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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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moderate
4 years ago

This is entirely unfair to Tosi and Warmke.
1) You say they are guilty of ‘piling on’ because grandstanding is basically the same as ‘virtue signalling,’ and other people have already been talking about that. But ‘piling on’ obviously does *not* mean simply talking about a subject that others have already discussed; it means merely repeating what has already been said about the subject. Maybe that’s the case here–maybe others have already given the exact conceptual analysis of grandstanding that they do–in that case, they’re not just guilty of grandstanding, but plagiarism. But you’ve provided no evidence that that’s the case.
2) You say they are guilty of ‘ramping up’ because they have discussed grandstanding in an academic journal. But, again, that’s just obviously not what they mean by ‘ramping up.’ You yourself quote the paper as saying that ramping up involves “making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion”. But what makes a claim ‘strong’ in the relevant sense is obviously it’s content; not the venue in which it is made. They would be ramping up if they said something like “others have noted that grandstanding is morally bad; but it’s not just bad, it’s an abomination and a scourge on human life.” But they quite clearly don’t do that. They think grandstanding is bad, but they refrain from any over-the-top claims like that. Certainly their claims are more reserved than what goes on in the internet discussions of ‘virtue signalling’ that you claim inspired them–which would mean that they are, if anything, ramping *down.*
3) You say that they are guilty of ‘trumping up’ because they claim that “people’s moral complaints [are] themselves morally problematic,” but here again you’re not even trying to engage with the actual substance of what they said. For one thing, you seem to suggest that they’re claiming that *any* moral complaint is an example of moral grandstanding, but they obviously do not say that. Their claim is that *sometimes* people use moral discourse to grandstand, and that when they do it is bad. Their worry is that this will make people cynically dismiss the many moral complaints and that *are* legitimate. Maybe you think that claim is itself trumped up–that either grandstanding never happens, or that when it does, it is not a problem. Maybe so, but again you’ve provided exactly zero evidence for this.

Through all the snark here, it’s hard for me to discern what you actually think the problem with this paper is. Do you think that grandstanding is just a made-up phenomenon, that nobody ever uses moral discourse as a means of self-aggrandizement? You don’t think that *Trump* sometimes does this? Really? Or, do you just not think it’s bad when people do it? Again don’t you think it’s bad when *Trump* does it, or when self-righteous *republicans* (like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell) do it?

It seemed to me that the real crux of your critique was that accusations of grandstanding are “a rhetorical tool used mainly by right-wing critics in attempts to undermine advocates of progressive causes.” Of course, Tosi and Warmke do not themselves say that this is a phenomenon unique to the left–they make it pretty clear that people on *both* sides of the political spectrum engage in grandstanding. Nevertheless, parts of the paper sound like things people on the wrong side of the political spectrum sometimes say, and *that*, it seems, is what you find so distasteful about it.Report

Gray
Gray
4 years ago

I feel compelled to address a few points.

You say that Tosi and Warmke themselves embrace three of their four stated characteristics of moral grandstanding: piling on, ramping up, and trumping up. (To your minimal credit, you acknowledge that the authors don’t slip into the fourth characteristic, excessive outrage. That struck me because it was about the only time you extended a modicum of charity to the authors in this whole sneering mockery of their article.)

I’d now like to go through the points that you offer in your attempt to support your accusations. First, for the charge of “piling on”:

“By writing critically about moral grandstanding, Tosi and Warmke are joining in with these people [i.e., conservatives who complain about political correctness and try to smear advocates of progressive causes], showing us the ‘piling on’ they think it involves.”

Do Tosi and Warmke anywhere complain about political correctness or try to smear advocates of progressive causes? (I’ll admit that I haven’t read their paper.) If not, in what sense are they “joining in” with those who do? True, both groups oppose moral grandstanding in some form–but that’s compatible with their having quite different views about what forms moral grandstanding takes or what measures are appropriate to use in response to it. For all we know (I assume), Tosi and Warmke may well be just as opposed to moral grandstanding that comes from the right as that which comes from the left. (If nothing else, that would appear the charitable thing to assume.) But it seems that under your view, even that would count as “joining in” with the Breitbart crowd, simply because it involves expressing a critical attitude toward moral grandstanding as such.

