One of the themes of Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition is that the West is characterized by the paramount importance of moral communities rather than communities based on kinship. Another fundamental feature of the West is monogamous marriage. Thus I found it fascinating that a recent study undergoing the review process found that moral outrage, especially by males, acts as a cue to mate value in monogamous marriage. Since women want mates who fit into their moral community, men who signal moral outrage compatible with the values of that community are seen as good marriage prospects. All of the subjects were White and they were given images of opposite-sex people—leading me to wonder whether the paper will be rejected because it implicitly endorses opposite-sex relationships and White-White relationships as standard.
That may seem completely over the top, but just recently two professors, one at Michigan State and one at the University of Colorado, wrote a paper promoting a moral panic because people may be unconsciously performing microaggressions during Zoom videoconferencing that is now so common because of the virus.
“For example, when the virtual background of a Zoom meeting attendee has pictures of his or her wedding, it unintentionally reinforces the idea that marriage is most fitting between opposite sexes.” https://t.co/h1mfeSrJmr
— Kevin Under-House-Arrest MacDonald (@TOOEdit) May 24, 2020
From the article:
“In a recent videoconference, we were asked the ‘most fun thing you’ve done with your family during quarantine.’ Participant answers ranged from ‘gardening with my husband’ to ‘dance parties with my family,’” Viveiros said.
MSU’s article explains that sharing these types of experiences “crowd out the experiences of people with minoritized social identities and that “asking about ‘fun family things’ prevented several Latinx attendees from sharing their experiences of losing family members to novel coronavirus.”
So I wouldn’t be surprised if the paper was rejected because it didn’t have a diverse subject sample and didn’t depict all the possible mating scenarios—male-male, female-female, with all the possible racial combinations. But I digress.
The images in the moral outrage experiment depicted White people as performing
behaviors designed to connote both anger toward perceived injustice and an effortful response to it that could not be construed merely as virtue signaling (e.g., advocacy work to pay NCAA athletes, working to end human trafficking, removing plastic straws from beaches to help sea turtles), or control activities (e.g., intramural sports, working as an RA, playing video games).
Since the most obviously exploited NCAA athletes are Black stars in football and basketball who pack the stadiums and field houses of college campuses and thereby paying the multi-million dollar salaries of the (predominantly White) coaches, this would bring up images of Whites behaving altruistically toward oppressed Blacks.
One can imagine how this plays out on college campuses. Boy meets girl and wants to show that he is a good long-term possibility as a mate. (If he wanted to communicate that he was a good short-term mate, he should be working on his biceps.) A good way to do that would be to be aware of what moral community the women is part of. And that would typically mean the moral community of the mainstream media and the academic left which is being propagandized by pretty much the entire faculty. So he might steer the conversation to current events and, knowing she is your typical liberal arts major, he could express moral outrage at the latest Trump outrage. Or at the Georgia shooting of the Black “jogger.” He would thereby indicate that he is not only a good person but someone who promises to be a pillar of their shared moral community, whether at the university or in the wider society of young urban professionals. And it would be even better if he told her that he is a sociology major and is donating his free time to a Black charity, thus implying that he is not merely virtue-signaling. All else equal, he’d be well on his way to establishing a relationship.
Of course, all else won’t be equal, and he might get docked for other qualities like earning potential—not good for sociology majors. But he could help himself in that department by saying he’s going to get into a good law school when he graduates. Not a bad strategy because having a social justice background would certainly be a leg up in the application process.
It’s interesting that all of the subjects in the experiment were White college students. I rather doubt that results would be similar for non-Western peoples. There is certainly overlap in some of the desired traits, like social status or potential social status (earning power). It is my observation that Blacks don’t judge politicians by their moral pronouncements or their behavior (like corruption), but by their appealing to Black identity and interests (welfare, the criminal justice system, affirmative action). Otherwise Maxine Waters would be long gone. The moral pronouncements of such people are strictly for White consumption.
Here’s a relevant passage from Chapter 8 of Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition:
The conviction of self-righteousness … need not be rational:
What feels like a conscious life-affirming moral choice—my life will have meaning if I help others—will be greatly influenced by the strength of an unconscious and involuntary mental sensation that tells me that this decision is “correct.” It will be this same feeling that will tell you the “rightness” of giving food to starving children in Somalia, doing every medical test imaginable on a clearly terminal patient … . It helps to see this feeling of knowing as analogous to other bodily sensations over which we have no direct control.
In other words, the sensations of rightness and nobility act as psychological reflexes, and they are so pleasurable that people are inclined to seek them in their own right and without regard to facts or the long-run consequences to themselves.
Talk to an insistent know-it-all who refuses to consider contrary opinions and you get a palpable sense of how the feeling of knowing can create a mental state akin to addiction. … Imagine the profound effect of feeling certain that you have ultimate answers. … Relinquishing such strongly felt personal beliefs would require undoing or lessening major connections with the overwhelmingly seductive pleasure-reward circuitry. Think of such a shift of opinion as producing the same type of physiological changes as withdrawing from drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes.
