on moral grandstanding (the fruits of some reading and discussion)

In “Moral Grandstanding,” Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke defend the following account of moral grandstanding (MG):

(1) to MG is to participate in moral discourse out of the desire to be regarded by others as moral (with the desire for moral recognition or recognition desire (RD) being strong enough that, if one were not to be recognized as moral, one would be disappointed; and one acts from this desire via the proper conventionally-determined sort of “grandstanding expression”).  

They also argue that

(2) MG is morally bad because acting on a (strong enough) RD, at least in the ways characteristic of moral grandstanding, frustrates the ends of moral discourse (specifically the end of improving moral beliefs – and hence also the end of moral improvement).  

[Link to paper:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/papa.12075/full ]

T&W defend [1] by arguing that their account, in conjunction with established research results in social and moral psychology, explains why types of behaviors that we regard as paradigmatic types of MG (piling on, trumping up, ramping up, claims of self-evidence, etc.) are indeed instances of MG.  They defend [2] primarily through claims about specific effects of the paradigm types of MG that frustrate the aims of moral discourse in various ways.

My interest is in [1] and [2] and the problems that I see with these claims and the questions that the topic of moral grandstanding raises.  I’m not so interested in T&M’s specific defenses of [1] and [2] because I think the problems I raise and questions I address are more important (and might render their defenses of [1] and [2] moot or ill-framed).

T&M’s paper was discussed on the PEA Soup blog a little while back.  In that discussion, and also in conversation with me, Derek Bowman (who co-hosted the discussion) raised the following two related problems (among others):  (a) RD criteria (including the particular would-be-disappointed criterion T&W favor) seem to count too many things as grandstanding and (b) acting on RD does not always seem to be a problematic motivation in moral discourse (because it can be part of moral pride and part of expressing or achieving solidarity in a group of people engaging in moral causes or activities).  Irfan Khawaja and I discussed this paper as well over several evenings (several months ago) and Irfan had similar criticisms (he argued, more strongly along the lines of [b], that RD is never, in itself, a problematic motivation).

[Link to PEA Soup discussion: http://peasoup.us/2017/08/philosophy-public-affairs-discussion-pea-soup-justin-tosi-brandon-warmkes-moral-grandstanding-critical-precis-c-j-tony-coady/ ]

Picking up on [b], I don’t think that T&W have picked the right motivation as the relevant problematic motivation.  They are concerned that moral grandstanding turns participation in moral discourse into a vanity project or a status-seeking project.  These worries are, I think, broadly on-target and definitely important.  We need to distinguish

seeking accurate/deserved recognition for being moral out of healthy moral pride or from the desire to be an inspiring or otherwise good team player in a moral cause (and perhaps out of or from other morally good or morally benign mindsets)


seeking that others believe one to be moral from vanity or out of social-status competition motivations (and perhaps from or out of some other morally bad or dubious motivations or mindsets).  

As T&W stress in defending their view, the landscape of motivation (and intention and belief) here is complicated!

Consider the following intrinsic (non-instrumental) desires:

(i) to be seen as moral by certain others (regardless of whether one actually is moral)

(ii) to preserve one’s judgment or sense of oneself as moral (through being recognized as moral, regardless of whether one actually is moral)

(iii) to be seen as particularly moral relative to one’s affiliates in one’s tribe or group or relative to those of a contrastive, viewed-as-inferior-by-one’s-affiliates tribe or group.

 All of these motivations are morally suspect and plausibly militate against the aims of moral discourse or practice (or at least ideal, and hence universalized or non-tribal, moral discourse or practice).  (This claim is plausible on many different plausible accounts of what counts as moral discourse and what its aims are.  It is plausible, at least to some degree, even if T&W are right that the sole or dominant aim of moral discourse is improving moral beliefs.)  

Obviously, there is a common theme to these intuitively-morally-problematic desires:  they are indefinite with respect to whether the beliefs that one is moral that one is seeking to cause in others are accurate or deserved.  (We might just as well characterize the relevant mental items in terms of motivational or more-varied sorts of mindsets, not individual desires.  For example, there is the motivational mindset of wanting be be judged moral but not caring if the judgment is undeserved.)

Each of [i]-[iii] is a better candidate for problematic motivation in participating in moral discourse (and for being morally suspect on its own terms).  This is so even if we think of moral talk or discourse as being like a seminar room, with the cognitive aims always paramount.  But their candidacy for being problematic (and the sort of problematic motivation that makes MG bad) is even better if we allow, as we should, that moral discourse has distinctive action motivating and coordinating (and perhaps other) aims.

The show-stopping problem with T&W’s paper is simply that RD is neither in itself morally problematic nor something that, when acted on via grandstanding (or otherwise), reliably frustrates the cognitive or belief-improvement – or other – aims of moral discourse.  So treatment of the other aspects of T&W’s paper is moot.  A better version of [1] (a better account of what MG is) would replace RD with some disjunction of intrinsic desires (maybe something like [i] or [ii] or [iii]), promoted or satisfied by the grandstander being judged to be moral by others, that are either morally problematic relative due to the content of morality (maybe MG does not show proper respect for others or for oneself) or problematic because successfully acting on them typically frustrates the aims of moral discourse (whether cognitive or broadly action-coordinating).  A better version of [2] (a better account of why MG is bad) would explain why acting from one or more of these desires, in ways that are conventionally appropriate to the grandstanding task, is morally bad or destructive of the aims of moral discourse.  Starting here, one might construct a better, more accurate account of what MG is and why it is bad.  

(One motivation for such a project starts from the belief that we engage in MG (and other, related but similarly problematic activities in the course of moral practice and discourse) quite a lot more than we think – and often enough when we take ourselves to be acting out of justified moral outrage and the like (as Haidt argues in THE RIGHTEOUS MIND).  And from the Haidt-critical standpoint, we should also want clear accounts of moral outrage and justified moral outrage.  Such conceptual and normative work would help us think clearly and in essential terms in assessing Haidt’s empirical claims – and especially in assessing his (implicit) normative claims.  It might also help us navigate current cultural-difference-driven political conflicts in the U.S. and elsewhere in a better way.)

