What Is Moral Grandstanding and Are You Guilty of It?

Do you find yourself loudly proclaiming your morality to others? You might be guilty of moral grandstanding. The U.S. National Archives [public domain]/Flickr

Ah, 2020. Here we are. Many of us have been anxiously awaiting this new year and the congressional and presidential elections it brings. As political campaigns kick into high gear this coming spring and fall, there's no better time to refresh your understanding of a conversation technique aptly titled moral grandstanding. Though it might be tempting to slap this label on a certain outspoken family member or an opinionated, Twitter-addicted friend, it's more likely that we've all participated in the bad habit a time or two.

Rather than beating yourself up over it or quietly fuming at the dinner table, take a moment to consider what moral grandstanding looks like, who's apt to do it (everybody) and why it's so damaging to our civil discourse. After all, informed, intelligent and invigorating conversation is part of what makes a democracy great.

Brandon Warmke, an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, gives some excellent examples of the many ways moral grandstanding can pop up in conversations in a video for the Institute for Humane Studies.

"Grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion," says Warmke. "Grandstanders are moral show boaters who use public discourse as a vanity project. They aren't really concerned about helping people or contributing to a conversation. They want to be seen as having spectacular super human insight to what is just.”

Ouch. It sounds a bit harsh at first, but consider your last family argument, trending Twitter topics or even the latest political debate. There's a pretty good chance you or someone in the fray is guilty of grandstanding.

Not all hope is lost, of course. Recognizing the situation, calling attention to unwanted behaviors and highlighting how harmful they can be is the first step toward changing one's attitude. Moral grandstanding can take many forms: from "piling on" to "ramping up," see if some of these frustrating and unproductive practices apply to you.

Piling on

an engraving of the Salem witch trials in court
An extreme example of public shaming: the Salem witch trials. William A. Crafts [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Picture this: A public figure makes a bold statement on Twitter. "Cats don't care about their owners! They only care about themselves. We should only adopt dogs!"

According to Warmke, piling on is "when people join in on a shame fest for someone who's misspoken or engaged in a small infraction. These people want to signal to their group that they have a heightened sense of justice, so they pile on in cases of public shaming and blaming." The more aggrieved a person is by the injustice and the more severely they respond to it, the more they appear to be virtuous.

The shame fest, in this example, might look like thousands of other people tweeting their rage directly to the public figure, or perhaps they'll take this moment to jump on their own soapbox: "What [public figure] said was morally corrupt and wrong. I am truly stricken by their savage language and ill thoughts toward cats, which, as we all know, are truly the angels of the animal kingdom. I personally contribute thousands of dollars to cat shelters every year to keep them safe, and will continue to do so."

For the grandstander, it's not enough to simply say they disagree with the public figure, but they must also illustrate that they themselves are morally superior. Along with co-author Justin Tosi in a feature for Aeon, Warmke writes, "A grandstander's claim might even be true, or supported by reasons or evidence. But whatever the incidental features of grandstanding, the grandstander's primary concern is projecting an image of herself as someone who is on the side of the angels."

Ramping up

A German painting of a preacher denouncing frivolous possessions.
Ramping up usually happens during public discourse, when people try to 'out-do' one another in just how much they care. Ludwig von Langenmantel [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

You've no doubt seen ramping up in action during a political debate. Consider this example below:

Elizabeth: "Cats are wild creatures. They should remain outside, not in the home."

Ellen: "If we truly care about our cat's happiness, it is morally wrong and outright cruel to force a cat to live inside an artificial environment."

Emily: "As a longtime champion of animal's rights, I hear and empathize with both of your statements, but I think we need to go further. We must rescue all cats from their so-called 'human homes' and release them back into the wild — so they may be free creatures again, as nature intended!"

This kind of escalation in a conversation isn't just counter-productive, it's actually harmful. Tosi and Warmke write, "Ramping up contributes to group polarization, where individuals come to hold more extreme views after deliberating with others, rather than moving toward a moderate consensus. The result of a moral arms race is that people will tend to adopt extreme and implausible views, and refuse to listen to the other side." Sound familiar? Perhaps this was your Facebook experience last week, or a holiday dinner with your extended family.

You may be wondering, what's wrong with a little moral grandstanding here and there? If a person really is such a saint, why not let the world know? The problem, Warmke says, is that bringing morality — absolute right or wrong — into public discourse makes it hard to create solutions to complex societal problems.

As this election season heats up, keep your ears and eyes open to moral grandstanding. Being aware of the tactic and its intentions will not only give you insight into different people's behavior, but it might just change the way you interact with others as well. Writes Warmke, "An argument against grandstanding shouldn't be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it's an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues."