Features, Philosophy

On Moral Outrage and Humility

The recent #DeleteUber campaign provides a useful example of moral outrage. As Matthew Dessem details at Slate, amid protests to the Trump administration’s refugee ban at JFK International Airport, The New York Taxi Workers Alliance stopped service for an hour in a show of solidarity. When Uber subsequently announced its surge pricing at JFK had been turned off, many interpreted this as a move to break up the strike, and thus, as anti-refugee. The #DeleteUber hashtag then began trending on Twitter, with people encouraging others to delete the app from their phone.

Brand protests are nothing new, of course and as Dessem prefaces his piece by noting “a lot of reasons to not use the ride-hailing app Uber,” among them “shoddy labor practices” and “attempts to strong arm local governments.” For those inclined to #DeleteUber, I wonder why these did not provide the imperative to moral outrage? But from a logical point of view, I could also question why they have smartphones at all, given the likelihood that their phone manufacturer uses component parts that are the result of child labor.


In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau writes, “I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent, but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.” I’ve always been struck by this quote and what it implies about ethical dissent, or more particularly, whether such dissent is even possible. Thoreau is less concerned with what his particular dollar buys than with what it symbolizes, a tacit approval of state sanctioned violence and oppression (meaning, for Thoreau, the Mexican War and slavery).

I admit, even in these times in which we live, I rarely find myself moved to anything like true moral outrage. I find myself paralyzed by that word, “trace.” I wonder which of my first-world creature comforts make me culpable in global misery, which don’t, and how I might possibly begin to untangle that web. I wonder how I could deign to take on a position of self-righteousness in the face of my ignorance. As a PhD student, my research interests are satire, religious skepticism, and free speech. Censorship, then, is perhaps the most frequent in moving me to that positon, towards posting some long-winded rant on social media, for example. And each such instance is inevitably followed by private feelings of embarrassment—that I’ve indulged one instance of outrage, where I’ve lived in happy ignorance of a thousand outrages, many of these of far greater breadth.


For most of the #DeleteUber folks, they remain blissfully unaware of Uber’s labor and business practices, or whether their phone’s affordability hinges on the exploitation of 13-year-olds.

In his 1993 article, “Some Observations on Psychological Process Among Organized American Opponents to the Gulf War,” Ted Goertzel notes the case of the Gulf Peace Team activists, who:

[S]et up a peace camp on the border between occupied Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Their goal was to prevent a war between the United States and Iraq by interposing their bodies between the two armies . . . The Peace Team illustrates the selective outrage characteristic of some peace activists. They felt no obligation to protest the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, nor did they make any statement about the reports of Iraqi atrocities in that country. Peace Team member Agnes Bauerlein told this writer that the Peace Team members were completely unaware of the allegations of Iraqi atrocities which were widely broadcast at the time. They were isolated in the Iraqi desert without any access to the news media.

Ironically then, the moral outrage of these activists blinded them to the existence of other moral outrages. They put themselves in a position, physically in this case, that kept them ignorant.

We see this play out in a more figurative sense all the time, the response to the refugee ban being no exception. In a social media post denouncing the ban, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill observes:

If you want to know what the consequences of the ban are likely to be for people fleeing desperate situations, you don’t have to look back to Nazi Germany — you just have to look back to last year when the Obama administration suddenly and cruelly stopped the arrival of refugees from Haiti.

He likewise commented on liberal indifference to Obama’s support for the bombing of Yemen and Yemeni civilian casualties. We could similarly question the seeming lack of moral outrage in relation to the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes, its policy on extrajudicial killings, its efforts in Syria, or its other military catastrophes, like the erroneous airstrike on a civilian hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 people .

None of this is to suggest that the moral outrage that has resulted from the refugee ban (and which looks likely to dog the Trump administration for the duration), is wrong, or that the impulse for moral outrage is necessarily unhealthy. My fixation on moral tracing might charitably be described as moral discernment, but could as easily be called moral meekness. It’s the there-are-starving-children-in-Africa fallacy (we might also call this the there-are-bigger-fish-to-fry fallacy), which paralyzes us into inaction by insisting there are more pressing matters. And of course, there are always more pressing matters (even if Thoreau insisted we could successfully extricate ourselves from all moral culpability, which seems unlikely, he recognized that, practically speaking, we can’t fight all wrong in all places at all times).

On the other end of the spectrum though, if we are passive in our moral outrage, only reacting to what happens to catch our attention, or our moral outrage only extends so far as our partisan politics, and we react to only what is allowed to pierce our partisan bubbles, or if our moral outrage is wielded disproportionately (e.g. reacting with the same fervor to a humanitarian crisis as to some Oscars controversy), we run the risk of both moral arrogance and sacrificing our moral credibility.

Much like I try to match my scholarly beliefs with intellectual humility, I rather hope to match my moral outrage with moral humility. Even Thoreau recognized the necessity of such humility, offering his own caveat, “This, then is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his gaur in such a case, lest his actions be biased by obstinacy or an undue regard for the opinions of men.”


Patrick Chambers is a PhD candidate in Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.


  1. As regards your point concerning the 13-year-old child employed in the manufacture of smartphones in the developing world, it has been said that if these children did not work in this industry many would turn to prostitution in order to survive as there is no welfare state. So, while one can understand the moral outrage generated by child labour in the industrial sector, there would (rightly) be greater outrage where these youngsters to turn to prostitution in order to survive. Kevin

    • Yeah, the “sweat shops” dilemma only exists in the Western mind, and is perhaps inspired by UN declarations that “everybody has a right to compulsory education”– something that is problematic on several levels. Sweat shops [can be] amazing boons for children and their families alike, within reason of course.

      • I think you’re right about the gut reaction to these sweat shops. They are better than the (stated) alternative. But isn’t this a *bit* like punching a little kid in the face and saying “you ought to be glad it’s ME doing this–the guy behind me is much bigger.”

        And this is the problem; the comparison to the default situation leaves other *better* solutions unspoken, just because “it could be worse.” I think the point in the article stands up: these are really bad situations that we don’t care about. Of course things could be worse. That doesn’t mean it isn’t bad now.

        • The operative question is whether the expected result of action option A is better or worse than that of B (C, etc.).

  2. Lot’s of obfuscation here but let’s point out the biggest deflection. I’m always leery of a regime defender when they point out that the prior regime did it too (and worse!)

    Of course this, first and foremost, lacks any moral logic. What about the Obama administration’s limitation on Haitian refugees has any impact on the morality of the current ban? Secondarily – unless I’m far from the mark – Haitians weren’t banned be cause they were Roman Catholics were they? The religious overtones (real or perceived matters not) is what prompts comparisons with Nazism, not simply that act of barring refugees (as Obama did in 2011 after real security issues were uncovered) for non-sectarian reasons.

    • When Chambers mentions moral arrogance running the risk of passivity or *partisanship,* I dare say you’re making his point.

      This is an essay filled with reflection and the pointing out of his own hypocrisies. I respect any attempt to do that, and this one is particularly good. I don’t know that he ever condemns or supports the EO. And Chambers himself points out the fallacy of just ignoring bad things because *other* bad things have been done; the paralysis that comes as a result of that.

      In other words, I think you missed the point here: this isn’t about defending Trump’s terrible EO, it’s about having some skepticism towards one’s own sense of moral outrage, trying to keep a broader picture in mind, find the planks in one’s own eye. This instead of constantly shouting about how terrible everyone else is. Outrage can spur us to action or blind us to our own bulls**t. It’s important to try to keep it in perspective.

      I recommend “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace for a similar kind of point.

    • Hardly a regime defender here Mack, this is actually a well thought out piece about keeping our tendency for moral outrage in perspective

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