It’s hard not to notice how heated and divided our public discourse has gotten, especially online. People insult and vilify each other, take unnuanced positions, and seem to be competing as to who can seem the most committed to a cause or the most outraged about an issue.
You may have called some of this behavior “virtue signaling,” but my guest today says that it’s better described as “moral grandstanding,” and he’s studied the phenomenon not in terms of eye-roll-inducing anecdotes, but through the lens of both philosophy and empirical research. His name is Brandon Warmke, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the co-author of the book Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Brandon begins by defining moral grandstanding as the act of engaging in moral talk for self-promotion and status, and explains why he thinks moral grandstanding is a better term for this behavior than virtue signaling. We get into the difference between prestige and dominance status and how moral grandstanding can be used to obtain both types. We then discuss why it’s tricky to know if you or someone else is engaging in moral grandstanding, before turning to whether there’s a personality type or a side of the political spectrum that’s more likely to grandstand. Brandon then delves into why moral grandstanding isn’t just an annoyance on social media, but comes with real costs to society. We end our conversation with what we can do about moral grandstanding.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM series on status
- AoM podcast #419 on American honor and the founders
- AoM podcast #714 on the complexity of understanding why we do the things we do
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another addition of The Art of Manliness podcast. It’s hard not to notice how heated and divided our public discourse has gotten, especially online. People insult and vilify each other, take unnuanced positions, and seem to be competing as to who can seem the most committed to a cause or the most outraged about an issue. You may have called some of this behavior “virtue signaling”, but my guest today says that it’s better described as “moral grandstanding” and he studied the phenomenon not in terms of eye-roll-inducing anecdotes, but through the lens of both philosophy and empirical research. His name is Brandon Warmke, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the co-author of the book “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk”.
Brandon begins by defining moral grandstanding as the active engaging in moral talk for self-promotion and status and explains why he thinks “moral grandstanding” is a better term for this behavior than “virtue signalling”. We then get into the difference between prestige and dominance status and how moral grandstanding can be used to obtain both types. We then discuss why it’s tricky to know if you or someone else is engaging in moral grandstanding, before turning to whether there’s a personality type or side of the political spectrum that’s more likely to grandstand. Brandon then delves into why moral grandstanding isn’t just an annoyance on social media, but comes with real cost to society, and we end our conversation with what we can do about moral grandstanding.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/moralgrandstanding. Alright, Brandon Warmke, welcome to the show.
Brandon Warmke: Hey, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a philosopher, and you…
No, literally, your are, you have PhD in Philosophy, you specialize in moral, social and political philosophy, and you co-authored a book with a guy named Justin Tosi called “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk”, and it’s all about moral grandstanding. So let’s talk about those definitions. How do you guys define moral grandstanding, what is that?
Brandon Warmke: The simplest way to think about… First of all, thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure. I’ve been reading your blog for… I think since the beginning, so this is actually really cool for me.
Brett McKay: Well, thanks man.
Brandon Warmke: So, the simplest way to think about moral grandstanding, if you were to put it on a bumper sticker, is that moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion. So people who get on Twitter or a cable news channel or even maybe around their friends and they make a contribution to some conversation about morality and politics largely because they want people to be impressed with them. They say something about immigration or about COVID, not so much to say something true or to persuade, but because they want recognition, they want to impress people with their moral status.
And so grandstanders can say all kinds of stuff. They might say something like, “As someone who has long fought for the poor, I find all these proposals to eliminate rent control laws disgusting. If you think these are even worth listening to you don’t care about poverty in this country, #dobetter.” Right? You can imagine someone saying something like that. And as we’ll see in a minute, just saying something like that doesn’t count as grandstanding. Grandstanding involves wanting to say something because you want to impress people, you wanna seek status.
Brett McKay: Okay, alright, so it’s moral talk plus seeking status. I’m sure people were listening to this description and thinking, “Well that’s virtue signaling.” That’s a word that has become part of the common vocabulary, I’d say in the past five years. How would you all differentiate moral grandstanding from virtue signaling, or is there even a difference?
Brandon Warmke: So this is a great question. For all practical purposes, I think that what people often mean when they talk about virtue signaling is just what we mean when we talk about grandstanding. I think they have the same basic idea in mind, which is people contributing to discussion about politics and morality in order to show off their moral bonafides to try to impress others.
However [chuckle], I have to say… So we started, Justin Tosi and I, started writing about this stuff in 2014. We were both PhD students at the University of Arizona, and around that time, looking at Facebook or Twitter, it just looked to us like a lot of people started using social media differently. It was almost like they were releasing corporate press releases, like “I stand against this, I’m for this.” And at the time, in 2014, the only term that we knew of to describe this sort of behavior was “moral grandstanding”. President Obama had accused Republicans of it, Republicans had accused Obama of it, and the term actually goes back to the 1800s, it was a term that originates from baseball, where a player would make some impressive catch on the outfield and sort of roll around and played the grandstands. And so these are the grandstand players, these sort of showy baseball players.