28 thoughts on “on moral grandstanding (the fruits of some reading and discussion)

  1. Thanks for writing this. In one sense, I have nothing to add to what you say here: the point you make strikes me as both obvious and fatal to their project. And having worked through this paper ad nauseam when we did, we ended up hammering out a consensus view between us, so that my thoughts are now probably entangled in yours and vice versa. (I still haven’t gotten a chance to read the PEA Soup discussion, but will get to it when I can.) Naturally, yours are more charitable them than mine are, but I still think we’re operating in the same ballpark.

    In another sense, however, there’s a lot left to say, because you’ve deliberately taken on the overall project, but left the details of their exposition untouched. That’s a legitimate enough strategy, but the details left me shaking my head. I’ve read the paper several times over, and have taught it a couple of times in a 200-level ethics class I teach, and find myself dumbstruck at the following combination: 1) the weakness of the argumentation, 2) the fact that the paper was published where it was, and 3) the adulation that the paper widely received, at least in some quarters.

    Adulation, Exhibit 1:

    Adulation, Exhibit 2:

    Adulation, Exhibit 3 (referring to the place of publication):

    I wanted to avoid saying that, because saying it sounds so bitchy and snarky (I admit it), but I honestly do not get the hype over this paper, unless one views it as an installment in a basically partisan project targeting left-wing “social justice warriors” (a project now in vogue in certain quarters).

    So what I wanted to do was to supplement your post down here in the comments by talking a bit about the details. As you point out, the two basic problems are that (a) they give an “account” of grandstanding that is much too broad, and (b) their account of the motivations involved is so coarse-grained that it conflates lots of legitimate things with “vanity,” then attacks all grandstanding as “vanity” (a concept left unanalyzed in the paper). And you yourself suggest, I think you understate the problems here. In other words, the problems with the paper are worse than you suggest.

    One correction, though: my claim wasn’t that RD (recognition desire) is never in itself a problematic motivation, but that it often isn’t, and that (given that) they haven’t given an account that distinguishes the cases in which it is from those in which it isn’t. More fundamentally, apart from conflating RD with “vanity,” they haven’t explained why RD is problematic when it is. But more on that in a bit.

    It may take me awhile to write these up, because I’m multi-tasking at the moment, and wasn’t scheduled to read or think about this paper until late April (when I’m teaching it again). But it’s a good exercise to articulate some of the criticisms we came up with in our conversations from last fall (or whenever it was).

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  2. The introduction
    In criticizing this paper, a critic has to make a choice: do you want to focus on the overarching conceptual problems, or do you want to get down into the weeds involving every last inference, no matter how trivial? Ordinarily, it makes more sense to prefer the former to the latter, but one problem I see with this paper is that if you do happen to focus microscopically on particular inferences, the ratio of exposition to misinference is so bad–there are so many misinferences per proposition asserted–that the cumulative effect is about the same as what you’d get if you’d focused on the overarching problems. Maybe I’m just too far outside of the circle of intended readers for the paper, but just about every paragraph of this paper left me with a “WTF” reaction–including the one-paragraph introduction at the very beginning.

    Here it is:

    Kurt Baier wrote that “moral talk is often rather repugnant. Leveling moral accusations, expressing moral indignation, passing moral judgment, allotting the blame, administering moral reproof, justifying oneself, and, above all, moralizing—who can enjoy such talk?”1 When public moral discourse is at its best, we think that these features (if they are present at all) are unobjectionable. But we also think that, to some degree, Baier is right: public moral discourse—that is, talk intended to bring some matter of moral significance to the public consciousness—sometimes fails to live up to its ideal. Public moral discourse can go wrong in many ways. One such way is a phenomenon we believe to be pervasive: moral grandstanding (hereafter, “grandstanding”).2 We begin by developing an account of grandstanding. We then show that our account, with support from some standard theses of social psychology, explains the characteristic ways that grandstanding is manifested in public moral discourse. We conclude by arguing that there are good reasons to think that moral grandstanding is typically morally bad and should be avoided.

    What strikes me about this is that they manage to misread and misrepresent Baier’s claim within maybe two or three sentences of quoting it. Baier’s claim is that morally judgmental discourse is in itself repugnant. Their supposed interpretation of Baier is that moral discourse “fails to live up to its ideal.” But that misses the point of the Baier quotation. Baier is not saying that there is some attractive “ideal” of moral discourse that we often fail to reach, so that our failures are cases of repugnance. He’s saying that much moral discourse is, qua moral discourse, repugnant.

    More narrowly, I think his intended point is that negative moral discourse, qua negative, is repugnant. But though it mostly captures his intentions, the latter narrow interpretation is strictly speaking a bit misleading: From the fact that negative discourse is repugnant, it doesn’t necessarily follow that positive moral discourse is non-repugnant, even for Baier (where “positive discourse” refers to things like praising, expressing gratitude, alloting rewards). He mentions “justifying oneself” and “moralizing,” but “justifying oneself” and “moralizing” don’t always lead to negative verdicts; they can lead to positive ones. Though his main target is negative moral verdicts, his actual claim ranges over both negative ans positive moral judgments: the very fact of their being tinged by morality, whether negatively or even positively, is what makes them repugnant.

    That is a very Kurt Baieresque view, but it’s very far from being a self-evident verdict on the nature of moral discourse. I, personally, wouldn’t accept it. That point aside, it’s even farther from the banal truism that Tosi and Warmke put in Baier’s mouth: that moral discourse “sometimes fails to live up to its ideal.” In other words, they’ve quoted Baier, treating his claims as truisms, ignored what’s controversial about what he’s saying, then misinterpreted him as offering up a truism–while potentially taking on board the controversial part.

    This may all sound like nitpicking, but it raises two problems for the paper. The minor problem is just the misreading of Baier. They quote Baier as a sort of toss-off to make a supposedly obvious point, but in doing so, they miss the real point he’s making about the nature of moral discourse as such.

    That leads to the bigger problem. There’s no real discussion in the paper of what “the ideal” of moral discourse is supposed to be. Near the end of the paper (in section 3), they suggest that the correct discursive idea is non-egoistic. I’ll get to that when I get to it, but for now I’ll just say that I think those arguments beg the question by presupposing (without argument) a tendentiously narrow conception of an agent’s discursive “interests.”

    Meanwhile, it seems to me, the underlying question to bear in mind is: is moral discourse systematically tainted when discursive agents speak for reasons that they take to be self-beneficial? Generally speaking, if S asserts that p, and is motivated to assert that p because he sees the prospect of benefiting by asserting that p, how immediately or easily can we infer that there is something wrong or problematic with S‘s doing so–where “wrong” refers either to moral wrongness and/or epistemic irresponsibility, and “problematic” to some departure from the truth-tracking-relation? In other words, how immediate is the inference from “acting from self-interest” to acting wrongly, irresponsibly, or problematically? That’s the issue implicitly raised by T&W’s paper. I don’t think that the inference from “S asserts that p when motivated by self-benefit” to “S‘s assertion is wrong or problematic” is all that immediate or easy. Clearly, they do. But the burden of proof is on them to show why. The basic question is whether or not they meet it. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t.

    More comments later this week….

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    • I agree with most of that. I don’t think that the focus on self-interested motives (or even some particular species of self-interested motives) as the inappropriate motives is on-target. Partly because the content of ‘self-interest’ is reasonably contested. But also because the important thing is motives (in some cases even moral motives) that are not appropriate given the context in moral discourse (or practice) and because it is plausible that this category of problematic motivation is wide and varied.

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  3. I think when you, Irfan, and I all agree on something, that’s good prima facie evidence that it’s true. Though I haven’t studied the paper carefully like the two of you, I agree with much of what you say in the original post, but in particular I agree with you and Irfan — though I see now from the comments that perhaps some qualifications may be in order — that recognition desire is never as such objectionable. More fully, a recognition desire, understood as Tosi and Warmke define it, can never be objectionable just because it is a recognition desire. When it’s objectionable, there will have to be more to it than the mere fact that it’s a recognition desire.

    I’m puzzled by why, exactly, so many people seem happy to embrace the claim that there’s something inherently unsavory about recognition desire, whether or not it’s taken to be a non-instrumental desire. I find it especially puzzling because recognition desire seems to be a pervasive feature of ordinary people’s psychology, one without which many everyday behaviors would make little to no sense. T&W focus on one specific sort of recognition desire — desire to be thought moral — but more generally the desire for other people to think positively of us seems to be at least part of what motivates a whole lot of what people do. Anyone who castigates recognition desire as such strikes me as flirting with hypocrisy, or at least a serious lack of self-knowledge. Yet I’ve found that, especially in conversations with philosophers, the idea that we might have a basic desire for other people to think well of us, and that this desire is at least not inherently bad and perhaps even very often a good thing, is often met with skepticism or rejection. Most often, though, I’ve had this conversation in the context of discussions of honor in Aristotle and ancient Greek thought, where recognition desire is tied up with other values (especially in Homer and tragedy) that many people today more understandably hesitate to affirm. So I’ve usually chalked the resistance up to the context. The enthusiastic reception of T&W’s paper suggests that there’s more to it.

    I wonder, though, whether the explanation is really straightforward. The focus of the paper isn’t recognition desire, it’s moral grandstanding. Moral grandstanding definitely seems to be a real phenomenon, and recognition desire seems to play a role in it; people often say things primarily out of a desire to be thought moral, where that desire leads them to act contrary to epistemic and other virtues, and the prioritization of moral recognition over these other goods (or the sheer silencing of the other considerations in the face of the recognition desire) plausibly explains a lot of the grandstanding behavior (piling on, ramping up, &c). In one way, this is not news; I certainly did not first read about T&W’s concept of ‘moral grandstanding’ with a sense of revelation, and I do not think that I am unusually perceptive in moral matters. But for many people, the concept articulated in the paper may have helped them to put their fingers on a phenomenon they’d often encountered but felt unable to describe adequately. So perhaps the general idea of moral grandstanding as the product of recognition desire trumping truth just seemed especially useful to a bunch of people, and they didn’t worry too much about the details? Something similar seems to have occurred with the notion of ‘virtue signaling’; that such a thing exists is hardly a new discovery, but many people apparently found that way of describing the phenomenon distinctively useful. That’s not a defense of anything, of course, but I do wonder whether something that simple — perhaps in conjunction with a general reluctance among people to recognize and acknowledge their own pervasive recognition desires? — can explain the adulation.

    It would be interesting to get some psychologists to weigh in on recognition desire, understood as a desire for recognition sufficiently strong to lead to disappointment if one is not so recognized. The little psychological literature that I’ve read touching on the role of social recognition in the formation and maintenance of self-image and self-esteem leads me to expect that psychologists would regard it as obvious that most of us have strong, pervasive recognition desires, and that while they can often be a source of trouble, they’re not at all the sort of thing that we could sensibly think of as inherently problematic or ideally dispensed with. But perhaps I’m projecting too much on to a small sample of pop psychology.

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    • If I have the time, either today or early next week, I intend to write up some comments on section 1 of T&W’s paper that responds in more detail to some of the things you (Riesbeck) say here. For now, I’ll just say that I basically agree, but have a few quick, telegraphic responses.

