Are Personal Feelings of Guilt the Underlying Cause of Moral Outrage?

mobThis article was tweeted out by my token skeptic hero, Michael Shermer, a couple of weeks ago. I keep him around because he amuses me.

But I didn’t really want to read it for fear that it might splay my innards out onto myself, and for all the world to see.

True skepticism is a continuing attempt to question everything – not just stuff others believe that you think is stupid, but what you believe, too, that you think is smart.

And sure enough, after reading this article, it might have splayed me.

Does it splay you?

From the study:

Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one’s sense that they are a moral person and, accordingly, research on guilt finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that do not always involve undoing one’s actions. Furthermore, research shows that individuals respond to reminders of their group’s moral culpability with feelings of outrage at third-party harm-doing. These findings suggest that feelings of moral outrage, long thought to be grounded solely in concerns with maintaining justice, may sometimes reflect efforts to maintain a moral identity.

The study found 5 major things about moral outrage:

1. Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target.

2. The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.

3. Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through ingroup immorality.

4. The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers inflated participants perception of personal morality.

5. Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, even in an unrelated context.

Could this righteous fight that we’ve all engaged in regarding Scientology, for all these years, have only been because we felt guilty and needed to re-establish our own moral identity after finding out how abusive Scientology had been?

No way!

Read the article on
Read the study from Motivation and Emotion

16 thoughts on “Are Personal Feelings of Guilt the Underlying Cause of Moral Outrage?”

  1. The thing I admire about Michael Shermer is that he is willing to admit that he has been wrong about many things. The problem with using Michael Shermer as a reference point is that he has been wrong about so many things, like deciding that Al Gore and George Bush would be equivalent presidents, therefore voting another candidate.
    Consider me unsplayed.

  2. I mean, when you look in the mirror and see it there, is it you? No. It is a pimple. Do you want it as part of you? Do you want to walk around all day feeling somewhat apologetic about it? If it is going to bring some sense of shame, a person will just want to distance them-self from it.

    • Hi Oracle – Guilt vs. Shame. Interesting. They cross reference each other in the thesaurus with over 30 other similar words. A few weeks ago I upset someone. I felt both guilty and ashamed about it. I think the guilt relates to the action (eating the french fries) and the shame was the pimple on my face I continued to look at. I attempted to justify it by saying to myself that the person was thin skinned, but the pimple remained.

      Looking at that incident after reading your comment in light of putting shame and guilt together let the pimple disappear. Hey – that was like a process! Thanks for the comment, Oracle.

  3. Interesting article. Focused on guilt as the item though. I would think it might be closer to shame for many people. If you are part of any group, and you see a person doing something to someone else such as humiliating them, gaslighting them, or bullying them. You may feel some shame for your species or group. It does not bring on a feeling of pride or assurance to witness these things. Saying something about it, or doing something it, helps a person put down distance in between themselves, and the anti symbiotic source. And therefore a person can retain their integrity. Maybe it is like looking in a mirror to find a giant pimple on your nose. You might not want it there. Maybe it could cause someone to feel guilty about something, if they stuffed up on French Fries the night before. Maybe some else just doesn’t feel it represents them at their best.

  4. Here’s a thought-provoking question for you Alanzo.

    There are a number of people (in and around the scientology question) who operate on the basis that continuity of narrative equals/must therefore “the truth” about something or someone.

    What are the pitfalls of that basis of decision-making?

    • “Continuity of Narrative” or Uniformity of Thought and Conformity of Belief is how almost all of the Post-Scientology Internet has been run. Those with ideas that are inconsistent with the current tribal narrative are dead-agented and disposed of – both by Scientologists and Anti-Scientologists.

      This kind of ideological coercion is no way to do anything.

      This town needs an enema.

      • Ha! That’s a line by Jack Nicholson as the “Joker” – good one Alanzo.

        I agree, but I guess the reason I used continuity of narrative as my descriptor was to illustrate individuals lining up telling their narrative about someone or something, that all seem to match in their accusations.

        I think that far too often, this is wrongly taken to indicate that must mean it (the accusation) is TRUE.

        There does exist far darker explanations for such continuity, starting with as simple as a straight propaganda or “PR” campaign and going all the way up to people being paid, coerced, and manipulated to state certain accusations and in a certain way.

        On the other hand, sometimes continuity of narrative is because there actually was continuity.

        A fine mess to sort out, to be sure.