So the term has been in existence for a long time, and so when we started writing about grandstanding in our philosophical work, that’s all we knew. Now, flash-forward to about 2015 or ’16, this new term “virtue signaling”. It’s sort of weird, it feels like it’s been with us longer than it has, but it’s a relatively new term in public discourse, this term “virtue signalling” came into prominence. And for whatever reason, I think because it kinda sounds smart or sounds cool or something, that term has taken prominence. And so, often when we talk about our work people say, “Oh, you mean virtue signaling?” And we have to say yes. So, however, I have to say, I actually do think that “virtue signaling” is not the best term to describe this sort of behavior, and I’ll just briefly mention a couple reasons why we think this is so.
So, if you look at how psychologists and biologists or economists use the term “signaling”, you can mean a couple different things by it. So one way to signal something is to intentionally try to get people to think something about you. So I recently turned 40, Brett, and you can imagine I go through a mid-life crisis and I buy a fiberglass speed boat and a convertible and I start driving around town and I wanna signal something about me, right? “I’m still young”. And that’s something that I can do more or less consciously. I’m doing it deliberately, in full awareness of what I’m doing. That’s one kind of signaling. But there’s another kind of singling that people talk about, and that happens below the level of awareness, so think about like female chimpanzees, their rear ends swell up when they’re most fertile, and that’s a signal to the male chimps that it’s time to get to business. But that signal is not something that chimpanzees are intentionally doing, they’re not saying, “Okay, activate the butt signal!” That’s not what they’re doing, it just happens naturally, and yet it’s still a signal.
Okay, so why do I say all this? Because there’s this ambiguity built into virtue signalling, people often say things like, “Well, what’s wrong with virtue signalling? What’s wrong simply being seen doing something virtuous or good?” And we have no problem with people merely being seen doing something good, that’s not necessarily a problem. Our complaint is when people use public discourse intentionally, deliberately, to show off how good they think they are. And so, virtue signaling, it’s just ambiguous between these two different ways of saying something about yourself, and so for that reason and others that we go into in the book, we think that virtue signaling opens itself up to all kinds of confusion. Now, we’re not gonna get people to stop using that term, that ship has sailed. But we do think that a lot of the frustration or the confusion about the term “virtue signaling”, it’s become conscripted into the culture wars, those are good reasons to talk about grandstanding, because it avoids all these kinds of ambiguities.
Brett McKay: And also, moral grandstanding, you all focus on moral talk, so it’s not just behavior, ’cause you could see someone who, I don’t know, drives a Prius, for example, and it’s like, “Well that guy is virtue signaling.” You guys say, “Well maybe, maybe not. If they talk about it and make a big deal about it on social media with their friends that’s moral grandstanding, ’cause there’s like talking involved, whether that’s talking to someone face-to-face or typing out text.”
Brandon Warmke: That’s right, yeah, that’s a nice point. One of the things we point out in the book is grandstanding just refers to your contributions to public discourse. But as you rightly note, you can virtue signal simply with your non-linguistic behavior. As you said, driving a speed boat or buying a Cadillac or something, those things can signal something about me without ever uttering a word, and because we’re really interested in how people talk about morality and politics, that’s another reason to avoid this talk about signaling.
Brett McKay: Alright, so moral grandstanding, there’s moral talk, and it’s done with a desire for recognition or status, we want people to think something about us, particularly something good about us. And in the book you talk about there are two ways we can gain status, there’s prestige and dominance. So I guess I think it would be helpful to talk about the difference between the two types of status, prestige and dominance, and then how moral grandstanding can allow you to achieve those two different types of status.
Brandon Warmke: Good. So one way to think about grandstanding is that grandstanders are in it for the status, they’re in it because they’re trying to promote their own brand or promote their reputation, make themselves look good. And what psychologists tell us is that there’s two main ways to try to gain social status. We are status-seeking creatures. Like it or not, this is just what homo sapiens do. It’s up there with the drives for sex and food and relationships, and status seeking is just one of these things we do, it’s very important to us.
And one way to seek status is by seeking what psychologists call “prestige”, and a very simple way to think about prestige is that when you have high prestige, people look up to you. And they might look up to you because of your talent, right, so you’re a world-class tennis player, they might look up to you because of your knowledge, maybe you’re a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry or something, or they look up to you because of your wealth, you were able to create something that lots of people want.
And so when you’re high prestige, people look up to you. So that’s one way to gain status, another way to gain status is a little darker, and that is by dominance. Whereas with prestige, when you have it, people look up to you. When you have dominant status, people fear you. With our ancestors this might have been because you were physically imposing. I would not have had much dominant status in our ancient ancestors, but some people, Shaquille O’Neal or someone, would have had a massive dominant status, because they’re physically imposing.
Now, what does this have to do with grandstanding? Well, if you think about what a lot of people do online, just think about what happens on Twitter or cable news, some people use moral talk because they want prestige, they want people to look up to them for their moral insight, they want to be thought of as morally enlightened, somehow morally special, some kind of moral exemplar. They want to be seen often as being among the angels, they’re really on the right side of history. So some grandstanders, in some of our social scientific empirical work, what we’ve discovered is that among the grandstanders, the grandstanders who seek prestige are the more common sort. They want to be seen as really morally impressive.