Feelings of moral righteousness may thus be pleasurable and lead to addiction. “Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again.”
The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong. Or, that your method of helping others is so purely motivated and correct that all criticism can be dismissed with a shrug, along with any contradicting evidence.
This type of sanctimoniousness is, of course, particularly common among the people labeled “Social Justice Warriors.” These are the people screaming “racist,” “misogynist,” “white supremacist,” etc. at any seeming violation of the norms of the moral communities of the left. And, because of the cultural hegemony of the left, such people can often be seen on social media (and in op-eds in the mainstream media) expressing their moral righteousness—a moral righteousness that fits with or extends the boundaries of the cultural left.
Another aspect of this is competitive altruism or competitive virtue signaling. Given that expressions of moral righteousness are typically communicated in a social setting and are aimed at solidifying or enhancing one’s reputation within a group, there may be competition for ever more extreme expressions of self-righteousness—even among people who are not biologically inclined to be high on the Love/Nurturance system. Extreme expressions of moral righteousness are not only addicting, they may also raise one’s status in a social group, just as it’s common for religious people to express “holier than thou” sentiments. Strongly religious people compete to be most virtuous in their local church. On the left, we see vegan fanatics shunning vegans who even talk to people who eat meat or eat in restaurants where meat is served—even family members. I imagine there is a dynamic within antifa groups—the shock troops of the establishment’s views on race and migration—where people who do not condone violence or are unwilling to crack heads themselves are ostracized or at least have much less status.
The result is a “feed forward” process in which the poles of political discourse move ever farther apart. For example, well-publicized attacks on Confederate statues have quickly morphed into attacks on Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus. Sympathy among liberals for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants has morphed into calls by prominent Democrats to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), make border crossing legal, and give them health care, driver’s licenses, voting rights, and ultimately citizenship. Inviting anyone remotely associated with conservative ideas—much less the racialist Right—to give a talk at a college campus has morphed from a tolerated rarity to a context for angry protests, rioting, injuries to conservatives, and damage to property.
Indeed, I suggest that this competitive virtue signaling is a major cause of the increasing polarization that we see in the United States and throughout the West in the age of social media. A Pew Research Center survey on changes in U.S. political culture from 1994–2017 found that the increasing divide between Republicans and Democrats, especially on immigration and race, was much more due to the median views of Democrats shifting left.
Nevertheless, a theoretically similar phenomenon exists on the right as, for example, when individuals condemn others for being insufficiently militant or ideologically pure. However, because the left dominates the cultural landscape, such competitive virtue signaling has had most of its effects on the left. Such competitive virtue signaling from both the left and the right is highly characteristic of the social dynamics of social media sites and journalism.
People on the right face the danger of “doxxing,” having their identity and personal information made public. Hosts of shows in the mainstream media may have to cope with losing sponsors and hence their livelihood; e.g., as of March, 2019, Fox News host Tucker Carlson had lost around 30 sponsors, mainly because of his comments on immigration. Or people may fear losing their job as a result of a phone call to their place of employment by a self-described “civil rights” organization such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League. This may well be why it is the left that has become more extreme in recent decades, whereas far too many on the right attempt to mollify their leftist critics by knuckling under to their moral righteousness.
The cultural domination of the left has meant that certain views are off-limits for all but the most daring. Thus, media sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, while definitely to the right of the mainstream media, avoid explicit advocacy of White identity and interests. Such constraints are much less apparent on the left, with the result that the left continues to get more and more extreme in their views. As I write, views on immigration noted above and on abortion (making abortion legal up until or even shortly after birth) that used to be virtually non-existent among Democrats are increasingly being espoused by mainstream Democrat politicians and pundits.
A critical consequence of this is racial polarization. White Americans have been shifting toward the Republican Party—the last Democrat president to get a majority of White votes was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In general, this is an expression of implicit Whiteness (discussed below), as non-White groups coalesce in the Democratic Party. The point here is that such trends are likely to increase and polarization become more severe.
 Robert A. Burton, “Pathological Certitude,” in Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Sloan Wilson (eds.), Pathological Altruism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 131–37, 135.
 Ibid., 136.
 David Brin, “Self-addiction and Self-righteousness,” in Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Sloan Wilson (eds.), Pathological Altruism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 77–84, 80.
 Ibid., 80.
 Pew Research Center, “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider” (October 5, 2017).
 Jeremy Barr, “Without Major Sponsors, Tucker Carlson’s Show Leans on Ads for Fox Programming,” The Hollywood Reporter (March 22, 2019).
 Mitch Brown et al., “Demonstrate Values: Behavioral Displays of Moral Outrage as a Cue to Long-Term Mate Potential,” unpublished ms, Fairleigh Dickinson University (2020).