      I think when you, Irfan, and I all agree on something, that’s good prima facie evidence that it’s true.


      More fully, a recognition desire, understood as Tosi and Warmke define it, can never be objectionable just because it is a recognition desire. When it’s objectionable, there will have to be more to it than the mere fact that it’s a recognition desire.

      Put in that way, I agree, and it’s probably what I was saying when Michael and I discussed this last fall over video chat. Maybe I balked unnecessarily at Michael’s paraphrase of my view above. I just wanted to preserve the inference from certain kinds of recognition desires to problematic forms of grandstanding. But you’re right that recognition desire as such cannot be wrong without the addition of some other wrong-making factor. For T&W, the wrong-making factor is egoistic vanity. They hedge a lot on how closely connected vanity is to the desire for recognition. Sometimes, it sounds as though they’re basically identifying the two things. Sometimes not.

      I’m puzzled by why, exactly, so many people seem happy to embrace the claim that there’s something inherently unsavory about recognition desire, whether or not it’s taken to be a non-instrumental desire.

      Passing point: if I remember correctly (I’ll have to check), T&W say nothing about whether recognition desires are instrumental or non-instrumental.

      But if you’re puzzled about why T&W are so happy to embrace the thesis, I’d try some hermeneutic of suspicion on for size: one possibility is that the whole paper is a polemical exercise, masquerading as non-partisan, peer-reviewed academic philosophy, targeting what the authors regard as the unsavory polemics of left-wing “social justice warriors.” Read with this hypothesis in mind, many otherwise unclear features of the paper become abundantly clear, e.g., why they’re so cagey about precision exactly where precision is required; why examples are never forthcoming exactly where an example seems necessary to understand what they’re trying to say; and why the examples they give are so wooden and artificial.

      The point you make about honor in ancient Greek thought strikes me as very apt; I found myself thinking also about Nicomachean Ethics IX.9 on why the virtuous person needs friends, and Hegel on the master-slave dialectic. Nicomachean IX.9 is a notoriously difficult text, but surely the friend’s recognition of oneself as virtuous is part of what makes the friend “another self”; it doesn’t seem a stretch to treat recognition desires as central to Aristotle’s argument. Recognition desire is even more obviously central to the master-slave dialectic in Hegel; the slave demands the master’s recognition precisely because the master’s disrespect constitutes a failure to recognize (the full humanity of) the slave.

      I wonder, though, whether the explanation is really straightforward. The focus of the paper isn’t recognition desire, it’s moral grandstanding. Moral grandstanding definitely seems to be a real phenomenon, and recognition desire seems to play a role in it; people often say things primarily out of a desire to be thought moral, where that desire leads them to act contrary to epistemic and other virtues, and the prioritization of moral recognition over these other goods (or the sheer silencing of the other considerations in the face of the recognition desire) plausibly explains a lot of the grandstanding behavior (piling on, ramping up, &c).

      What you say about grandstanding is true enough, but it’s a much weaker (hence more plausible) version of what the T&W paper actually says. So I think we have to be clear: are we discussing the claims of the paper, or are we discussing the topic that the paper addresses? If we’re doing the former, here’s how I read it: the paper identifies grandstanding with (defines it in terms of) a desire for recognition of any action-motivating strength (no matter how weak), and assumes that recognition desires are “typically” or “paradigmatically” instances of vanity, construed as a vice. The cash value of this claim turns out to be the following vacuity: if we take vanity to be a vice (whatever “vanity” turns out to be), then being motivated to speak from vanity is a morally bad thing. Whoa! How to turn this truism into a thesis? That’s the problematic of the paper.

      But for many people, the concept articulated in the paper may have helped them to put their fingers on a phenomenon they’d often encountered but felt unable to describe adequately. So perhaps the general idea of moral grandstanding as the product of recognition desire trumping truth just seemed especially useful to a bunch of people, and they didn’t worry too much about the details?

      That’s a very charitable interpretation, and not one that really explains why the paper ended up being published where it did. I think the paper was polemically useful in the just-post-Trump-election-era, when people thought that leftists were going over the top in their anti-Trump polemics, as in this comment by Jason Brennan:

      (For instance, my reaction to Trump was that this sucks but it’s not the end of the world, while they wrote apocalyptic Facebook posts complaining that World War III is just around the corner and that Roe v. Wade will be overturned any minute now.)

      As we all know, leftists thought that the Trump election was, precisely, “the end of the world.” Anyway, perhaps the truth is somewhere between your hermeneutic of charity and my hermeneutic of hate.

      I haven’t read much of the psychological literature on recognition, either, but given what I have read, I think your hypothesis is as good as any about what it says.

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      • (In reply to Irfan.) (a) I took the ‘vanity’ thing to be a gloss and the recognition desire the precisification of this gloss (and other glosses). I did not take there to be a separate inference, however implicit, to vanity (and thereby to vice). The idea is supposed to be that acting on the recognition desire (through conventionally-appropriate grandstanding expression) tends to undermine the aims of moral discourse (in particular, what I take them to take to be the ultimate aim qua discourse, generating true moral beliefs). I’m pretty sure also that they mark off the recognition desire being a morally bad desire to have (or the moral badness of grandstanding) – the vice issue – as separate. (b) I have no doubt that the “cheer-leading against the lefty social justice warriors element” is in the air with this, but the *newness* of the topic and its *relevance* to the present character of political and cultural conflict (apart from who is on which side and whose ox might be gored) might well have blinded folks to the mediocre quality of the paper as well.


        • On (a), point taken, but vanity turns out to be the (moral) wrong-making feature of grandstanding. So yes, there are two points there, one about subversion of the proper aims of discourse, and one about the moral wrongness of grandstanding, but expression of and capitulation to the desire for vanity is what explains the latter.