But there is this darker form of grandstanding where people grandstand for dominance, they’ll use morality as a cudgel to shame or humiliate, doxing people, maybe de-anonymizing someone on Twitter, posting their phone numbers or their emails. And they do this for status, they want to push their enemies down and they want to look impressive and powerful to their in-group. And so one helpful way to think about grandstanding is that people are using morality to seek status. And so you can think of this in terms of prestige, and you can think of it in terms of dominance.
Brett McKay: Okay, and you guys have done research on this, does grandstanding actually work as a way to get status, either prestige or dominance?
Brandon Warmke: Well, I’ll be honest. We don’t know from our studies so far the extent to which grandstanding is successful. And by successful I just mean that you actually get people to think things about you. And you can think of this in many ways, like bragging. You might think bragging sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. And I think the same thing is true with grandstanding, I think sometimes it does work, sometimes you are able to convince people and sometimes you’re not. And we think there are two main factors that go into whether you’re successful at grandstanding: One is you’re more likely to be successful in your grandstanding among your in-group, among people who vaguely share your values, like you, think you’re on the right side, and so on.
The best illustration of this, I think, is a few years ago, you or some of your listeners may recall, at the Golden Globes Meryl Streep did a little speech shortly after the election of Donald Trump and she said she’d lost her voice, and she begged their forgiveness and pardon because she was screaming in lamentations and sorrow all week because of the election.
And if you looked at the responses of this… I don’t know if that was grandstanding or not, it’s hard to tell, but let’s just suppose it was, for the sake of discussion, the people in that room, the Hollywood people and on Twitter thought this was like the bravest thing, this was amazing, this was beautiful, speaking truth to power and so on. And then you look at maybe Republican or right-leaning media and you saw, “Oh, she’s just grandstanding. Of course she’s just hamming this up and making a big deal. Of course she wasn’t screaming in lamentation, and she’s just trying to impress people.” And so you really saw this divergent reaction. And so I do think that your grandstanding is generally more successful among people who like you, or like your values.
Your grandstanding is also gonna be more successful if it matches roughly what people already think of you. In other words, if your grandstanding is inconsistent with what people already believe about you, they’re less likely to buy it. And the best example of this is Harvey Weinstein a few years ago. So Harvey Weinstein, this Hollywood mogul, it came out that he had allegedly assaulted dozens of women over the years, and yet throughout his career he had been propping up and talking about feminist causes and how important women were to the Hollywood industry. And even after he got caught he released this statement where he said he’s gonna start a scholarship for women and he’s gonna do it for his mom.
And I think a lot of people across the political divide thought this was just blatant grandstanding, and the interesting thing is that no one bought it, like no one thought, “Oh, I guess he does care about women.” Why? Because it was inconsistent with his other behavior that had come to light. And so, I think grandstanding is like one of these… It’s like lying, it’s like bragging. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Very… I hesitate to use the word “skillful”, but very skillful grandstanders know how to raise their status, at least with their in-group.
Brett McKay: Alright, so I’m sure people listening to this and think, “Okay, grandstanding, it’s moral talk with the desire to seek recognition.” But people would be like, “Well, how do I know if I am or someone else is grandstanding or not? I could be talking this moral talk because I actually believe in this cause, I’m not grandstanding.” So how do you guys figure that out, between the difference between actual legitimate moral talk or whether it’s being driven by this status drive?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah. It’s tough. Our hearts are a mystery, even to ourselves. It’s often difficult to know. We find ourselves doing something and say, “Well, why did I do that?” Like “I told this to myself at the time, but was that my real motivation?” I think that happens to us quite frequently. So it’s true that our motivations for why we do the things we do, not just with grandstanding but just in general, are often opaque to us. So think about you’re on a date, maybe a first date with someone, and you order a salad, or you order something healthy, let’s say iceberg lettuce. Now, you might order a salad because you want to impress a date who happens to be a vegetarian, but you might also have this motivation like, “Oh, yeah, but it’s also healthy, it’s good for me,” and so you order the salad. And so in that case you have these mixed motivations, there’s lots of desires that go into doing the things that we do, and I think that’s just part of life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you can have multiple desires then?
Brandon Warmke: That’s right. Yeah, sure. This happens all the time. So with grandstanding you might find yourself saying something because you want to seek status or impress others, but also because maybe you really do believe what you’re saying. And so on our view, what makes something grandstanding is the strength of your desire to impress other people. If you’re really strongly motivated to impress other people that’s gonna be grandstanding. Now, you may not be aware of this, this is just a tricky part of our psychology, but I think this is true with lots of parts of our lives. When you think about bragging, sometimes you might say something that’s a little self-serving or braggy, in the moment you don’t really realize it, and then you’re laying in bed at night and you think, “Oh, man, I was a jerk, that was really self-serving.” And so you realize what your true motivations perhaps were.
