publicized school shooting a group of people in the community gather to consider proposing new gun control measures, and most tentatively support new measures, but after deliberation the group tends to move towards the enthusiastic support advocated by the minority. This is supposed to be group polarization and a bad thing.

Against this, it is surely pretty clear that movement toward “the extreme” in such cases may be good or bad depending on whether the extreme is true or false, good or bad, and whether the process of arriving at it is epistemically and morally or normatively respectable. The contemporary political fashion for branding all “extreme” views, i.e., often those not in accord with the comfortably privileged “sensible centre”, as wrong, bad, or dangerous, needs much closer scrutiny. In the gun control example we need more detail on what exactly the “extreme” position is, but, as a bemused outsider to the spectacle of American gun culture, I suspect that the extreme view is a good one. (Why not try changing the example to a group in the North gathering to consider the bombing of a black church during a service in Alabama in the 1960s and, after deliberation, adopting the “extreme” decision to go on civil rights protests in the South?)

Whether the process was morally and epistemically appropriate depends on other matters, one being whether the psychological studies on social comparison and conclusions from them are valid. My suspicion is that like some other studies in social science on moral matters they need more critical philosophical assessment than are often given to them. (I have cast a cold eye on some such studies pertaining to moral dilemmas in my “Reason, Emotion, and Morality: some Cautions for the Enhancement Project” in The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate, eds. Clarke, Coady, Giublini, Sanyal, and Savulescu, Oxford University Press, Oxford, (2016). An excellent related critique of neuro-science studies on morality is Berker, S. ‘ The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, (2009).)

I should also note that the discussion of polarization is not entirely clear about what the term means. Is it merely a relation within a group or is it supposed to extend to polarization between different deliberating groups within the wider society caused by “social comparison” effects? Either way, there is room for debate about whether polarization is as unhealthy for a particular group or a society as is often assumed. Obviously a good deal turns on how polarization has come about, and it need not come about as a result of some regrettable process such as moral grandstanding, since it is sometimes based on profound differences in outlook on fundamental moral and political issues and/or on divergent class interests. Widespread ongoing consensus may well betoken a stagnant society.

I term most of these reflections on the detail of T&W’s account of moral grandstanding “worries” rather “objections” because I think their very interesting article has identified something genuine about a pathological tendency that can afflict moral discourse, and my primary purpose is to buttress their insights by a reminder that some of the things they cite as manifestations of moral grandstanding can actually manifest something quite different, non-pathological and indeed morally positive. It would be unfortunate if a proper concern for the exposure and criticism of moral grandstanding obscured that reality.

(My thanks to my colleague Andrew Alexandra for some helpful suggestions about this contribution.)

7 Replies to “Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke: “Moral Grandstanding”. Précis by C.A.J. (Tony) Coady

  1. We are grateful to Professor Coady for his careful engagement with our paper, as well as the seriousness with which he reflects on the ways morality can be used and abused in moral talk. There is much to think about in his comments. We develop just a few thoughts here. We are also interested in what others have to say, so we keep our remarks brief and cursory. We also thank Julie Rose and Derek Bowman from PEA Soup for setting up this discussion, and Philosophy & Public Affairs for providing open access to our paper.

    Grandstanding and Moralizing

    We think the relations between grandstanding and moralizing to which Professor Coady draws our attention are illuminating. Of particular note is what he calls “moralism of scope,” the intrusion or creeping of moral appraisal where such appraisal is irrelevant, and the “intrusion of heavy moral artillery into contexts where much lighter weaponry is appropriate.” That’s a great way of putting the matter. Professor Coady notes that this kind of moral creep happens in many cases of grandstanding: ramping up, trumping up, and claims of self-evidence. As we say in the paper, that which falls below the moral radar of the commoner doesn’t pass undetected by the vigilant eye of the moral grandstander. The common modern impulse to assume that most every problem–no matter how small–is a moral one that requires one’s own moral appraisal and blame is, we think, an unhealthy one.

