On Moral Outrage

With the rise of mass production, of the mass market in capitalist societies, of government control of the economy in socialist ones, and of huge powerful bureaucracies in both, the entire setting in which moral anger can arise and find expression has changed. To these elements in the modern situation it is necessary to add that of sheer numbers. The more people there are, the less any single person’s feelings can count, even if a few individuals may have greater social power because of a more complex division of labor.

The consequence has been, I suggest, to produce a synthetic and indirect quality in moral outrage. Nowadays visceral moral anger may be much rarer or more difficult to express openly than it was a few generations ago, partly because for any individual its expression may seem rather futile. Instead, leaders of opinion of various views turn the moral current on and off as best they can in accordance with larger considerations. Or else they smell out the shifting currents of public sentiment as forces they can use to propel their intellectual and commercial products in the direction of greater influence and profit. The upheavals of the late Sixties and Seventies in China and in the West were partly efforts to restore gut reactions to a place of honor, efforts that the prevailing social apparatus for the most part managed to absorb or deflect.

The transformations wrought by the growth of modern bureaucracy and modern industry have by no means everywhere reduced the individual’s freedom to express moral likes and dislikes. For the moderately prosperous sector within Western societies there may even be a considerable increase in the freedom of the individual to make moral choices and a substantial decrease in the burdens of anxiety in making these choices. Sorting through the day’s mail one can decide whether or not to express moral outrage about political prisoners in Chile or in the Soviet Union, black or Spanish-speaking victims of racial injustice in American cities, the plight of farm laborers in California or that of whales in the Pacific Ocean. It is even possible to gauge very nicely the intensity of one’s moral outrage by the size of the check one makes out. It is also possible to select a congenial color from the political spectrum by choosing one organization among several promoting the same general cause as the group to which one will mail the check.

The system allocates society’s store of moral outrage in much the same way as the oligopolist market allocates the supply of canned potatoes and soft drinks. The big producers of moral outrage, the pressure groups and public spokesmen who are the moral equivalents of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, can within broad limits create the demand that they proceed to satisfy.

At any given time, on the other hand, the demand for moral outrage is limited. Hence, as is generally true of consumer goods, there is stiff competition for shares of the …

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