And so, it’s very difficult to know, even when we’re reflecting on ourselves, whether we’re grandstanding or not. We do give this test in the book, it’s a kind of rule of thumb for determining whether someone, even yourself, is grandstanding, and that is, “Would I be disappointed if I said this thing and no one walked away thinking I was morally special, morally enlightened?” If you think you would be disappointed if no one thought that, chances are you’re grandstanding. Look, it’s very difficult to tell in our own case. And it’s even harder to tell… We can talk about this too. It’s harder to tell in others. And this is why it’s very impractical and probably unfair to go around just calling people grandstanders and accusing them of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll talk about that in a bit. Yeah, this idea of multiple desires driving behavior and it’s sort of mixed in with… It seems like a sense of altruism, but then there’s also some self-interest involved. It reminds me of the Founding Fathers, particularly George Washington. So I think the story we tell ourselves in America, as Americans, is like “Well, these guys, they were… It’s all about freedom, they wanted rights to govern themselves, taxation without representation”, all that stuff.
But, I interviewed a guy a couple years ago who wrote about the concept of American honor, and he made this interesting case that that was part of the rhetoric, like the founding fathers really… They believed in that. But there was some mixture of self-interest, and he talked about George Washington. The thing that really… For a long time, we always forget that George Washington was an officer in the British military, right? The thing that turned him was he finally realized he would never be able to advance in rank because he wasn’t considered a full British citizen, he was a colonist. And once he realized that he’s like, “I’m done with these guys, sayonara. I’m gonna start fighting against them, ’cause I’m not gonna be able to get that status or that honor that I want.”
So there was sort of this mixture of yeah it was altruistic, he was fighting for higher ideals, but there’s also… Yeah, he wanted… He had some self-interest as well.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, that’s a great story. I do think we often have a rosy view, a too rosy view, of many important historical figures or moral reformers. I think a lot of these people certainly had good motivations but they also… People wanna be famous, people wanna be liked, people wanna be accepted and have status. I think this explains a lot. So I’m an academic, and if you look at what a lot of academics say about morality and politics I often wonder, “Do you really believe that, or is this an easy way to fit in and seek status and conform?”, because that’s often the path of least resistance. And so I think the takeaway from thinking about our psychologies is we are complex and mysterious creatures even to ourselves. And we can grandstand or brag or status seek or even deceive, often without even in the moment knowing that we’re doing it.
Brett McKay: Is there a type of person who is more likely to engage in moral grandstanding?
0:22:03.6 BW: Yes, narcissists [chuckle] It’s probably not a surprise. We’ve done over the past three or four years with the psychologist Joshua Grubbs, who works on narcissism and entitlement. One thing we’ve found is that people who are highly motivated to grandstand are also very likely to be narcissists. And there’s a few different kinds of narcissism: One kind is what’s called Narcissistic Extroversion, and these are people who… I’m sure you’ve met people like this, who are always talking about their accomplishments, they’re kinda “Look at me. Look at what I did, I’m so great.”
Brandon Warmke: And narcissistic extroverts are very likely to grandstand for prestige. Again, this is not that surprising. There’s also a form of narcissism called Narcissistic Antagonism, and these are people who are much less pleasant to be around. They tend to have what’s called a darker sort of personality traits: They seek power, they dominate others, they want to bring themselves up by pushing others down. And again, as you might imagine, narcissistic antagonists are highly correlated with grandstanding for dominance.
And so chances are, if you meet someone who’s a narcissist or if you are yourself a narcissist, you’re probably going to be… To the extent that you’re talking about morality and politics, you’re probably grandstanding. But there’s also some interesting political correlations. Now, as it turns out, at least as far as our research goes, roughly speaking, people on the right and people on the left are no more likely to grandstand than the other. So if you’re conservative, you are no more or less likely to grandstand than someone who’s a progressive or liberal. However, as it turns out, what we did find is that the more extreme you are, in other words, the further to the right that you see yourself or the further to the left that you see yourself, you are more likely to grandstand.
So if you think of it in terms of a U-curve, people that are roughly in the middle or center-right or center-left are probably not doing all that much grandstanding. The people at the extremes, the people that you do see on Twitter, or on cable news, or Facebook, the people that are on the extremes are contributing a lot of the grandstanding. And so we do think that there are some problems here with political polarization. And grand-standers are likely to be at the far ends of the spectrum. And the problem is that these people are the most vocal about politics. People who are centrist, center-left, center-right, these are not typically people who are spending lots of time on social media talking about politics. And so the problem is our discourse gets dominated by people at the edges. And to make matters worse, these people are often just grandstanding.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
You also take a deep dive into the way people can engage in moral grandstanding, and you identify five ways. Let’s walk through some of those. What are they, and what do they look like?
Brandon Warmke: So one form that grandstanding can take is what we call “piling on”. And I’m sure most people are familiar with this phenomenon. So someone says something or does something, maybe it’s wrong, maybe it’s very wrong, maybe it’s a slight moral mistake, or maybe they’re totally innocent. It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of piling on. But what tends to happen is an avalanche of criticism, humiliation, shaming. And what happens when you pile on is, what I do, is I add my two cents simply to show that I’m on the right side, right?
