One summer evening in the sixties, I stepped out of the building where I lived in New York City and came upon the startling scene of a man yelling at a woman. Suddenly, the man ripped off a radio antenna from the car he was standing next to and began to whip the woman with it.
Without thinking, I put my body between them and shouted at him to stop. Morally outraged, I had no thought to my own safety. The scene of a man abusing a woman set me afire, and I reacted accordingly.
Moral outrage has been defined as a response of anger and disgust in relation to a perceived moral violation. In that street scene, I was not only witnessing physical violence but gender violence as well. Fifty years later, the sensation in my body of encountering that violence is still present for me. It was the shock of outrage and revulsion, and nothing could have stopped me from moving between the two of them.
As I stood there, heart pounding, the woman hurriedly thanked me and fled from the scene. The man threw the antenna on the street, snarled at me, and walked away.
In retrospect, I am pretty sure I was not acting from egoic motivations when I tried to stop the violence; I wasn’t out to gain approval from others or boost my self-esteem. I had no time for a self-centered thought—I simply could not slip by this horrifying scene without intervening. What motivated my action was a quick and deep surge of moral outrage combined with compassion.
The Dark Side of Moral Outrage
Over the years, I’ve witnessed moral outrage manifesting in healthy and unhealthy forms in the worlds of politics, activism, journalism, medicine, and in my own experience.
Attempting to dig below the surface, I’ve seen that moral outrage can sometimes reflect an unacknowledged need to be perceived as a “good” person, and we may believe that our superior moral stance makes us appear more trustworthy and honorable in the eyes of others. Our righteous indignation can give us a lot of ego satisfaction and may relieve us of guilt about our own culpability: “We’re right, others are wrong; we are morally superior, others are morally corrupt.”
The social critic Rebecca Solnit further unmasks the self-serving dimension of moral outrage in her Guardian essay “We Could Be Heroes: An Election-Year Letter.” She notes that some on the far left often engage in “recreational bitterness,” turning moral outrage into a competitive sport by making the perfect enemy of the good, finding fault with advances, improvements, and even outright victories. Solnit notes that this stance does not advance any causes, and it actually undermines alliance building.
Recreational bitterness and other forms of moral outrage can be contagious, addictive, and ungrounding, and they can make us sick. A small dose can get us going. Binging on it will do us in, and that’s what our adversaries want. When we are angry and emotionally overaroused, we begin to lose our balance and our ability to see things clearly, and we are prone to falling over the edge into moral suffering.
Principled Moral Outrage
However, many of us feel that we violate our own integrity if we don’t hold others accountable for the harm they cause. In the face of moral violations, we cannot be bystanders or protect ourselves through denial. To preserve our integrity, we must speak truth to power. This is what I call principled moral outrage.
In 1981, the neuroscientist Francisco Varela, along with Harry Woolf, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and I visited a primate laboratory. The basement lab housed dozens of small cages with rhesus monkeys inside. Harry and I approached one cage. We saw that the top of the monkey’s skull was sawed off and his brain was exposed. Electrodes were making direct contact with this little monkey’s brain. The poor monkey was cuffed and held immobile, but his eyes said it all—they were filled with pain and horror.
Harry sagged at my side and kneeled on the floor in front of the monkey. He seemed to be asking for forgiveness. Shaken, I stood and gazed into the monkey’s eyes. I took in what I felt was his pain, and sent mercy to this little one. Later, I told Francisco that I thought it was thoroughly immoral to do this kind of research. Animals were often sacrificed in the course of neuroscience research.
Facing that monkey, I experienced more than a touch of moral outrage. Something had broken open in me. I decided to use my anger and disgust as a way to drop deeper into my commitment to end suffering. I resolved to never let experiments with animals off my radar.
As for Francisco, it was not long thereafter that he gave up animal research as well. I don’t know what Harry did; I lost track of him soon after. But I did not lose track of that monkey. He lives inside of me nearly forty years later. I experienced profound compassion for that monkey. And wrenching disgust was also part of the complex of emotions I felt in that lab—disgust at the cruelty that humans are capable of toward their fellow sentient beings. An important quality of moral outrage is that it involves feelings of revulsion in response to a perceived breach of ethics.
Will You Use Your Moral Outrage to Serve?
In some ways, outrage is a justifiable response to an action that is morally transgressive, such as the torture of monkeys in a lab or the neglect of young people in prison. But even less serious moral issues, like mismanagement of an institution, can cause us anger, disgust, and principled moral outrage.
When moral outrage is episodic and regulated, it can be a useful instigator of ethical action. There is plenty to be outraged about in the world, and our anger can give us the energy we need to confront injustice. Strong emotions can help us recognize an immoral situation and can motivate us to intervene, take a stand, even risk our lives to benefit others.
However, when moral outrage is self-serving, chronic, or unregulated—when it becomes the very lens through which we view the world—it can be addictive and divisive. Shaming, blaming, and self-righteousness also put us in a superior power position, which can feel satisfying in the short term but which isolates us from others in the long term.
And constant overarousal can have serious effects on the body, mind, and spirit—from ulcers to depression and everything in between. It can also have serious effects on how others perceive us.
In the final analysis, I have learned that moral outrage can have beneficial or harmful consequences not only for ourselves but for our relationships and even our society. Our discernment, insight into our intentions, and our ability to regulate our emotions are what make the difference in whether moral outrage serves or not.
Adapted from Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet by Joan Halifax. Copyright © 2018. Published by Flatiron Books. Used with permission.