    Grandstanding and Bullshit

    We appreciate Professor Coady’s remarks on bullshit. They provide us an opportunity to say more than we did in the paper. The way in which we see grandstanding as an analogue to bullshitting is a rather limited one: grandstanding, like bullshitting, interferes with certain justifying aims of a general discursive practice. Grandstanding and bullshitting, however, differ in some important ways. For example, while grandstanding can be a form of bullshitting, it need not be. A grandstander could believe that what she says is true and care deeply about her cause. We call this whole-hearted grandstanding. In contrast, the half-hearted grandstander either doesn’t believe or is indifferent to the truth value of what she says, yet she uses her grandstanding statement in an attempt to get others to make desirable moral judgments about her. A bullshitter, at least on Frankfurt’s account, is indifferent to the truth value of her bullshit (2005: 131), and so has this in common with the half-hearted grandstander.

    Now, other practices (such as lying) can also interfere with the justifying aims of a general discursive practice, and so grandstanding and bullshitting are not unique in this respect. Unlike lying, however, grandstanding does not typically involve a desire or intention to deceive. Furthermore, grandstanding is more like bullshitting than lying with respect to motive. On our account, the grandstander is typically using moral talk ostentatiously, to draw attention to her putative moral respectability. Similarly, Frankfurt says that while the bullshitter is not “always and necessarily” “behaving pretentiously”, this is “often” the case (2005: 119). Lying, on the other hand, has no special connection to pretension. Although lying, bullshitting, and grandstanding may all interfere with the aims of general discursive practices, it seems to us that thinking about bullshit is especially instructive for seeing how grandstanding–as a way of behaving pretentiously in the public square–undermines the justificatory aims of public moral discourse.

    Grandstanding, Polarization, and Extremism

    Professor Coady is right to note that the social comparison literature we mention does not treat extremism as a value-laden concept. A number of people have also pressed us on Coady’s point that it might be good to hold an extreme view on some moral or political question, since the correct view of the matter might be extreme, in some sense. We don’t deny that point, either. So what is wrong with movement toward the extreme? Here are a few clarifying remarks on our worry about extremism and polarization.

    Let’s first distinguish two kinds of group polarization that Coady mentions. First is the movement of the members of a single in-group in one direction on an opinion spectrum, so that they hold, e.g., a more demanding version of the general view their group started with. This is the kind of polarization described in Sunstein’s example, as it involved a group of people becoming more committed to strong gun control measures. A second kind of polarization involves two separate in-groups moving farther apart, as their individual members are drawn toward more extreme versions of the group’s general view. Note that social comparison could produce either form of polarization. In the first case, group members might change their views to reaffirm their self-conception as having stronger views than others in their in-group. In the second case, group members might change their views to move farther from the opposition. Perhaps they will engage in a kind of competition within their in-group to see who despises the views of the out-group the most, and has the strongest contrary views. As we note in the paper, this competition could take the form of ramping up. Naturally, that competition could happen within both groups at once.

    Now, to the badness of all this extremism. First, note that social comparison is not truth-sensitive. By that we mean that what causes people to alter their views or stated positions is predominantly a desire to hold a prized place within the in-group. The relevant incentive, then, is not to cease modifying one’s beliefs or stated positions once one arrives at the truth, but to stop once an even more extreme position would no longer impress one’s in-group. Our objection, then, is not to radical or “extreme” views as such, but rather to the process by which group members arrive at them. That process does not reliably track truth, but rather something else. Extreme views arrived at via the process of ramping up, driven by the mechanism of social comparison, are unlikely to be correct. And if they are correct, this will be a matter of luck.