So I want to be seen as criticizing this alleged wrong doer, I want to be seen as taking a hard stand, and so maybe a million other people have already given this person their comeuppance, but I’m gonna be a million and one. Not because I think this person really deserves all of this abuse, but because I want people to see that I don’t tolerate this, that I’m a good person, that I will punish wrongdoers as I see them, and so on.
And so piling on often has this negative effect. There is also this sort of positive piling on, which is maybe someone does something, like they make a low-cost effort to take a stand on something, and then you get a million comments like, “Oh, this was so brave, and this is the most loving act I’ve ever seen. You’re my hero.” And so you can also pile on in this positive sense, where what you’re doing is you want to be seen as on the side of angels, recognizing the moral goodness among us.
So that’s one way that people often grandstand, it’s what we call “piling on”. Another form of grandstanding is “ramping up”. And ramping up is a dynamic that happens in the context of a conversation between, often, multiple people. So… And it takes the form of a moral arms race, where people are trying to outdo one another. So, Brett, you might say, “Oh, you know, the Senator’s behavior was bad, she should be censured.” And I say, “Are you kidding? If you really cared about justice the Senator should be kicked out of the Senate and never hold office again. Do better, Brett.” And then a third person chimes in and says, “Warmke, I’m disgusted that you would tolerate this. If you really cared about the poor and justice you’d think the senator should be arrested, she should go to jail”, or something like that.
So you’ve probably seen these kinds of dynamics, where you start having a conversation and then 10 comments later someone’s a Nazi, or someone’s a fascist. And so there’s a kind of one-upmanship that discourse often takes, and that’s because people try to outdo each other. I might think that I really care deeply about the poor, but if someone chimes in and says “We should have a $10 a minimum wage”, I either have to let that person get the credit, or I have to outdo them, and I can say, “Are you kidding? Of course, it should be $20, or $50 an hour”, or something.
And so ramping up turns moral discourse into an arms race. A third form that grandstanding can often take is what we call “trumping up”. And I have to say, we named this before [chuckle] the previous President, so there’s really no relation here. So “trumping up” in terms of like trumping up charges. So someone does something innocent or maybe slightly morally wrong and then the grandstander concocts a massive moral problem. So you often see people make minor missteps with their language and this is turned into a crime against humanity. And what that signals about the grandstander is that they’re very sensitive, “What passes as morally innocent doesn’t pass as innocent for me. I’ll stand up for justice, I have a more sensitive moral compass than the hoi polloi.”
Often, grandstanding takes the form of… And this is the fourth form, what we call “excessive emotions”. So people will emotionally react to things far out of proportion to the wrongness of them. So, often this occurs with outrage. So Brett makes up… He uses the wrong word, or does something in a podcast and then you have thousands of people on Twitter… I don’t know how much abuse you’ve gotten on Twitter, Brett, but someone says something on Twitter and they’re just outraged and can’t believe what you’ve done.
And people do this because outrage is a reliable signal of moral conviction. The more outraged you are the more things morally affect you, and so when you’re outraged about everything, the signal is supposed to be “Wow, this person really cares about morality. This person really cares about justice. They’re deeply affected and deeply sensitive to these things.”
And then finally, a fifth form of grandstanding is what we call “dismissiveness”. So one way to signal that you’re morally superior to others is just by telling them that “You aren’t even worth talking to. If you can’t see that the minimum wage should be $50 an hour then I’m not engaging with you any further, go read a book”, right? So there’s a kind of dismissiveness that grandstanding often takes, and that’s just a grandstander asserting themselves as a moral expert over others, without any argument, without any evidence, but just declaring it.
I think all of them tap into basic psychological, fairly well understood, psychological dynamics that we engage in with each other, and that’s mostly just having to do with social comparison. We think of ourselves as occupying a certain place socially, and when that gets disrupted by seeing someone challenge our place in the moral hierarchy it’s very tempting for us to reassert ourselves.
Brett McKay: So you delve in deep to the cost of moral grandstanding to us as a society. You mentioned one earlier, polarization is one. You see that with the ramping up, but how else can moral grandstanding have a cost on our culture and our society?
Brandon Warmke: So, one cost, as you point out, is polarization. Polarization gets talked about a lot these days, and there’s a lot of confusion about what polarization is, is it even happening. The basic idea is polarization occurs about morality and politics when groups of people get pushed further apart from one another. And there’s a couple of different ways that you could be pushed apart.
Scientists talk about what’s called “affective polarization”, which is basically just how you feel about the outgroup. So if you’re a Republican, it’s how you feel about Democrats, and vice versa. And so, affective polarization refers to an increasing animosity or hatred to people on the other side, and there is some pretty strong evidence that affective polarization has been increasing over the past 50 years, people just have come to dislike and perhaps even hate the other side more than they used to.