        Clearly in the “dark” scenarios, the target of such a campaign knows these are lies or reversed truths, but that brings up probably the most important point – which is that the whole point of that is not to convince the target but to CONVINCE SOMEONE ELSE.

        For those on the outside, it is most definitely not an easy thing to face the truth of that. Especially since knowing that if they say anything about it, they are pretty much guaranteed to be subjected to the same treatment. Look what happened to Marty when he went against the Karen cluster’s narrative.

        But for those outsiders, do you have any tips that might be of use to them as to how to tell the difference between the orchestrated continuity of narrative and an actual continuity?

        • But for those outsiders, do you have any tips that might be of use to them as to how to tell the difference between the orchestrated continuity of narrative and an actual continuity?

          I think most of the present narrative on the Internet about Scientology is coming from former Sea Org members, specifically Ex-Int Base Sea Org members, who were the most fanatical Scientologists on the planet, doing the most fanatical things in Scientology – and handing out and receiving the most abuse.

          It is extremely important to know that the overwhelming majority of Scientologists were never Sea Org Members, or even staff. And so the overwhelming majority of Scientologists have very different stories from their experiences in Scientology than these Sea Org Members like Marty, Mike, and Karen, and even Chris Shelton.

          These Ex-Int Base Anti-Scientologists who are hyper-controlling the present narrative seem to think that all Scientologists were just like them. And they seem to think that Scientology was applied to every Scientologist just like it was applied to them.

          And that’s just not true.

          A very accurate rule of thumb is: If there was no Sea Org unit controlling the delivery of Scientology, then there was FAR less abuse in how Scientology was delivered.

          • Agreed, that’s certainly one difference. A major one. But I guess that doesn’t really offer a way for people to help themselves discern if whoever those Sea Org members are TARGETING with continuity of narratives, is actually worthy of these sometimes sensational accusations and PR positionings, OR NOT.

            If that makes any sense.

            I’m going to violate the “holy of holies” here and venture into forbidden territory.

            David Miscavige, I don’t have any first-hand dealings DIRECTLY with him, do you?

            I’ve seen a name on some documents, I’ve seen a video or two, I have been TOLD that he did rackety-rack, I have been TOLD he is verbally and physically abusive.

            In a number of cases, mostly by people who were themselves the same way, truth be told.

            Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some fan of David Miscavige, I’m just illustrating a point.

            WHY are we being so pushed to believe that he, and he alone, is the sole architect of the activities we are being given such continuity of narratives about?

            What does this accomplish?

            I’m not meaning to open an argument about that he’s following Hubbard etc. etc., which may be true, BUT even *that* we really do not have proof that is the main reason why he does what he does.

            What if the real story is something else entirely? Are people so set on what they WANT it to be that they will literally not allow the truth because it will upset their tenuous happiness based on guilt hand-offs?

            If that’s the case, like you said, then this town needs an enema.

          • Oh! I see you just added this line: “A very accurate rule of thumb is: If there was no Sea Org unit controlling the delivery of Scientology, then there was FAR less abuse in how Scientology was delivered.”

            I think that’s probably a pretty accurate assessment.

      • Exactly.

        I am despised from both sides. From Tweedledum on the scientology side and Tweedledee on the antiscientology side.

        Even though groovy people everywhere get off on my stuff

  5. Some times people need to dig themselves in deeper before they recognize the hole they are already in. Weird, I know, but I have seen it time and again. It’s a slippery slope to suppress communication coming from that kind of place, but on the other hand – it shouldn’t take away someone elses rights in the process. For example, ESMB is supposedly a place where “ex’s” can communicate freely about their experiences or their stories, but as you know that is a total sham. It should read “stories we approve of the direction the moral outrage is channeled and we won’t allow the target to respond or defend themselves.”

    Now THAT strikes me as exactly the problem this article describes.

  6. This point, in particular, I thought was a really interesting one.

    “3. Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through ingroup immorality.”

  7. I think that could very well be true in some cases, definitely, but certainly not all.

    I have sometimes pondered if the viciousness of posters towards me based on the supposed ‘abuses’ my co-opted children now claim I am guilty of, is exactly that phenomena.

    Parents who failed to stand up for their children in scientology, adult children who failed to stay loyal to and stand up for their parents when scientology ops came a-knocking.

    I think in those cases, it is certainly a strong possibility that guilt for their own actions (that they have yet to take any real responsibility for) is driving their hatred and moral outrage.


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