    But perhaps some readers will insist that the purest version of their in-group’s beliefs just are true. Accordingly, social comparison within their group might just be a force for the good, as it could lead the well-meaning but slightly morally backwards members to get in line. These readers might think that ramping up sounds like a great idea. But even if this were true, recall that social comparison also works across groups. So the out-group to our imagined reader’s in-group might react with alarm to the rise of “extremism” in the opposition. The opposing in-group then has a bête noire from which to differentiate itself. And since this group has bad beliefs ex hypothesi, they will be made even worse (we may suppose) as its members struggle for the title of most-different from the reader’s group. Thus during the Cold War, for instance, one popular rationale for becoming a fascist was that a strong movement was needed to combat the menace of communism. That is a particularly nasty example, of course, and other cases might be less nasty depending on the opposing groups. The point is that whatever benefits one thinks will be secured by allowing one’s own group to arrive at more “extreme” beliefs through social comparison, these benefits must be weighed against the costs of further polarizing the out-group. The mechanism of social comparison may be useful to get the morally backwards of one’s own group in line, but we must keep in mind it will be used in similar manner by the “other” group, too. That may not be worth the cost.

    Again, we thank Professor Coady for his thoughtful contribution to this conversation.

  2. Hi Justin and Brandon (if I may),

    Having read the discussion, I would like to know what you think of moral education; i.e. the process by which all human beings acquire most of their basic moral beliefs. Roughly between the ages of 1-14, each of us formed such beliefs on the basis of a desire to conform to some in-group; i.e., our parents, teachers, peers or other cultural institutions. Yet, in reply to the critical precis, you suggest that moral beliefs formed in the manner aren’t reliable because they aren’t truth-sensitive. So why are any of our moral beliefs reliable? Is it true of every one of these beliefs that “if they are correct, this will be a matter of luck”?

    I should stress that I am not here interested in the pragmatic question of what good and bad effects these in-group desires have. This may be your ultimate focus, so you might demure from this purely epistemological question if they wish. But I nonetheless wonder if you might wish to gently back away from claims about in-group desires being truth-insensitive. That question, as Coady points out, seems to be wholly dependent on the truth or falsity of the beliefs held by the in-group itself. That is, unless you have some other reasons for thinking that moral conformism is in and of itself unreliable, reasons which do not deliver near-total skepticism about our socially inculcated moral beliefs?

  3. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the question. Consider the following rough and ready principle: adopt moral views that one believes will thereby lead those in one’s in-group to be morally impressed. This seems to us to be bad epistemic advice. There are indeed possible worlds in which following this advice will reliably yield true beliefs (e.g., worlds in which you reliably impress only those people who are truly sages, those sages are reliably impressed only by true statements, etc.). But we don’t think that we are in such a world.

    Suppose, however, that someone thought this was a good epistemic principle. But why think that? Why think that impressing other people is a responsible epistemic procedure?

    Note also that social comparison is importantly different from conformism. One can conform as a matter of epistemic humility: one doesn’t know what to think, or doesn’t have the resources to investigate, and so defers to others or to a tradition. But the sort of social comparison we have in mind–the kind that plausibly explains why grandstanding occurs–is not motivated by epistemic humility, but rather by what psychologists Tappin and McKay (2016) call the “illusion of moral superiority.”

    It seems unlikely to us that young children and parents are locked in a struggle to impress one another with their alleged moral bona fides. If they were, we think this would not be a good mechanism for moral education or belief revision.

  4. Thanks to everyone above for getting this discussion going.

    After rereading the article and discussion, I find I still have a hard time nailing down what exactly is supposed to be included under the label ‘moral grandstanding’ and why. Here are a few specific questions, some related to points Tony raised in his precis.

    1. Moral grandstanding is defined as a species of moral talk (p. 198). But why restrict it to talk? For example, why shouldn’t ostentatious acts of charitable giving or self-sacrifice count as grandstanding when those actions are motivated by the relevant recognition desire? Surely there is nothing in the general idea of ‘grandstanding’ that it is only exhibited through talk, so why should ‘moral grandstanding’ be so limited?

    2. You say that there are two central features that characterize paradigm cases of moral grandstanding: (a) the recognition desire and (b) the grandstanding expression. But, so far as I can tell, the only defining feature of a ‘grandstanding expression’ is that it is a contribution to public moral discourse motivated in part by the recognition desire. Is this right, or are there some non-motivational elements that are part of determining whether a given moral utterance counts as a ‘grandstanding expression.?

    3. If (2) is correct, then the official account seems to include too much. To count as grandstanding, the recognition desire needs to be a “significant” motivator, but it need not be either the only or the strongest motivation for the expression. It’s enough that “if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.”

    On this account, all the moral utterances of anyone who has a significant interest in others’ moral estimation of her will count as grandstanding, even if her primary concern is to advance rational moral discourse. The mere fact that she’s also going to be disappointed if her constructive contributions don’t also lead others to hold her in greater esteem makes her a grandstander, even if the self-regarding motive alone is always overridden by her concern with positive moral discourse. For example, Aristotle’s virtuous person has the virtue of ‘megalopsychia,’ which includes a desire to be honored by others in proportion to his virtue. Does this make all of his moral utterances cases of grandstanding?

    4. As Tony notes in his precis, it’s not clear that we should think of moral discourse as having only one function. Tony points out that, in addition to contributing to rational deliberation about moral principles an their application, we might also want to signal things like solidarity with others. Once we recognize that public moral discourse is more than just a rational debate in the seminar room, however, the idea that concern with the moral esteem of others should be a disqualifying motive (even where it is balanced and constrained with other motives) seems much more dubious.

    In your conclusion you say, “But there is nothing about our practice
    of moral talk or the purposes to which it is admirably put that demands
    that interlocutors seek recognition for their purported morally respect-
    able status.” (p. 217) But how psychologically plausible is it that moral discourse can serve the broader function “to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world” without some role for signaling, recognizing, and rewarding high moral status when it’s been properly earned?

  5. Hi Derek, thanks for the questions. We apologize in advance for the length of our replies.

    You’re right to point out that elements of something like grandstanding might be found in actions that don’t involve talk at all. As we tried to make clear in the paper, we don’t think we’re giving a traditional analysis of a concept, with necessary and sufficient conditions, so we’re happy to admit that there are examples that are hard to classify under the conditions we developed. We focus on moral talk specifically because it seems more central to the phenomenon of grandstanding, and is less ambiguous than other actions like gestures, facial expressions, symbolic acts, and many other sorts of non-linguistic acts (e.g., publicly writing a large check to Oxfam).

    The costs and benefits of moral talk also generally fall within a narrower range, as talk alone usually accomplishes little good unless people reacting to it accordingly. But if I donate a hospital wing in my own name, I’ll likely have done a great deal of good, even if some find it gauche to have the wing named for me rather than making the donation anonymously. Of course there will be cases of talk and action on both sides here, but it is typically easier to do net good through an ostentatious action than it is through mere ostentatious moral talk. Hence the common criticism: all talk, no action.

    2. We appreciate the invitation to say more about the second feature of our account, the making of the grandstanding statement. We’ll add a few remarks that originally appeared in the paper but were cut somewhere in the process. Before doing so, we want to stress how difficult it is to characterize what a “grandstanding statement” is. Compare: If we were to ask for an account of “lying statements” or “bullshitting statements,” this would be hard to do. What does a lie *look* like? What are the concrete markers of sentences that would indicate whether you are bullshitting us? At the very least, we suspect there are few things to say about the semantic content alone that would tip you off to whether lying or bullshitting has occurred. We think something similar is true of grandstanding. There are, we think, a few markers and contextual clues that raise justified suspicion (these we identify in the second section of the paper), but the rest of the story is complicated, and necessarily so. But we will try to explain one way of thinking about the grandstanding statement and its connection to the recognition desire.

    In order to succeed in grandstanding, one must, of course, say or do something. But whether one succeeds in grandstanding is *not* simply a matter of (1) desiring to be seen as morally respectable; and (2) asserting a sentence (or perhaps asking a question) with just *any* semantic content. It is also a matter of what specific content is asserted, how the content is asserted, the context in which it is asserted, and the audience to which the statement is directed. This is because, in order to grandstand, one must be able to exploit features of the world external to oneself. One does so by exploiting certain moral, social, and linguistic conventions as well as the fact that one’s audience understands those conventions.