There’s another form of polarization called “ideological polarization”, which doesn’t have to do with your emotions or your emotional reactions to the other side, it actually has to do with your beliefs. So what passed for a respectable view… I’ll just pick at random… The left is now basically fascism. In fact, I went to a Cleveland Indians game yesterday with… I will not name his name, but a faculty member at Harvard, and he describes himself as a center-left liberal, and he says, “Many of my grad students basically think I’m a fascist now”.
And so there’s a kind of ideological polarization where the views that would have kept you in good standing with your political group 10 years ago now cast you out into the darkness. And so there’s a kind of pushing apart of what people actually believe, or at least report to believe, about their political views.
Now, what does this have to do with grandstanding? On our view, grandstanding plays a role in pushing people apart, and we published some empirical work last year that suggests not just a correlation between grandstanding and polarization, but a causal link, that the more grandstanding there is the further we push each other apart. And here’s one very simple way of thinking about that. Remember the ramping-up dynamic, where people are engaging in a moral arms race. And one way to polarize is simply to keep outdoing each other so that we eventually end up with a much more radical view than we had before. And this happens on both the right and the left, and it’s like, “How did we get here?”
Well, one mechanism is this kind of discourse dynamic where people are pushed to extremes in order to show off how morally pure or how morally committed they are. Now, you might think, “Well, what’s the problem with polarization?” Merely to be polarized, merely to be, as it were, radical, does not mean you’re wrong. The problem is that status seeking is not a reliable way to arrive at the truth of the matter. One question is, “What’s the best policy?” There’s another question, “What’s the policy such that if I said it on Twitter people would retweet me?” And those might be two very different answers. The truth of the matter may not be popular, it may not be something that will gets you attention.
And so status seeking and grandstanding is just not a good way of arriving at the truth about these things. And so that’s one problem with polarization that’s driven by grandstanding, is that it not only pushes us further apart, is that it pushes us further apart in a way that’s unlikely to help us arrive at good policy or the fact of the matter. So that’s one thing we talk about, is how grandstanding has this social cost, and that’s polarization.
I’ll just mention two more briefly. One is cynicism. I think a lot of people are cynical about public discourse, there’s lots of reasons for that, obviously, but we think one reason is that people have spent a little bit of time on social media or watching cable news or listening to politicians and they think “These people are just promoting their brand.” They’re saying what sounds good. It’s almost banal, it’s trite to say this, but politicians say things to get elected. Are they true? Well, that’s a different question, but they’re saying things to get elected. And once enough people come to see that people are engaging in public discourse because they’re trying to manage their reputations, promote their brands, make themselves look enlightened, then people say, “Look, I don’t wanna be a part of this”. Discourse becomes a nasty practice of people just dunking on each other.
And so many moderate people, moderate either by temperament or by ideology, just check out, and that’s bad. It’s bad for people to get cynical about this really important practice that we have of discussing moral and political issues. And then we have a discourse that’s dominated by the loudest and most radical voices, and as you might imagine, that’s not a good idea.
Thirdly… One thing we talk about in the book that’s, I think, quite common is what we call “outrage exhaustion”. So if you think back to one of the forms of grandstanding as using lots of outrage to signal how good you are, outrage exhaustion refers to two things: One, I use outrage so often about so many things, some of them may be morally inconsequential, but it’s actually harder for me to muster up the outrage when it really is important. Our emotions are kind of like… We gotta keep them in reserve, you can’t go around all day being mad about everything imperfect in the world. You’d never experience any other emotion, because the world isn’t perfect.
And so when you use outrage in that way as a tool for self-promotion you stop using it in a way that is actually going to be needed when something really bad happens, when you can use your voice. You’ve gotta keep your powder dry and use outrage when it’s gonna be useful. But also there’s this kind of “boy who cried wolf” problem. If you get as outraged about what’s served in the local school elementary lunch packet as you do about world historic injustices, people will stop taking you seriously. If your level of outrage is like 11 for everything, people will come to see you as an unreliable determiner of what’s morally bad.
And so we lose this really valuable resource, outrage. I think outrage in minimal amounts is very useful, it can signify serious injustice, but to preserve that signal, you can’t use it all the time. And so one social cost of grandstanding is that outrage loses its reliability or efficacy at actually identifying things that are truly horrific about the world.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it ends up devaluing moral talk, and this is the case you’re making. You guys are saying that moral talk is good, this is how we make progress. But if you engage in this grandstanding it can devalue and make people cynical about it, or just people ignore it completely.
Brandon Warmke: That’s right. Moral talk, moral discourse, is a tool. And like any tool it can be used well or it can be used poorly. I mean, think of the hammer: You can use a hammer to build homes, you can use a hammer to crush people’s skulls. And the hammer itself is not necessarily good or bad, it’s how you use it. And public discourse is the same way.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we talked about the costs of moral grandstanding. Are there any benefits of moral grandstanding?
Brandon Warmke: Of course, I mean, there’s benefits in anything that can be used for good. Lying can sometimes have good benefits, bragging can sometimes have good benefits. And so I think the question is “What benefits does grandstanding have?” I think there are a couple. It can legitimately draw awareness to important problems. It can start a conversation about some important new moral problem or moral value that we should take seriously. It can have those effects, but I think the more important question is “Can you get those effects without grandstanding?”