Or, to be more blunt: This comes across as a shameful attempt at guilt by association.

Now, as for “ramping up” (i.e., “making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion”):

“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…”

The trouble here is that nothing in the behaviors you’ve here described–“publish[ing] an academic paper examining the idea [of moral grandstanding] in a prestigious journal… renaming the idea, identifying its core elements, and laying out philosophical arguments against it”–need involve “making increasingly strong claims about the matter under discussion.” I fail to see how the considerations you’ve raised have any bearing on ramping up.

Lastly, as for “trumping up” (i.e., “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”):

“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.”

I’m not sure I see what the point here is supposed to be. One issue is that you imply–as far as I can tell, rather misleadingly and uncharitably–that Tosi and Warmke’s position is that “people’s moral complaints [are] themselves morally problematic.” But beyond that, is the suggestion that we should read Tosi and Warmke as just trying to show off their “keener moral sense” here? Or perhaps the thought is that Tosi and Warmke cannot, without hypocrisy, publicly complain about moral grandstanding, since they themselves encourage interpreting others’ public complaints as moral grandstanding? If so, then the problem is that Tosi and Warmke (again, as far as I’m aware) do *not* encourage interpreting others’ public complaints as moral grandstanding. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems entirely compatible with their view–viz., that moral grandstanding exists and is a significant problem–to hold that many or even most public complaints do *not* slip into grandstanding. It also seems entirely compatible with their view to hold that we ought to interpret others’ public complaints charitably (i.e., not assume that they’re merely grandstanding unless they give us reason to think that they are).

“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!”

See above; writing a paper pointing out that grandstanding is a problem need not “encourage people to interpret moral utterances as instances of grandstanding” (no more than pointing out that, say, sexual harassment is a problem need encourage people to interpret flirtatious behavior as sexual harassment). Of course, some people might feel encouraged by such a paper to interpret moral utterances more broadly as grandstanding. But here as ever, an author can’t be blamed for those who indulge in irresponsible misreadings of their texts.

I’ve tried to be fairly civil here, and I’m open to having my view corrected. As it stands now, though, I see no basis for the accusations of hypocrisy that you’ve so disdainfully leveled at Tosi and Warmke.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
4 years ago

“I’ll admit that I haven’t read their paper.”
Parenthetical remark in the midst of long post arguing that Justin was irresponsible in his interpretation of the paper.
The performative riffs continue! Well done “Gray”! Well done indeed.Report

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Mark Lance
4 years ago

I see that the conditional nature of my main claims flew right by you.

As I pointed out multiple times in my post, my criticisms are largely conditional on my having an accurate basic picture of what Tosi and Warmke conclude in their paper. Why put forth any criticisms of Justin’s post at all, even conditional ones, when I haven’t read the paper it’s criticizing? Because from what I *do* know about the paper–from reading the passages that Justin quoted–it seems to me that Justin’s criticisms are unfair. And it appears I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Again, if there’s some error in my understanding of what Tosi and Warmke are saying, I’m happy to be corrected. By all means, please feel free to point it out to me. I’d much rather see that kind of engagement with my post, whether it ends up proving me wrong or not, than mere dismissiveness and ridicule.Report

moderate
moderate
4 years ago

Here we have a highly sarcastic post, by the owner of an influential and widely-read philosophy blog, which takes aim at two early career philosophers (one in the first year of a TT, the other a post-doc). It calls to mind this quote, written by one Justin Weinberg a few years ago:

