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A Surprising Instance of Performative Philosophy (see addendum)

[Note: please see the addendum below the post for a response to criticisms of it.]

In an extraordinarily clever move, a pair of young philosophers appear to have convinced a prestigious mainstream philosophy journal to allow them to engage in a rare bit of what could be called “performative philosophy.” They have published a paper that is an example of the very phenomenon the paper identifies and criticizes—a phenomenon that professional courtesy and epistemological limitations prevent the authors from attributing to the work of others.

The philosophers are Justin Tosi (Michigan) and Brandon Warmke (Bowling Green), and their paper, “Moral Grandstanding” appears in a recent issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs (ungated version here).

What’s moral grandstanding? They write:

one grandstands when one makes a contribution to public moral discourse that aims to convince others that one is “morally respectable.” By this we mean that grandstanding is a use of moral talk that attempts to get others to make certain desired judgments about oneself, namely, that one is worthy of respect or admiration because one has some particular moral quality—e.g., an impressive commitment to justice, a highly-tuned moral sensibility, or unparalleled powers of empathy.

It’s a kind of deception, or perhaps (as the authors note) the moral cousin of Frankfurtian bullshitting: when you grandstand, what moves you to make morally relevant declarations is not (primarily?) concern with the putative object of one’s moral discourse, but rather concern with how one comes off to others.

More specifically, moral grandstanding has two central features. The first is what they call “recognition desire”:

The first central feature is that the grandstander desires that others think of her as being morally respectable with regard to some matter of moral concern.

The second is “grandstanding expression”:

When people grandstand, they do so by making some kind of contribution to public moral discourse: they say or write something, for example…  in order to satisfy the recognition desire.

Not only do they provide a conceptualization of moral grandstanding, they condemn it as “bad” and “morally problematic” and say that “in general, one should not do it.”

You can see the problem the authors created for themselves. They’ve uncovered a practice in which, despite what people say, they’re either lying, or bullshitting, or perhaps self-deceived about their moral concerns, something very much tied up with people’s sense of identity. And further, they’re arguing that when people do this, it’s bad; so to reference any actual examples of moral grandstanding in the philosophical literature, or among the behaviors of those they interact with—their professional colleagues—would be rude, if not risky.

The challenge is this: how do they both (a) overcome the formidable epistemic obstacles in the way of knowing the real reasons others act, whatever they profess, and (b) provide examples of their central idea without alienating themselves from others?

Solution: They themselves could grandstand. After all, they know the reasons they’d be writing it, so the challenging problem of actually knowing whether someone has the “recognition desire,” and hence knowing when grandstanding is going on*, is diminished, and since they’d be their own main example, they wouldn’t be at risk of insulting anyone. So that, ingeniously, is what they do.

Tosi and Warmke publicly advance a moral complaint about other people publicly advancing moral complaints, and in doing so they boldly drink from the same well they’ve poisoned for everyone else. Public moral complaints may just be self-serving status seeking, they argue, and they not only describe this phenomenon, but do an admirably thorough job exhibiting it with their own complaint.

Consider the four characteristic ways they claim moral grandstanding is manifested: “piling on,” “ramping up,” “trumping up,” and “excessive outrage.”

“Piling on,” they say, is “the reiteration of something that has already been said in order to get in on the action, and to register one’s inclusion on what one believes to be the right side.” The authors may be using new words by naming their subject “moral grandstanding” but the idea itself has been quite popular in recent years under the name “virtue signalling.”

The term “virtue signalling” has been used so much that a column last year in The Guardian calls its deployment “out of control.” The love child of the broader idea of signalling theory (in, for example, evolutionary psychology circles and the online writings of folks like polymath economist Robin Hanson and the bloggers at Less Wrong) and complaints about political correctness, “virtue signalling” was popularized a couple of years ago in a column in a British conservative magazine and has exploded as a rhetorical tool used mainly by right-wing critics in attempts to undermine advocates of progressive causes. By writing critically about moral grandstanding, Tosi and Warmke are joining in with these people, showing us the “piling on” they think it involves.