In the book we go through lots of arguments for why grandstanding is bad, morally bad, irrespective of the consequences. Consequences aren’t the only things that make something bad. And so even if grandstanding had some good consequences there’s two questions we should ask: “Do the consequences themselves outweigh the costs?” So if we’re right that grandstanding has lots of costs, does grandstanding as a general practice outweigh the costs? It may or may not, but even if it does, there’s lots of moral considerations that we think tell against grandstanding but don’t really have anything to do with consequences.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So here’s another question you explore, ’cause you guys are moral philosophers, you get into some virtue ethics, and you try to suss out is the virtuous thing, does a virtuous person, not morally grandstand? What does virtue ethics say about that?
Brandon Warmke: So virtue ethics tells us that, roughly, the good thing to do is what the virtuous person would do. And how do virtuous people act? There’s three different kinds of motivations you might think you can have, very broad families of motivations. You can have altruistic motivations, you could be motivated to help people, do good to other people. Or you could have what we call “dutiful motivations”, you’re motivated to do what’s right, to follow the rules, act on good principles. A third kind of motivation is an egoistic motivation, you’re doing things for yourself. You’re putting yourself above others and so on.
And the question is, so try to hold in your mind like a virtuous person. Okay? And then ask yourself, “How would a virtuous person contribute to public discourse?” And what we argue is that the virtuous person would contribute to discourse for one of the first two reasons, either to help other people or to stand up for the right principles and do what’s right. A virtuous person would not go into discourse asking themselves first and foremost the following question, “How can I use morality to benefit me?” That is not what a virtuous person would do. A virtuous person would not engage in this practice of political discussion or morality in order to promote their own brand. A virtuous person would not, at least in this instance, have egoistic motivations.
And so we think one argument against grandstanding is a kind of virtue-based argument. What would exhibit virtue in public discourse? Is it helping others, standing up for what’s right, doing good in the world, or is it the promotion of my reputation so that I can seek status? And I think when you put it like that it’s pretty obvious, at least to us, that the virtuous person is gonna shy away from grandstanding.
Brett McKay: Would a virtuous person… This takes us a little step further, would a virtuous person even ask themselves, “Okay, I believe in this principle, I think this is the right thing to do.” Would they ask themselves, “Would this benefit me, like my reputation? And if so, would I abstain or would I modify how I approach this moral discourse, because there would be a conflict of interest?”
Brandon Warmke: I think the question that will occur to a virtuous person or a person on their way to virtue would be this, “Would I still say this if it didn’t increase my status, if it didn’t impress people? Would I still say this even if people thought less of me?” I think that’s the question that will often be running through the mind of the virtuous person, is “Am I willing to help others do what’s right, stand up for the right principles, even at a cost to myself?” And I think the virtuous person…
Unless the cost is way too high. The virtuous person is not gonna take a stand on a minute issue if it results in their death, I don’t think that’s what virtue is. Virtue requires being prudent and weighing all the considerations, but I think what a non-virtuous person will often not do something if it doesn’t increase their status. And so I think that often marks a distinction between people who are virtuous or on their way to virtue, and people who have less interest in becoming a good person themselves and have more of an interest in projecting the image of being a good person.
Brett McKay: Alright, so what do we do about moral grandstanding? I would say most people don’t like it, they don’t like their social media feeds just being filled with outrage. So is there anything to do about it?
Brandon Warmke: So the most important thing that needs to happen is a change of norms, and a norm is just a social rule that people follow and expect others to follow. And so the hard question is, “How do you change the norms about how people behave and how they expect others to behave?”
And there’s a couple of different ways to try to promote norm change. One is, first and foremost, to change your own behavior. I get lots of messages from people saying, “I used to be a Facebook war hero, and then I read your book and I hardly post on social media anymore.” I don’t know if I should take credit for that or not, I sometimes worry that I’m silencing people who should be saying things. But one thing is to turn our attention on ourselves and ask, “Am I contributing something that’s an overall net positive to public discourse? Or am I just spewing my frustration and anger and hate out into the void and acting like it gets shot into space and it doesn’t have to affect anyone else?” That’s just not true.
And so I think there’s a temptation, when we talk about grandstanding, to turn our gaze onto others. And people ask, “Well, how do I know when other people are grandstanding so that I can call them out and accuse them and fix them?” But I think that’s the totally wrong response. The right response is to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves, “How am I contributing to discourse? Am I doing this to do good, or am I doing this to look good?” And there’s various ways that we can do that, we discuss several of them in the book, one of them is just to change your situation.
So if you find yourself doom scrolling through Twitter or on social media and this makes you angry, maybe the moment that you get frustrated or angry or feel the urge to say something to someone, shut off your phone, close the browser, open up Netflix, go make a sandwich, just do something that changes the situation so that you’re not continually tempted to lash out and grandstand and show off how good you are.
