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

This 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

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Doctor SmellfungusRichardEileenAlanzoThe Oracle Recent comment authors

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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.


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.”


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.


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?

The Oracle
The Oracle

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.

The Oracle
The Oracle

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.


Off-topic (well, kind of) but does anyone know anything about whether Karen’s real name is actually Caryn/Karyn Ingrid Augustine?


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.