Resisting the allure of moral grandstanding
On choosing between virtue and the mere appearance of it
We are living in an age of the visible moral gesture. It seems that all events of some note in our cultural or political life are accompanied by statements of support or opprobrium from anyone with a Twitter account. Social media has democratized the opportunity to weigh in. It allows us to instantly speak in support of, or against, causes we feel are worthy of attention, with hashtags amplifying our words.
These gestures are often made with the best of intentions, and the sentiment they reflect—the wish to engage in the act of building a better world through praising the praiseworthy, or the converse—is admirable. There seems to me no question that some of this social media statement-ing has brought attention to important issues, elevating necessary conversations. But it also seems worth wondering if our focus on these gestures is really helping advance the cause of creating a better world. Could our outpouring of moral gestures on the occasion of, well, everything, be less effective than we think it to be? Could it even be a distraction from what we should be doing to shape a better future?
These questions raise the uncomfortable issue of moral grandstanding. By moral grandstanding, a term originating in psychology, I mean acting and speaking in ways which project the appearance of morality not for the sake of issues themselves, but as a means of reaping the social benefits of being seen to be a good person. It is similar to a term many of us have heard, “virtue signaling.” Such behavior has long been with us. History and literature are full of examples of people who have achieved status by broadcasting a virtue which they may or may not actually possess. Moral grandstanding, and the tendency towards hypocrisy, is also warned against in some of the major religions, as in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, a tenet of Christianity.
Few of us can say we have not indulged, at one time or another, in moral grandstanding. With social media, moral grandstanding takes on a whole new prominence, because we can all grandstand for everyone to see, with instant affirmation (more followers, more likes). One could argue it has become a form of recreation in recent years, as our technologies have made it easy to instantly weigh in on any issue. In our defense, perhaps, these technologies have made it challenging to do anything in private even when we wish to, so closely intertwined with our lives have they become. To speak out at all, then, is often to do so amplified by technology, as this technology becomes ever-more synonymous with everyday speech.
Why am I raising the issues of moral grandstanding? After all, moral grandstanding may strike us as perhaps annoying, but not necessarily needing to be taken that seriously. However, I suggest that is is indeed significant for efforts to build a healthy world. It has consequences not just for how we talk about health, but for our ability to pursue effective solutions to the problems we face. Given the proliferation of moral grandstanding in the social media age, it seems worth asking two questions. First, do we morally grandstand about health? Second, if so, how does this negatively affect our efforts towards a healthier world?
That we indeed morally grandstand about health is, I think, clear. We have seen this in the morally-tinged criticisms of those who have not followed public health guidance during the pandemic, and in the tendency, common on public health Twitter, to weigh in on social and political issues using language which reflects undue confidence in our place on the right side of history. There is, of course, a fine line between moral grandstanding and providing needed moral clarity. And I am not saying we should stop trying to provide the latter for fear of tipping into the former. However, if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard not to see how most of us succumb, from time to time, to the temptation of moral grandstanding, of voicing an opinion not just to clarify a debate, but for the social rewards of being seen to be right.
To the second question: are there negative consequences to this behavior? I would say yes. First, moral grandstanding is a distraction. It takes work to organize, coordinate, and sustain symbolic actions, from promoting social media campaigns, to coordinating public protest over an extended period of time. This means less energy to devote to the difficult and often quiet work of creating a social, economic, and political basis for better health. Moral grandstanding can also district us from the reality that the line between good and bad does not run between groups, but is, in fact, a line we all walk as individuals, with varying degrees of success.
Second, moral grandstanding makes it possible to mistake posturing for genuine progress. When we confuse seeming to create change with actually creating it, we risk being content with the appearance of doing necessary work while leaving the work itself undone. This can set back our efforts to promote health, while fooling us into thinking we have made progress and can therefore, perhaps, afford to pay less attention to the issues. It can even serve as cover for hypocrisy and unwillingness to see the changes we say we want. A classic example is the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomenon, in which ostensibly progressive neighborhoods resist policies which provide housing and services for marginalized communities. This has become almost a cliché in some cities, where local leaders make all the right noises about inclusion, while holding the line against policies that might give those words real meaning.
Third, when we morally grandstand, we can make it difficult to attract people who might support our cause but be uncomfortable about following our lead by loudly articulating their views. It takes time and patient work to change people’s minds, and when it appears this change must be accompanied by bumper stickers, statements on social media, and other proclamations, it can sow doubts about the prospect of advocating for it. In this way, moral grandstanding can be more than merely annoying, it can actively dissuade people from joining worthy causes, undermining the momentum of these movements. For public health to be truly inclusive, its message should be maximally charismatic, able to attract buy-in from wide swathes of the population. If we morally grandstand, we risk undercutting this support, to the detriment of our movement.
Perhaps the most fundamental objection to moral grandstanding is that it runs counter to the humility necessary for building a healthier world. I have written about the importance of humility, how it must always accompany our efforts, and how it is never more important than when we most believe we are right. While humility can coexist with an ingrained sense of morality, it cannot coexist with moral grandstanding. Indeed, the case could well be made that morality itself is warped by moral grandstanding, as we find our attitudes subtly shaped by trying to garner praise. Even when we are justified in grandstanding a bit, there will come a time when we are in the wrong, and in anticipation of that day, we should exercise humility in the moment, keeping our focus on doing the best we can without necessarily broadcasting our efforts.
This is all, admittedly, perhaps easier said than done. The temptation of moral grandstanding is always present in our work, and it is impossible not to yield to it from time to time. There is, I realize with some irony, an element of grandstanding in even talking about grandstanding as I have done here. And, at core, everyone who tries to articulate a better way of living and organizing society, which is the work of public health, runs the risk of moral grandstanding. However, it is precisely by accepting this reality that we open the door to the humility which can help ameliorate it. This humility can also help us in those times when the steps that are right for health are not the ones which are most popular in the moment. In order to do right, then, we must give up trying to always seem right in the eyes of others. We are then free to do what is necessary, in pursuit of a healthier world.
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In this week’s The Turning Point, Michael Stein and I write about the limits of public tolerance with rules and regulations.
I spoke with Adam Reilly on GBH about the importance of vaccines, living in a world with COVID-19, and why I am hopeful for the future.