    To bring this point into relief we can consider some cases in which someone *fails* to grandstand. Imagine a case where someone desires to be seen as morally respectable and yet says something that does not conventionally present herself as being morally respectable with regard to the matter at hand. Suppose that the topic at hand is the nature of our obligations to the poor. One interlocutor, desirous that others think her morally respectable with regard to our obligations to the poor, says “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Perhaps there are bizarre contexts in which such a statement would be a reasonable way of trying to present oneself as morally respectable. But in most such cases, one would fail to grandstand because one has failed to exploit the right kinds of linguistic conventions.

    Here is another way to fail to grandstand. Suppose a speaker desires to be seen as morally respectable and makes a statement that would typically be of the right sort, but unwittingly states it in a tone that is sarcastic, and that everyone takes it to be sarcastic. The audience would then take the speaker not to be grandstanding, but rather to be making fun of someone who would say such a thing. On our view, while the speaker might have *attempted* to grandstand, she will have failed to do so in virtue of her failing to exploit successfully the right kinds of moral, social, and linguistic conventions.

    The general point, then, is that we think that one cannot simply state *anything* in *any way* and succeed in grandstanding. One’s *performance* of the grandstanding statement must also be of the right sort. Yet we have not yet said what the right sort of statement or performance is. Here we offer a simple heuristic for determining whether one’s performance of a grandstanding statement is of the right sort: Does the speaker present herself in such a way that others in the same (or similar) moral, social, and linguistic community could reasonably infer from the performance that the speaker is morally respectable regarding the matter at hand?

    If the answer is “no,” it is likely because the speaker failed to assert the right kind of semantic content (e.g., by saying “These pretzels are making me thirsty”), or did so in a way that would undermine an audience’s belief that the grandstanding statement was made sincerely (e.g. making the statement in an obviously sarcastic or ironic tone).

    On the other hand, if the answer is “yes” then the speaker has probably performed the grandstanding statement in a way that allows her to succeed in grandstanding. It is crucial to note, however, that in order to pass this test, no one in the speaker’s audience need actually to come to believe that the speaker is morally respectable on the basis of the performance. In fact, a grandstander could pass this test and yet fail to convince anyone that she is morally respectable in the way she desires. Rather, all that the audience must conclude is something like: “Yes, I can see why someone would think this person is morally respectable about the matter at hand because of what she just said.”

    We offer this test only as a heuristic for determining whether one’s performance of the grandstanding statement disqualifies one from grandstanding. While we think the test is a good one so far as it goes, it is important to see just how tricky it is to nail down plausible requirements regarding both the semantic content of the grandstanding statement and the manner in which the statement is performed. On the one hand, it seems mistaken to think that one could assert just any semantic content or do so in just any way. While one might *want* to impress others with one’s moral credentials, one could fail to do if what one did was to recite the backward ABCs, or sing U2’s “Lemon.” So there must be some external constraints on what can count as grandstanding. That is, successful grandstanding is not simply a matter of what the grandstander desires and intends to do with her speech. Lying and bullshitting are like this, too. If I desire to bullshit you, but in attempting to do so I sing U2’s “Lemon,” I have failed to bullshit you.

    On the other hand, certain kinds of constraints on the grandstander’s assertion are too strong. It is not a requirement on grandstanding, for example, that an audience member comes to believe that the speaker is morally respectable in the desired way on the basis of her speech. Even more clearly, it is not a requirement that an audience member comes to believe *correctly* that the speaker is morally respectable in the desired way on the basis of her speech. An account of grandstanding should be able to allow both that Donald Trump could grandstand regarding his allegedly unparalleled care for the working class and that his audience could correctly believe that he does not actually care in this way (even if he thinks he does). Our proposed heuristic cuts a middle path: it introduces external constraints on what counts as grandstanding, but does not introduce constraints that would require that, say, in order to grandstand, one must successfully get one’s audience to believe that one is morally respectable in the desired way.

    You might want more than this. We don’t know if more can be offered. Similar hurdles will be encountered, we think, in giving accounts of lying, bullshitting, bragging, and many other discursive phenomena, and aren’t uniquely problematic for grandstanding, so far as we can see. It would be very difficult indeed to give a plausible account of lying according to which, with that theory in hand, you could simply see a sentence written on Facebook and know whether or not it was a lie. We do not see why a plausible account of grandstanding should be held to a more demanding standard.