          On (b), again, point taken, but take a look at footnote 18:

          Indeed, grandstanders often deny that their views are in need of any defense (or that were they to give a defense, the implication is that their audience would not be enlightened enough to understand or appreciate it).

          This obviously isn’t a deductive inference from anything they say about the nature of grandstanding; it’s a further, quasi-sociological observation about grandstanders. There’s nothing about grandstanding as such that implies that grandstanders would do as they say.

          But sociological observations presuppose a sample. What is the sample here? The word “often” makes it seem as though they have some determinate population in mind, have surveyed a representative sample within it, and are now giving us some rigorous claim about modal instances of the sample. Another possibility: they’re just indulging in pure handwaving, bolstered only by the fact that the preceding few footnotes (10-17) make reference to studies in social psychology. The criticism they make of “grandstanders” is a standard criticism made of the left-leaning biases of the academy. The article just sounds to me as a continuation of the same critique by academic means.

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          • It belatedly occurs to me that the paper was written and published just before the Trump election, and publicized just after, so my claim that it “was polemically useful in the just-post-Trump-era” can’t explain the authors’ motivation for saying what they said. But the paper makes reference to the Trump campaign, and is in some sense a polemical response to the atmosphere surrounding it.

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  4. Thanks for your input, David! I think that, prior to the Tosi and Warmke paper, moral grandstanding was an interesting but unaddressed concept/phenomenon ripe for exploration. T&W deserve credit for seeing that and being first to the post (this is a good way to get published). But I don’t think the paper is that good. Their argument is weak and they would have done well to place their treatment in the context of the existing literature on moralism (though their comparison of grandstanding to Frankfurt’s account of bullshit is apt). You may be right that part of the interest here – and part of what explains why they were so quick to embrace the recognition desire as the thing that makes grandstanding-type behavior objectionable (or counterproductive to the aims of moral discourse) – stems from the continued currency of an overly-depersonalized concept of morality.


    • I don’t think that T&W were really dealing with an unaddressed phenomenon. As you yourself say, there is a huge literature on moralizing, much more sophisticated than anything in their article; there’s also stuff out there on recognition and vanity. There may or may not be a literature on “grandstanding” under that precise description, but in this respect, I think the comparison to Frankfurt-on-bullshit is apt for exactly the reverse of the reason you suggest.

      I’ve read and taught Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” many times. In fact, I teach “Moral Grandstanding” and “On Bullshit” in the same unit of the ethics course I teach, on the ethics of discourse. Having taught it for a couple of years, “On Bullshit” now strikes me as an enormously overhyped paper, and the problems with it are very similar to the problems with T&W’s paper.

      The problems are all right there in first three or four paragraphs of the paper. Frankfurt starts the paper with the unargued assumption that the slang word “bullshit” is susceptible of, and worthy of, an analysis. We need, he says, a “theory” of bullshit, as though bullshit were the kind of unified phenomenon about which a theory could be constructed. Within about a paragraph or so, he backs away from that claim, and admits that, well, maybe “bullshit” is just a loose term referring to an ad hoc group of unrelated things. So it’s not as though we can give a genuine analysis of the term, stated in a crisp biconditional. From there, he skates to the claim that what he’s going to give us is a “rough account” of what bullshit is, a sketchy account of “the structure of the concept.” Right (one wants to say), but you just finished admitting that there may not be a concept here susceptible of any sort of account, rough or otherwise. Well, yeah, says Frankfurt, but “[n]onetheless it should be possible to say something helpful.”

      If you take the paper to be doing no more than “saying something helpful about bullshit,” then I guess it succeeds, despite a lot of meandering (cf. the long, totally pointless discussion of Wittgenstein smack in the middle). But central to Frankfurt’s account is the claim that a bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth, and implicitly, doesn’t care about whether his claims are believed by his audience. Relatedly, Frankfurt insists on distinguishing bullshitting from lying and bluffing (where caring about truth and caring about whether you’re believed, operate).

      But it seems to me patently obvious that you can bullshit someone while caring deeply about the truth, and while caring deeply about being believed by the person you’re bullshitting. A huge amount of propaganda is (to my mind) bullshit in its clearest and most paradigmatic form, and propagandists often sincerely believe their propaganda, and desperately want you to believe it. (By this account, much of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction is bullshit. So is Marx.) Notice that this implication renders the concept of Frankfurtian “bullshit” relatively pointless: Frankfurtian bullshit is just one species of deceptive talk; bullshit ordinarily (and more broadly) construed includes Frankfurtian bullshit, but also includes various other sorts of lying, bluffing, exaggeration, appeals to emotion, appeals to authority, and so on. (One thing Ffankfurt entirely misses is the intimate connection between bullshitting and fallacy-mongering.)

      In order to give “bullshit” a point–and give “On Bullshit” a point–Frankfurt is forced to construe the phenomenon so narrowly that he can write an essay about it–i.e., write an essay on the narrowly-defined phenomenon that he identifies with “bullshit.” Except that you can’t really identify that narrow phenomenon with bullshit, a fact that Frankfurt is the first to recognize and admit. And yet he proceeds anyway.

      T&W credit Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” in their paper (n. 19). The citation is apt because they make exactly the same mistake as Frankfurt. They take a loose, colloquial term without a clear meaning. They then give it a narrow meaning that permits them to write a paper about it. They acknowledge that the analysandum is loose, and perhaps not really susceptible of a genuine analysis. Borrowing a page from Wittgenstein, they say, “So what?” They then make some arbitrary moves, and voila, “grandstanding” becomes the expression of recognition desires, and recognition desires are reduced to vanity, which trumps truth.