The other thing that we can do… I mentioned earlier that our desire for status is just fundamental and inherent. And I think maybe we can make some changes at some margin in how strongly we feel that, but it’s just true that humans desire recognition and want to feel important, and there are more and less healthy ways of doing that. And so one thing we recommend is… We have this desire for recognition, and one way to satisfy that is to get on Twitter or social media and just parade ourselves around like peacocks. Another way to discharge that desire and get status and feel important is to actually do something where people can see you and praise you for actually helping.
So maybe it means volunteering at a soup kitchen or going to the Kiwanis Club or picking up trash on the side of the road. If it’s really important to you to get status for it, take a selfie and post it on Twitter, at least you’ll be doing something helpful to other people aside from just mouthing off on Twitter all the time.
So those are things that we recommend people to think about in their own lives, and we don’t wanna tell people how to spend their time, but I think a lot of people would probably, myself included, be better off spending less time on social media. Now, a lot of people want to go around and fix others, so we want to accuse people of grandstanding. And as you alluded earlier, we argue in the book at length why it’s a bad idea to call other people out for grandstanding, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that it’s really hard to know whether someone’s grandstanding, because you don’t know what’s motivating them.
It’s much like lying. In controlled studies, humans are not any better than the flip of a quarter at detecting lies, we’re just really bad at figuring out whether someone’s lying or not. And I think that’s true with grandstanding, and so the mere fact that it’s hard to know whether someone for certain is grandstanding is a reason to not accuse them. I think it would be unfair to accuse someone of grandstanding without being certain that they’re doing it.
And even if you are certain they’re doing it and it would be fair to do it, I think that there’s practical reasons not to accuse people of grandstanding. Imagine how this conversation goes, so Brett’s on Twitter and he says something, and I say, “Brett, stop grandstanding, you buffoon.” And he says, “I’m not grandstanding, you’re grandstanding by calling me out.” And then we’re in, we’re locked in this never-ending argument about what’s in my heart and what’s in your heart, and we’ve just added more toxic waste to the pond of public discourse.
And so I think that calling people out just from a practical perspective is not helpful. Okay, so what do you do instead? I think there are a couple of important social things that we can do to change the norms away from grandstanding to more positive contributions. One is to set an example. So do things on social media that would be very hard to construe as grandstanding, things that aren’t about yourself. Things that are hard to see how you could get status from. Posting good stories or positive things or praising other people, I think praising people who are doing good and behaving well in public discourse is a way to change the norms.
But there is, finally, one way I think to sanction or punish grandstanders, and it’s not by calling them out, it’s by ignoring them. Think about, you write some really detailed post about how you can’t believe so and so did this, and you’re on the right side of history and so on, and then it gets zero likes on Facebook. For a lot of us that would be embarrassing. And so what do grandstanders want? They want attention, they want status, and so one way to divert people’s behavior away from grandstanding to more productive conversations is simply to withhold from them the praise and status they seek.
So, if you see someone that you think is grandstanding, just ignore it. In doing so, you are depriving them of the thing they want, which is praise and attention, often for just taking cheap stands in the first place. So, my co-author and I, Justin, we sort of vacillate between being optimistic about public discourse and being pessimistic. I mean, I do think that social media has just given everyone a soap box. We all have these desires for status, and it’s basically put in each of our hands an opportunity at any given moment to speak to hundreds or thousands of people and get that instant status seeking rush, get people to praise us. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to avoid that temptation, and I actually don’t know whether I should be pessimistic or optimistic. I mean I hope what the book does is at least help people identify what the problems are so that other people on the way can figure out better ways to improve our discourse.
Brett McKay: Well, and the other thing you said too, instead of calling people out individually, instead of doing that, just make critiques of moral grandstanding in general, right? So you just say, “This is bad.” And so people are like, “Yeah, that is bad, I’m not gonna… ” So they at least start thinking about that’s not something they should do.
Brandon Warmke: I do think that’s good, I mean instead of calling someone out and responding to someone for what you think is grandstanding, have a general conversation about what discourse is for. Now, as it turns out… I’m a philosopher, and there’s an old joke that “For any obviously true thing, there will be a philosopher who denies it.” There are several philosophers who’ve argued that, “No, actually grandstanding is good and virtue signalling is good.” But even having those kinds of conversations about what public discourse is for and what are the better and worse ways to behave, I hope that on balance those things help us be more productive and talk to one another, and have better conversations about controversial issues.
Brett McKay: Well, Brandon, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Brandon Warmke: Well, they can Google me, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff there. On Amazon, the book is for sale. It’s in print and it’s on Audible. You can find it at a lot of Barnes and Nobles, I don’t know if you can find it at every one, but it’s in many. And if you speak Portuguese, Arabic, or Korean, those translations will be coming out soon. Brett, thank you so much for having me, this was a pleasure. I really appreciate talking with you and look forward to all the good work you do, and helping people talk better to one another.
Brett McKay: Well I appreciate that Brandon, and I appreciate you coming on.
Brandon Warmke: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Brandon Warmke, he’s the co-author of the book “Grandstanding”, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, BrandonWarmke.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/moralgrandstanding where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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