    3. You write: “On this account, all the moral utterances of anyone who has a significant interest in others’ moral estimation of her will count as grandstanding, even if her primary concern is to advance rational moral discourse.” We don’t think this follows. Forgive us for being sticklers here. Our account doesn’t say that making a moral utterance and having an interest in others’ moral estimation of oneself together constitute grandstanding. Rather, one grandstands when one makes that moral utterance *in large part because* one wants to morally impress others. I might have a significant interest in how others morally assess me without that being a significant motivation for saying what I do. Analogy: you might have a significant interest in how your partner assesses your level of compassion. But this could be true without it also being true that when you give her flowers, you do so in large part because you want to impress her with your level of compassion. You may simply want to show her that she is appreciated and assure her that you care for her.

    You conclude: “Aristotle’s virtuous person has the virtue of ‘megalopsychia,’ which includes a desire to be honored by others in proportion to his virtue. Does this make all of his moral utterances cases of grandstanding?” Our reply: Were all of his moral utterances strongly motivated by a desire to impress others with his virtue? If not, then our answer would be No.

    To be clear, we do not defend, and we do not think anything we have said commits us to, the claim that one should not desire to be appropriately morally regarded. But even if this desire is generally appropriate, that does not mean that any way of trying to satisfy it is also appropriate. Our worry with grandstanding is that it is generally an inappropriate way of going about satisfying a natural, and perhaps even morally benign desire: that others think morally highly of us. Our contention is that, in general, public moral discourse isn’t the appropriate venue for that kind of project.

    4. We would respond to your fourth point along the same lines. We don’t think that moral talk should not signal at all. Nor do we think that it is wrong to hold people in higher esteem for having a good character. What we do object to is turning moral talk into an esteem competition, or having status-seeking as one’s primary motive in engaging in moral talk. In context, the sentence you quote makes the point that people are capable of restraining themselves from acting on the impulse to seek recognition. This is true of violent urges and sexual desire, both of which are arguably stronger than the recognition desire. So we doubt that avoiding (or at least reducing) grandstanding is all that psychologically implausible.

  6. Thanks for the detailed reply – this is definitely helpful. I certainly don’t mean to be demanding a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but I do think there’s still a bit of unclarity on whether the present account is formulated to provide room for a reasonable concern with the moral regard in which we are held by others.

    You say that you’re not opposed to the desire to be held in such regard – you only object to the use of moral grandstanding as a means of achieving it. But the question is whether there is enough distance in your account between being motivated by such a desire and having one’s moral discourse count as grandstanding.

    You claim that there is, because moral grandstanding requires “*in large part because* one wants to morally impress others.” But in the paper, the test for this condition is simply “if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.” I need not be inappropriately obsessed with my own moral standing to be disappointed if my esteem-worthy contributions to public moral discourse don’t contribute to esteem.

    The analogy with giving flowers to a romantic partner is instructive here. Even if my primary motive in giving the flowers is “to show her that she is appreciated and assure her that you care for her” (notice that this already involves a different kind of recognition desire), I may reasonably be disappointed if the recipient doesn’t also notice how this reflects well on me as a partner.

    Perhaps, then my objection is just to your suggested test for when an action is ‘motivated in large part’ by the recognition desire. But perhaps the worry is that the strength of the recognition desire should be less important than whether it is appropriately balanced with other, more central motivations. In the problematic cases of grandstanding you identify, it seems that the problem is not so much with the existence of the recognition desire – it’s that that desire is given inappropriate precedence over other more central aims of moral discourse.

    This is why I thought of the example of Aristotle’s ‘great-souled person’ (that is, someone with the virtue of megalopsychia). This person strongly desires deserved honor. Such a person would clearly be disappointed if they made esteem-worthy contributions to public moral discourse without recognition. But she would not seek to achieve such recognition in ways that undermined the appropriate aims of moral discourse, because she only wants deserved recognition. Perhaps we should be less eager than Aristotle to count this trait as a virtue, but it would also seem odd that such a strong but well-calibrated recognition desire should make one a grandstander.