      One meta-methodological problem raised by both papers is what kind of term counts as the kind of concept susceptible of a conceptual analysis. Can you pluck just any old term out of discourse, treat it as a “concept,” and then offer a conceptual analysis of it? Or does a term have to meet certain structural constraints to count as a concept, hence count as a candidate for conceptual analysis? It seems to me that we’ve gone from one extreme to another on this. Once upon a time, to count as worthy of analysis, a concept had to be susceptible of an analysis in terms of strict necessary and sufficient conditions. The Gettier problem was one counter-example to that, and Wittgenstein’s conception of a “family resemblance” seemed like an alternative. But there’s a danger of going from the extreme of insisting on analysis-in-terms-of-extensional-equivalence to allowing for analysis of “family resemblances” that are so vague, imagistic, and stereotype-laden as to lead to pseudo-analyses of arbitrarily conjured-up phenomena. Colin McGinn has a book out on “mindfucking,” and lots of people now think that “slut” is a theoretical term. Pretty soon, people will be offering “analyses” of “woke” and “lit.” There’s also the possibility that slang is just protean and non-analyzable, and that we should be focusing our attentions elsewhere.

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  5. (Reply to Irfan.) I’m interested in the meta-methodological problem, but I don’t know enough to offer anything like a solution. However, I take it that, unless a term is being used ambiguously, there is some unified account of its use/meaning. The interesting question, for me, is whether this unified account has very much explanatory value. For example, if the unified account of ‘reason’ is something like ‘something that might be used or referenced by a premise in an inference or argument’, it is not clear that the underlying unified phenomenon is that interesting (after all, on this sort of account, each of facts, beliefs and propositions can count as reasons – presumably in different contexts for different purposes – so we should not suppose that ‘this item counts as a reason of some sort of other’ would often explain very much; rather, we should expect that, in context, ‘this item is a reason of this particular, relevant type’ is the kind of thing that does explanatory work). Anyhow, this is how I think about these issues. Not sure how standard this take is. This is not enough for a meta-methodological account, but it seems to be enough to get me by and keep my out of trouble!


    • Right, but both Frankfurt and T&W concede that “bullshit” and “grandstanding” are used ambiguously.


      Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely….For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.

      If he admits that the analysis is procrustean, does that imply that “it’s procrustean” is now inadmissible as an objection to the analysis?


      Our view is that grandstanding, even of the moral variety, is a diverse and diffuse social phenomenon, much like love, blame, forgiveness, complaint, and apology. And as is the case with these phenomena, we are skeptical that there is an illuminating and nontrivial set of necessary and sufficient conditions that capture the extension of the concept of grandstanding. Our diffuse grandstanding behaviors form a constellation, some of them closer to the center than others. The instances of grandstanding that make up the center of the constellation are the paradigmatic ones.

      Well, if you say so. But what Frankfurt says about “bullshit” applies to T&W: both “analyses” are procrustean. That doesn’t stop T&W from telling us about what is “paradigmatic” or “typical” of the phenomenon: recognition desire is “central” to the “paradigmatic” cases, and since recognition desires are anti-alethic, the phenomenon itself turns out to be–typically, or in its “paradigm” instances–subversive of public discourse. But the unity they give to the “diffuse” phenomenon involves lots of stipulations. They give lip service to the diffuse and complex nature of the phenomenon, but are not prevented by that to issue some bold generalizations about what it’s “typically” like.

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  6. Another relevant point that occurs to me is that some accounts, in particular accounts of kinds, are often “non-crisp” due to borderline cases. (Not sure this applies to the reasons case, but it might.) Plausibly, bullshitting and grandstanding are social/institutional kinds of a certain sort that have lots of borderline cases on different dimensions. If so, it makes sense to give an account of the core or paradigmatic cases only, not getting into the weeds of the borderline cases oneself (but also fending off putative counterexamples that do not clearly address the core or paradigm cases). I have no objection to this methodology, but I think it needs to be made precise and explicit. At the very least, we need to know why and how putative counterexamples are really special, borderline cases. I don’t think that characterizing one’s topic as fit for this sort of analysis amounts to admitting that either the phenomenon or the concept is objectionably disjunctive, ambiguous, etc. (However, I too tire of folks waiving their hands around saying “Wittgenstein!”, “family resemblance!”, “clusters of vaguely similar things!”, “everybody knows it is the exception rather than the rule that you can specify necessary and sufficient conditions in an account/analysis!”. How about trying to give a “crisp” account first, find the major putative counterexamples, then sorting these into “potentially actual counterexamples” and “probably just borderline cases” piles?)


  7. 28 MARCH FOLLOW-UP #1: I’ve been following up on the moralizing literature (which is, I think, relevant to grandstanding). One important distinction, for both of these topics, is consequential versus motivational badness (or moral badness). So I reread the T&W paper with the question in mind: “In which of these respects do T&W take grandstanding to be bad?” It turns out that their answer (at least on a plausible interpretation) is both. First and primarily, grandstanding frustrates the proper ends of moral discourse (in specific ways that they lay out and on what appears to be a “cognitivist” take on the proper ends and methods of moral discourse or talk). Clearly, this is a kind of consequence-related badness, relative to the ends (or perhaps methods) of moral discourse. If the ends of moral discourse are themselves moral ends, this badness is a kind of moral badness (and T&W seem to interpret things this way). But, secondly, they claim that grandstanding often exhibits one or more of three different kinds of disrespect for persons. This is most plausibly interpreted as a broadly contextual mind-set-relative sort of bad will or morally bad motivation.

    So my interpretation [2] above is incomplete. Though T&W’s focus is more on the effects of grandstanding on moral discourse than it is on the moral badness of grandstanding (including any non-consequentialist, bad-will kind of moral badness), and though they do seem to assume that the bad effects on moral discourse constitute a kind of moral badness, they also seem to be concerned that grandstanding typically exhibits various sorts of disrespect-for-others mindset and bad will.

    I think this distinction is important in considering why and how grandstanding (and moralism) is bad (or perhaps is bad when it is bad). T&W seem to implicitly recognize this distinction, but I think it is worth making explicit and using as a tool of analysis.

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    • I agree with that interpretation of what they’re saying, but find the account that they’re offering very implausible. It’s not clear to me why, say, political discourse that aims to burnish the credentials of the speaker in the eyes of the audience disrespects the audience in any plausible sense of “disrespects.” I’d need to re-read T&W, but it seems to me that they are saying that even instrumental grandstanding is objectionable, i.e., grandstanding as instrumental to some wider persuasive or political aim. To make an argument of that form, you’d have to argue that there are no worthy aims such that grandstanding is a permissible instrumental means to it. That would entail that self-aggrandizing talk in the context of an election campaign would be morally objectionable–even if (a) self-aggrandizing talk is a necessary condition of being elected, (b) the grandstanding candidate deserves to be elected, and (c) being elected is itself a worthy aim.

      Here’s a real-life example–from a campaign ad drawn from a local political campaign I’ve been involved in.

      There clearly is T&W grandstanding going on here–at least relative to what would be appropriate in a philosophy seminar room. There’s “piling on” Donald Trump. There’s “ramping up” when it comes to the Nazis.There’s plenty of emotional display. There are implicit claims of self-evidence. And all of it is egoistically motivated: she’s trying to get elected, after all. So the attempt at persuasion (“vote for me”) is entangled in the self-aggrandizement (“look at me”).

      But unless you demand that a political ad on You Tube satisfy the standards of a philosophy seminar room or an article in the pages of Philosophy & Public Affairs, is Sherill’s ad morally objectionable? I don’t think so. There are, to be sure, some over-simplifications and cheap shots in the ad, some borrowed glory (from the grandfather, from the hallowed traditions of the Navy), and an emotional appeal to a distinctively liberal form of flag-waving–plus lots of cute kids gratuitously thrown in. But it would take far more argument than T&W give to show that there is, all things considered, something morally wrong with this ad.

      A moral evaluation of the ad is in part an evaluation of the political context within which the ad operates. By those standards, the ad is about as G-rated, fair-minded, and squeaky clean as they come (especially considering the tactics of the opposition). Do T&W want to say that the entire context of political campaigns and ads should be abolished because of how it incentivizes grandstanding? The job market incentivizes grandstanding, too. Should that be abolished? What about advertising? While we’re at it, why not banish the poets and artists–grandstanders and emotionalizers par excellence?

      Here’s an interview in Forbes with the same candidate, Mikie Sherrill, talking about how she gradually learned the art of “self-promotion” (another way of saying that she gradually taught herself how to “grandstand” in T&W’s terms).


      There are obviously better and worse ways of engaging in self-promotion, but I don’t see how truthful self-promotion is itself morally objectionable. And though T&W might object that some of the preceding examples don’t come from “public moral discourse,” they don’t explain what they mean by that term well enough to exclude the job-related contexts discussed in the Forbes article. Is Sherrill’s promoting her career within the Navy not part of “public moral discourse”? What if her political ambitions dated to her time in the Navy? Either way, I’d say that her conversations with her superior officers about the quality of her on-the-job work were an instance of “public moral discourse.” It’s obviously moral discourse; I would just insist that what happens on the job qualifies as something happening “in public.”

      Here’s another real-life example. This is the Palestinian-American rapper Remi Kanazi, rapping about the Israeli occupation. He’s clearly “grandstanding” by T&W’s criteria. At a minimum, there is ramping up, heavy emotional display, and implicit claims of self-evidence. Given the context, he’s also encouraging others to “pile on” (on Israel). A few years ago, I had an argument with someone on this blog to the effect the Kanazi was being “disrespectful” (even racist) toward Jews or Israelis or maybe just generally, toward his listeners.

      But I don’t buy any of that. Again, the “it’s grandstanding, hence morally objectionable” inference abstracts entirely from the relevant context. “Normalize This!” is a work of spoken art, fully intended to preach to the converted (or the mostly converted, or at least the sympathetic). It’s not meant to do the work of an article in a peer reviewed journal, or even the work of an Op-Ed in a mainstream publication. Nor is it meant to offer an argument from premises acceptable to both sides in the dispute over Israel and Palestine.

      Since it’s doing something qualitatively different from that, it has to be held to different standards than, say, a work of academic philosophy or political theory. Applying discursively relevant standards, I’d say that “Normalize This!” is both a moral and aesthetic success. The overt display of anger–“excessive” by some standards–is the whole point of the piece. To demand that he “ramp down” the intensity of the emotions he puts on display is to miss the point of what he’s doing. It would be like criticizing a poem for being too rich in visual imagery, or a song for being too evocative.

      One last example:

      A person partial to T&W’s analysis might ask: Why isn’t King making flat, non-rhetorical arguments, based on premises acceptable both to racists and non-racists of the policy prescriptions he’d like everyone to accept? Why the superfluous, emotionalist repetition of the phrase “I have a dream”? Isn’t that grandstanding? Etc. But to make such objections is to fail to understand that King is delivering a homily in a specific rhetorical tradition. A political speech isn’t an APA presentation, but it’s not objectionable for not being one.

      What’s objectionable is to insist, with T&W, that what is appropriate to an APA presentation is appropriate for all “public moral discourse” everywhere, regardless of the context, as though all discourse had the same ends involving the same normative standards. So I would say that T&W have an implicitly one-dimensional account of the proper ends of moral discourse. One problem with it is that it’s inexplicit. Another is that it’s over-generalized. But it’s unconvincing, no matter how you slice it.

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      • I pretty much agree with your basic point about T&M-style grandstanding (or grandstanding with their “suspect” motivational or intentional element). I don’t take the Sherrill video to have much genuine grandstanding in it (though perhaps it fits the T&M definition). And none that is particularly objectionable. She is building herself up or promoting herself in ways that are appropriate for political candidates. Her moral claims, while vague and unsupported (basically, Trump is undermining everything that is good about her story), might count as something like mild grandstanding (as I’m inclined to define it, in terms of the vivid displaying of what one takes to be moral truth) but if so it seems unobjectionable.