“It is one thing to criticize someone. Hell, that is what we sign up for when we sign up for philosophy—to criticize and be criticized. We all know that. Leiter’s criticisms may be correct—I leave that aside. What I am concerned with is what is packed in alongside these criticisms. Leiter is a successful philosopher and legal academic at a great university in a great city, with a lot of power and influence in the profession of philosophy. Why are some of his posts so insulting and obnoxious to people so junior in the profession? Is this how we want discourse between the more and less powerful in our profession to be?”Report

moderate
moderate
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

I don’t any problem with making critiques humorous, nor, really, with them being sarcastic (I should have used a different word in my post above.) The problem with your post is that it’s disrespectfully and needlessly dismissive. (Caveat: some things actually are junk and deserve to be dismissed, but I see no reason at all to think that T&W’s paper falls into that category). First, the post claims the paper to be bunk, or ill-conceived, or just generally worthless, without even trying to engage the argument it presents, or even really to understand the claims being made. Second, you not-so-subtly suggest that the paper didn’t deserve to be published in PPA (or perhaps anywhere)–if you’re going to say something like that in a public forum, you had better have some good reasons, and I don’t see anything of the sort here. Third, it’s hard to see how the reference to ‘right wingers’ is anything other than what Gray says above: a pretty shameful and completely baseless attempt at guilt by association.

As to the critiques supposedly implicit in the post: they arise from about the least charitable reading you could give the paper. Your main concern seems to be that, once people hear about grandstanding, they will start being dismissive of all moral discourse, and that this is the aim T&W are trying to bring about. (Although if, as you contend, what T&W are talking about is the same as virtue signalling, and everybody already knows about that, then the cat was already out of the bag before they wrote the article.) I guess that’s *a* thing that people might do after reading the paper, although it would run against the grain of T&W’s frequent claims that grandstanding is not a necessary or inevitable feature of moral discourse; that Baier’s pessimism is unwarranted, etc.

Here’s another response someone might have: I might, after reading the essay and being convinced that grandstanding is bad, reflect on whether *I* am guilty of it, and then try to do it a little less. That’s quite clearly the sort of response that T&W intend people to have, and it strikes me that it would be good for our public discourse if a few readers actually did it.Report

M.C. Charles-Tone
M.C. Charles-Tone
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

If it is any comfort to readers, in correspondence Tosi and Warmke said that they thought the post was a “funny send-up.” – Taking the high road. Good for them. But while I think it’s cool and gracious, not to mention probably strategically smart, of *them* to react that way, I think we onlookers may be better placed to accurately assess it. And it’s pretty clearly not as good-natured as ‘funny send-up’ might suggest.

It’s the bits like ‘kudos to the authors for pushing the stylistic envelope’ that I think show this. Obviously the whole thing is dripping with sarcasm, so you can’t really mean to give them kudos, right? And so saying that is pretty snarky, so I get why people think you’re being mean.

Fun fact: I didn’t know anything about the paper, but I like Robin Hanson and signalling theory, and I thought you were genuinely praising them and that they thought of the paper as performative too. It took quite a while to sink in that you were actually being a snark!Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Hi Justin,

Three of your criticisms of the article are the following:
“2. Since they say that moral grandstanding involves a specific mental state, there is the question of how we are ever to tell when a moral utterance is an instance of grandstanding.
“3. If there are high epistemic barriers to identifying moral grandstanding, and if we nonetheless insist it is common, most public moral utterances become suspect, including their own (See? I love the petard-self-hoisting thing).
“4. If there are high epistemic barriers to identifying moral grandstanding, and if we nonetheless insist it is common, we have an excuse not to take most people’s moral utterances seriously, or to dismiss them as self-serving, poisoning the well, and that’s bad.”

Perhaps I’m being overly self-confident here, but I’m skeptical that it’s *so* difficult to identify instances of moral grandstanding. Aren’t there indicia of grandstanding? if you know something about the person who’s making the remarks, the costs (or more likely, the benefits) of doing so, and the kind of atmosphere the person is in, can’t you at least sometimes be confident (though probably never certain) about someone’s engaging in grandstanding?