  7. Hi Derek,

    Sorry for this slow reply, and thanks for your comments.

    You say: “You claim that there is, because moral grandstanding requires “*in large part because* one wants to morally impress others.” But in the paper, the test for this condition is simply “if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.” I need not be inappropriately obsessed with my own moral standing to be disappointed if my esteem-worthy contributions to public moral discourse don’t contribute to esteem.”

    Here is what we say in the paper: “So how much motivational force must the recognition desire con- tribute for one’s contribution to count as grandstanding? We think of grandstanding as a threshold notion. For a contribution to public moral discourse to count as grandstanding, the recognition desire must play a significant enough motivating role. Just how significant? We think that the desire must be strong enough that if the grandstander were to discover that no one actually came to think of her as morally respectable in the relevant way, she would be disappointed.”

    Our claim, then, is that the recognition desire must be strong enough to (typically?) cause disappointment if one found out no one was impressed. We are not claiming that if one is disappointed in this way, then one is therefore grandstanding, or even that one therefore has the recognition desire. Of course, one need not be “obsessed” with one’s moral standing in order to be disappointed in the way you mention. Yes, we can agree with that. But we don’t see how that affects our view. We are giving something approaching a necessary or central requirement concerning the recognition desire, not a sufficient condition on the recognition desire, or even grandstanding. Think of it this way: if one is indifferent to whether others come to be morally impressed, then one is probably not grandstanding.

    Your idea about the balance among one’s motivations for acting is interesting, but we want to resist the claim that being motivated by the recognition desire is not problematic so long as one was also motivated by some even stronger desire. Consider the motivation base for some putative instance of grandstanding. Suppose there are two very strong desires, each of which is sufficient to motivate one’s statement. One desire is that the audience will be moved to sign a petition. Another desire is that they will be impressed that you boldly and courageously posted the petition and signed it. And suppose the former desire is stronger than the latter.
    Now suppose the latter desiree were publicly revealed somehow. It would be weird if that person tried to justify himself by saying, “well of course I said what I did in order to impress people, but as much as I wanted that, I also wanted even more to promote justice in the world by saying it.” We don’t think this would (or should) get them off the hook for grandstanding. Of course, there are lots of various combinations of strengths of desires we could put into the motivation base and test our theory. But we could do this with any account of lying, too. How strong does the desire to deceive have to be (assuming lying requires such a desire)? What relation must that desire have to other desires that might motivate one’s statement? Again, we think that our account of grandstanding should be held to no higher standard than are accounts of, say, lying or bullshitting.

    One other point on this matter is worth mentioning. One may have a standing desire X that states of affairs of type Y come about, do an act Z that, as it turns out, brings about a state of affairs of type Y, but yet not have that standing desire X be part of one’s motivational base in doing Z. Example: suppose I have a standing desire to eat healthy. One night, I fall in with some shady characters, who put a gun to my head and tell me to eat a piece of kale or they’ll shoot. I’m not particularly hungry, but I eat the kale anyway. Eating the kale brings about a state of affairs for which I have a standing desire, but that does not mean that standing desire played any motivational role in my eating the kale with a gun pressed against my temple. So it is with the kind of esteem you mention. Just because I have a standing desire for esteem, and my moral statements happen to bring me esteem, this does not mean that I made those statements on that occasion because (or even partly because) I wanted esteem.

    On the great-souled man–perhaps our formulation of the disappointment test is not sufficiently fine-grained. It’s meant to pick out cases in which a person is disappointed because the desire they aimed to fulfill by grandstanding has been frustrated. Our Aristotle is a bit rusty, but we can imagine three great-souled men: (1) one who is disappointed that his plan to attain deserved honor through public discourse failed; (2) one who is disappointed simply that he has not attained deserved honor; (3) one who is disappointed to live in a society where virtue is not rewarded, without special reference to his own case. We don’t know which (if any) of these is Aristotle’s, but we’re only after (1) as a grandstander–though (2)’s desire seems to us a slavish one.

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