Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Moral Outrage or Pop-Psychology?

The Casey Anthony trial has elicited a lot of powerful reactions from a lot of people, from the circus of the media coverage to the apparently shocking verdict of not-guilty. Now, let the cultural assessment games begin. Why were we obsessed? Why (in the minds of many) did the jury let someone so obviously guilty go free? What do we do with mothers and families that seem to be so negligent of their children and grandchildren? One recent column provides an initial set of thoughts on why we are so fanatical about, even angry at, Anthony.

That said, the real sad and unspoken truth is the reason why everyone’s been obsessed with this trial: because demonizing Casey Anthony makes us feel better about ourselves. The screams, shouts, and cries of outrage aren’t just damning Casey for what we perceive to be her actions, but in a weird way putting ourselves up on a pedestal for…well, not being Casey Anthony. Through the expression of our frustration, we bury our transgressions and sins by shoveling mounds of hate onto her.

So why are we so angry? It could be that like so many other things, we’re letting out anger and frustration over unrelated things and attributing it to this trial. Maybe we carry an insecurity that requires us to show other people that we’re a good person, and we think that rage against what we perceive as a great evil will do just that. Perhaps there’s something deep down that’s frustrated with Casey Anthony getting away with the unthinkable while we face consequences every day for far lesser misdeeds and mistakes in our own lives. Regardless of the reasons, all this anger can’t be healthy.

Though Marshall hints at our sense of justice and moral outrage being one of the reasons we are upset at the verdict, the cultural picture he paints is one largely devoid of genuine moral categories. Instead of our reaction being prompted by justice, we are psychologised into a box of “unhealthy anger.” His view of moral reaction, though common today, is radically shallow. It exchanges pop-psychology for moral reasoning and leaves us all poorer as humans than when we began.

Let’s try a different approach to our reaction.

We are indelibly moral creatures hard-wired to react against what we view to be a moral tragedy. We react against the moral wrong because we believe the good, beautiful and the true ought to win more often than they lose. Our anger is entirely healthy as long as it is moral indignation and leads us to work on a better way of doing things where justice is done more often. Moral outrage is not about me, it is about objective moral values and their integrity in our culture. I react, not because I want to demean another person, but because a moral law has been broken and I have the inescapable sense that something needs to be done about it.


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Phil Steiger said...
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