“Ramping up” is “making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion.” When ramping up, they write, we “shift our own views (or at least our presentation of them) in order to be perceived… as retaining the [morally superior] position we previously took ourselves to hold.” Again, Tosi and Warmke put on a convincing performance. After all, it’s one thing to talk about or write a column or blog post mentioning an idea, and another thing altogether to publish an academic paper examining the idea in a prestigious journal, as they do. By renaming the idea, identifying its core elements, and laying out philosophical arguments against it, Tosi and Warmke ramp up the serious consideration of virtue signalling, and move way up in the hierarchy of those who think it is a common problem.

“Trumping up” is “the insistence on the existence of a moral problem where there is none… Trumping up functions to show that one is morally respectable insofar as one has, for example, a keener moral sense than others.” The way that Tosi and Warmke perform “trumping up” is by arguing that moral grandstanding interferes in the “primary function” of public moral discourse, which is to “improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world.” How does it interfere? Here’s one way. In what might be my favorite move in the paper, Tosi and Warmke say that moral grandstanding “likely promotes an unhealthy cynicism about moral discourse.” If up to now you did not think that people’s moral complaints were themselves morally problematic, to the rescue comes the keener moral sense of Tosi and Warmke. And what’s especially brilliant here, obviously, is that if moral grandstanding promotes cynicism, so must doing things that encourage people to interpret moral utterances as instances of grandstanding, such as writing a paper like theirs! After all, what’s more cynical than handing people a way to dismiss a discussion of moral issues as mere status-seeking blather? If moral grandstanding is bad, moral grandstanding about moral grandstanding is bad ass.

While Tosi and Warmke do an excellent job piling on, ramping up, and trumping up, their moral grandstanding is somewhat lacking in “excessive outrage.” I don’t blame them for this, though, as the format—an academic paper—is ill-suited to the expression of outrage, and, as they state, such outrage isn’t a necessary component of the phenomenon anyway. In my view, they’ve done more than enough to provide us with a plausible example of moral grandstanding.

I am still surprised that Philosophy and Public Affairs went along with this paper’s daring performative approach to its subject. Good for them, and kudos to the authors for pushing the stylistic envelope.

The article ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that once we understand moral grandstanding, we will be “less impressed by the grandstanding of others.” After reading their paper, I can’t help but agree.

* The authors at one point deny that all instances of moral grandstanding are motivated by the recognition desire, but I am ignoring that because then it’s unclear how we are supposed to at all parse moral grandstanding from moral statements motivated by moral concerns.

ADDENDUM (1/22/17): The following is a response to criticisms of the above post.

My recent post about Justin Tosi’s and Brandon Warmke’s paper, “Moral Grandstanding” (ungated version here), has been criticized as an unfair and obnoxious attack on two junior philosophers. I thought I should respond. But before I do, I encourage everyone to read the paper and form their own opinions about it. Doing so is only fair to the authors, and will also help readers make sense of my criticisms of it.

What did I mean?

I did not intend for my post to be an attack on these philosophers. Tosi and Warmke appear to be talented philosophers with successful careers ahead of them. Rather, I intended the post as a critique of their paper.

To put the main point of my critique more straightforwardly than I did in my original post, I think that according to their own specification of the concept of moral grandstanding, their paper counts as an example of it. And if it does, by their very own normative reasoning, their writing this paper about moral grandstanding was (in at least one way) morally bad: the paper embodies and encourages the very cynicism about moral discourse that they think is highly objectionable.

Why did I write the post that way?

I was surprised to not see these concerns about potential self-defeatingness addressed in the paper, as they did not strike me as especially difficult to make. That led me to entertain the idea that the authors had set themselves up for this critique on purpose. The main reason for them to do so would be that for both epistemic and perhaps professional reasons, it is understandably difficult to accuse others of moral grandstanding (there is a dearth of actual examples of the phenomenon in the paper). I didn’t really think that they did it on purpose, though—doing so is highly unconventional, risky, and certainly not the normal style for papers published in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

However, as I said in a comment on the original post, I was just a bit too taken with what seemed to me as the humorous coincidence of them being in a position in which it is difficult for them to accuse others of moral grandstanding, while themselves writing a paper which could easily be interpreted as a version of moral grandstanding, as they understand it. So I just inverted the critique. What would have been flaws with a straightforward philosophy paper became virtues of a “performative” philosophy paper.

That struck me as funny. Clearly, it struck other people as obnoxious.

Why didn’t I remove the post?

 Since I normally don’t write critiques of academic papers for Daily Nous, I did not create a main page post for this. Instead, I put it in the Heap of Links. Once it was up, I received a few notes expressing concern about it, particularly one line a few people thought was insulting. I deleted that line, as I had no desire to be insulting. Shortly after that, though, concerns that I was “punching down” on two junior members of the profession led me to remove the post entirely.

During that time I briefly corresponded with Tosi and Warmke, sharing these concerns. They expressed, among other things, that they read my post as a “funny send-up” of their paper, not to be worried about punching down, and that it would be fine with them if I republished the post. And so I did.

Since reposting it, response has been mixed. There has been a lot of criticism of the post and my decision to publish it, some of it sincere, some of it opportunistic. I’m appreciative of the sincere criticisms, as well as the messages of support I’ve received about it. In the future, I’ll aim to be a bit more careful with my attempts at humorous critique.

Why did I critique this paper at all?

 I normally don’t post critiques of papers at Daily Nous, so why did I do so in this case?

As I note in my critique, moral grandstanding appears to be another term for “virtue signalling,” which has become an increasingly popular way of responding to public moral utterances—but not just any public moral utterances. Typically it is reserved as a criticism for those speaking up on behalf of causes aimed at helping the less well-off or non-dominant (“the term has been most conspicuously used by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous and empty or superficial support of socially progressive views on social media,” says Wikipedia—if you don’t like Wikipedia, just google the term and see for yourself).

In this respect, “virtue signalling” tends to function, rhetorically, in the same way that the charge of “political correctness” does: as an attempt to undermine moral or political claims made by or on behalf of the less well-off or non-dominant. I should stress undermine here. It’s not as if by saying that some moral complaint is an instance of virtue signalling or moral grandstanding one is issuing a substantive response to the content of that complaint. Rather, one is saying that the complaint isn’t worth substantively responding to, because it is being made in bad faith. It is a way of dismissing, rather than engaging.

This is why the topic of virtue signalling, or moral grandstanding, is worth addressing: it operates as a rhetorical tool of the more powerful to dismiss the claims of, or claims made on behalf of, the less powerful.

(I should add that I’ve seen it deployed in discussions of issues in the philosophy profession.)

That said, just as there are no doubt some real instances of politically correct hypersensitivity (though nowhere near as many as the typical critics of political correctness would have us believe, in my opinion), there are no doubt some instances of virtue signalling, or moral grandstanding. I’m not claiming that phenomenon doesn’t exist.

How much moral grandstanding actually goes on? Tosi and Warmke say that it is “pervasive.” Given that their own conception of it requires knowing whether an utterance was motivated by a specific desire, and given how hard it is to know the desires of others (especially people we don’t know well), I’m not sure how confident we can be in that estimate. Perhaps if we defined the idea differently (as some commenters on my post suggested), it would be easier to tell.

How much of a moral problem is moral grandstanding? Tosi and Warmke are worried about the way in which it may lead to a kind of cynicism that undermines public moral discourse. Whether moral grandstanding has this effect (and whether it lacks compensating positive effects) is an empirical claim, and it seems like more evidence is needed before conclusions about its harmfulness can be stated with confidence.

Like Tosi and Warmke, I, too, am worried about cynicism that undermines public moral discourse. And that’s part of what led me to write my post. For it already seems rather cynical to interpret moral utterances as instances of grandstanding. If such cynicism is a problem, we should be very careful about calling out moral grandstanding, and specifying the concept in a way that easily lends itself to false positives.

Since Tosi and Warmke believe that there is a lot of moral grandstanding, and since moral grandstanding typically involves the presence of a desire, then it seems the authors believe that it is easy to know the desires of others, including those we do not know well (or at all). I’m skeptical of this. What’s easy is attributing to others desires that fit with our preconceptions of what they are doing—and that’s something we should be on guard against in our moral discourse.

For other comments on this paper, see remarks from Kevin Vallier, Eric Schleisser, and Liam Kofi Bright.


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