If I am indeed being overly self-confident here, then what about accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.? These are bandied about quite often; maybe even to the point where “we have an excuse not to take most people’s [or some particular group of people’s] utterances seriously”. Do you think that there are similarly high epistemic barriers to identifying them? I’m guessing you don’t, at least partially on the following grounds: some remarks are intrinsically racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., whereas no remark is intrinsically morally grandstanding. But I have a rejoinder to that; while there are surely *some* remarks that intrinsically racist, etc., people often move from these remarks to judgments about a person’s attitudes or (even larger) character. And I think it’s there that the epistemic barriers for identifying racist, etc., attitudes are no lower than the barriers for identifying moral grandstanding.

Now, you could say that the culture of the USA (and, presumably, every other national culture that has ever existed) is racist, etc., which allows us to be more confident that when someone makes a racist, etc., remark, that she is doing it from racist attitudes. Maybe so; but there are similar elements, and similarly ubiquitous elements, of culture that encourage people to moral-grandstand, no?Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

“2. Since they say that moral grandstanding involves a specific mental state, there is the question of how we are ever to tell when a moral utterance is an instance of grandstanding.”

Yes, there is this question. Why do you think the authors’ decision not to answer it constitutes such a serious flaw in the paper? I’ve never seen a hedonistic utilitarian who presents criteria for identifying pain and pleasure. Nor have I seen attitudinal hedonists who do the same for attitudes. In fact, functionalists have barely scratched the surface of characterizing attitudes. Should this have prevented publication of papers on these topics?

“3. If there are high epistemic barriers to identifying moral grandstanding, and if we nonetheless insist it is common, most public moral utterances become suspect, including their own (See? I love the petard-self-hoisting thing).
“4. If there are high epistemic barriers to identifying moral grandstanding, and if we nonetheless insist it is common, we have an excuse not to take most people’s moral utterances seriously, or to dismiss them as self-serving, poisoning the well, and that’s bad.”

I think you’re using ‘common’ as a weasel word here. Whether we stop taking people’s utterances seriously depends on how likely we take it to be that they’re grandstanding (or whatever). And you haven’t said anything to suggest that the authors are committed to regarding it as particularly likely that an arbitrary public statement is grandstanding. That grandstanding might be “common” doesn’t begin to do so–it might be common in the sense of happening at least once a day, but still characterize a tiny percentage of utterances.

“5. Not only is it possible that T&W’s complaint about moral grandstanding is itself moral grandstanding, it actually displays three of the specific characteristics of moral grandstanding that they lay out.”

Isn’t this the tu quoque fallacy? In any case, if they are grandstanding, that would be a fact about their minds. I would have thought that as philosophers assessing their publication, we would ignore that in favor of the soundness of their argument.

“6. It’s not clear why the term “virtue signalling” is omitted from the paper, given that much has been written about it and on signalling more broadly.”

Perhaps they took Jason Brennan’s advice and limited the reading that went into the paper.

“7. The paper’s publication encourages the very kind of cynicism that the authors find troubling about moral grandstanding.”

See my response to 5.

As for the “humorous” tone of your post–that the humor falls flat is obvious enough to not need explaining, and anyway, such an explanation would require a post of its own. More importantly, mocking something like this suggests a very high degree of confidence in one’s objections. That level of confidence is out of whack with the quality of the actual objections. (This is, of course, a stylistic point, not an objection to your arguments.)Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

I agree it could appear related to grandstanding but is it performative on this account? The authors must have known the paper would be unlikely to gain moral status among philosophers reading it, so probably didn’t offer it with the recognition desire to do that. Perhaps though, this points to a substantive philosophical criticism of the account, which you allude to above, namely that it relies too heavily on speaker mental states. My reaction to the paper was that grandstanding doesn’t seem to need much of a moral recognition desire. It could just involve attention getting or other personal benefit. Or, perhaps even, it mostly just tracks audience perception of incidental features of particular communicative acts, like the ones they discuss, orthogonally to the speakers intentions, such as being selfish or not. This would render grandstanding a more neutral act in theory, which seems like it would allow the account to capture both contextually good and bad effects.Report

David
David
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Without endorsing the point of the post, let me suggest that when people “virtue signal” they don’t expect to gain recognition and status from all or even most of their listeners/readers. They are happy to offend and enrage some or even most people. What better way is there to prove one’s own virtue to the people from whom one seeks recognition than to enrage the non-virtuous?Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  David
4 years ago

Perhaps, in the paper they define it as both in-group status seeking and appealing to out-group members. Elsewhere they mention impressing general audiences. Seems like they are thinking of a critical mass.Report

David
David
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Contrary to your first comment, I think that the authors must have known that they were, in fact, *very likely* to gain moral (or quasi-moral) status among *certain* philosophers reading it. Not *most* philosophers, maybe, but a significant number–just look at the comments here–including at least one philosopher who has a very strong status-conferring power. (Let me add that there is no evidence that the authors are seeking out such status. But I take it that Justin is also not calling the author’s motives into question, but rather highlighting the the difficulty of–and even the morally problematic nature of–purporting to identify cases in real life.)Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  David
4 years ago

Yes that is possible. The original post frames the problem in terms of not “alienating themselves from others” which I took to refer to an audience of majority philosophers. To say the paper is performative is to call into question motives, given that motives are required by the account. The difficulty of doing this may indeed explain why there is so much controversy surrounding the notion.Report

David
David
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

I assume that saying the paper is performative is a joke.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I think that grandstanding in general, and moral grandstanding in particular, is a serious problem in our profession and I’d be interested in hearing whether other professional philosophers agree with me. I think that moral grandstanding contributes to a culture in which we stay in our echo chambers and speak to those who are already largely in agreement with us. An echo chamber is no way to change minds on important issues of the day, but works well for grandstanding.Report

Seth Edenbaum
4 years ago

Moral grandstanding and the dream and impossibility of argument without affect. The writer Plato gave his character Socrates a series of straw men to argue with. If all humility is false humility then Socrates is our exemplar. Condescension as unnecessary is a form “piling on”.
If you want to argue against morality why not do it simply? Was Nietzsche putting on a show? He wrote as a raging moralist. As any acting teacher will tell you, if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. If he was “sincere” does that make it more mature, or less?
I think he was a slave desperately proclaiming his own freedom. Like all actors he craved the approval of an audience.

Expressions of superiority are unnecessary, but expressions of cool disinterest become laughable when the logic behind them is obviously shoddy. Coolness is shown to be no more than a manner, to hide laziness and self-indulgence.
Funny that Leiter is scathing in his comments on Ayn Rand while giving nods of approval to so many libertarians.Report

Philosophy reader
Philosophy reader
4 years ago

Hi Justin,

I appreciate your blog, which does a great job of posting interesting articles and encouraging important discussion within the profession. However, I found this post to be peevish, poorly argued, and, frankly, below you. It doesn’t help that it is targeting junior faculty, who, obviously, do not want to get into a politically-charged internet spat. Many people find these kinds of internet fights unpleasant and depressing because they encourage overconfidence and bombast rather than careful reasoning and curiosity about other points of view. These sorts of interactions are particularly alienating to junior people, who often feel they are at the mercy of powerful members of the profession who are incurious and unresponsive to argument and only interested in whether their subordinates agree with them.

Finally, it is hard to shake the impression that the reason you are targeting these junior faculty in particular is because you suspect them of having political views you do not agree with. Maybe they do have these views. But there isn’t anything about the phenomenon they are describing that is particular to the academic left. There is plenty of grandstanding on the right, which is just as annoying and pernicious as examples on the left.

In any case, I hope discussing this post makes all of us reflect on how we can have a more constructive internet dialogue within the profession.Report

ex-pro philosopher
ex-pro philosopher
4 years ago

Even if, in the course of describing (etc.) moral grandstanding, Tosi and Warmke engage in some moral grandstanding themselves, it doesn’t follow that what they say about moral grandstanding is false. But also, it seems that they could have escaped the charge of engaging in moral grandstanding themselves if they had published their article in a lesser journal, been less enthusiastic about their claims, etc., which is absurd.Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

I found this blog post deeply distressing.
I mean, there’s way worse things happening in the world, obviously, but it literally made me cry.
I guess I don’t have any content to add to the worries raised above, except that I feel really depressed.Report

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