        I find the Kanazi thing disrespectful, insofar as it pushes conclusions that are, in his eyes, simply true – and if you don’t get this, you are stupid and evil (usually, this description is exaggerated; I don’t think it is in this case). What he is doing is valuable, though, through the framing of bringing to light terrible things that folks were not aware of, do not want to think about, etc. (if you are going to say that ethnic occupation/cleansing is okay or that drone-bombing potentially innocent folks is okay, you have to acknowledge the brutality of these things and that they are generally morally forbidden – and so have damned good reasons for all-in approving; fuck yeah, remind people of that). Perhaps he is only speaking to the converted, using those he disagrees with as punching bags (those stupid, evil people…). But I took him to be, in part, perhaps primarily, trying to convince his opponents – that is the verbal, behavioral form of what he is doing. However, I suspect that the motivation is primarily expressive of moral outrage and frustration (“this is so awful, why can’t the rest of you see, why won’t you see?”). In many cases, these expressive motivations (and means) are at odds with the broadly discursive or argumentative ends of the public display. I’m guessing so in this case.

        The Kanazi video is not, I don’t think, a very clear case of grandstanding in the T&W sense, simply because the focus is displaying what he takes to be moral truth, not recognition of his own moral standing. The video is *definitely* grandstanding in my “vivid display” sense (and also, if one agrees intuitively that this is grandstanding, good evidence that my view is on-target compared to the T&W view – clearly, Kanazi’s focus is on displaying moral truth, not being recognized as moral himself). It is morally bad grandstanding, at least in respect of treating potentially reasonable disagreement as bad-faith obtuseness. Still, if I were teaching, I would use this video because it does vividly display values (or prima facie duties) that cannot be ignored in thinking about this issue in a balanced way. And perhaps given realistic conditions, this is the only way that this sort of moral improvement function could happen. In which case, I want both sides to make videos like this and each listen to the presentations of the other side – but then afterwards, do what Kanazi seems to be serious about not doing: break bread together and have a civil conversation. (All of which is not to say that some folks on some things are not deeply obtuse and immoral. In which case, yeah, no point is breaking bread or talking it out. I just don’t think this is the case in very many political disputes that I am familiar with.)

        The MLK speech would clearly count as grandstanding on my view, but, again, less clearly so on the T&W definition (though clearly anyone who aims to inspire has to have some concern for managing reputation or image and this provides some grounds for shoe-horning it into their definition). And, again, so much the worse for their view and for the view that grandstanding is always or almost always destructive of good moral discourse and disrespectful or otherwise morally bad.

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        • So I guess we agree on the Sherrill video, as well as on MLK. Either MLK is not grandstanding, or he’s engaged in a benign form of it. Probably the latter. I’d say that the rhetorical “genre” he’s chosen–the homily–is conducive to grandstanding, sometimes benign, sometimes problematic.

          We do disagree on Kanazi. I don’t think the point of the video is primarily, “The occupation is so bad, can’t you see it?” addressed to those who don’t see it. The point of the video is to disavow the assumption of moral equivalence that is the starting point of so many bread breaking, “interfaith” dialogues between Palestinian partisans and Zionist Jews. If the assumption were put explicitly into words, it would sound something like this; call it the ecumenical approach:

          Let us break bread together. We are both aggrieved parties, equally so, and if only we sit down together at this week-long therapy session, and got to know one another in a civil conversation, we’d come to see that what matters is our common humanity, not any alleged political grievances we may or may not adduce against one another. So let’s put all that political stuff aside, sing some songs, tell stories, have some S’mores, hug, and come to realize that we’ve wasted the last 50 years in a pointless quarrel, easily resolved by adjusting a few boundaries, and moving some stuff around….

          The assumption at the heart of the ecumenical approach is that if you reject the ecumenical approach, you reject peace, and are to blame for the strife that consumes Israel and Palestine. Kanazi’s rap expresses the visceral rejection of the ecumenical approach that many Palestinian partisans feel. The rap certainly can’t substitute for an explicit argument–it neither makes an argument, nor pretends to–but the attitude it expresses is, in my view, exactly on target.

          Suppose that you establish, independently of what Kanazi says in the rap, that the Israeli occupation is a decades-long form of apartheid with a state-sponsored land grab thrown in for good measure. Suppose that a great deal of the resistance to acknowledging what you’ve established is based on culpable ignorance or culpable rejection. In that case, you’ll be about as angry as Kanazi is. Suppose that you choose rap as your medium of artistic expression. Then you’ll end up producing a rap like “Normalize This!” In doing so, you’ll undoubtedly attract the admiring attention of people who share your attitudes. Such people will pay good money to flock to your shows, and together you’ll all engage in a form of piling on.

          Is this a potentially dangerous thing to do, epistemically speaking? Yes. It can adversely affect your objectivity, and in many cases, does. But is it so dangerous that you should treat it as some sort of discursive toxin? I don’t think so. It has its place, in the way that punk rock, heavy metal, Wagner, romantic art, and Greek tragedy have their place. It speaks to emotions deep within us that need expression–in this case what the Greeks called the sense of nemesis, or righteous indignation.

          From this perspective, the ecumenical approach rests on a series of popular, attractive, and seductive delusions. The two parties are not equally aggrieved; one side just has better PR. A therapy session is not appropriate between a victim and a victimizer: it’s an affront to the victim to suggest such a thing, and would be perceived as an affront in any context where it was clear that a victim and victimizer were involved. Most people would take justified umbrage at the idea that they should break bread with ordinary criminals or wrongdoers who had victimized them–murderers, rapists, batterers, robbers, even adulterers. The same thing is true here. And there is something offensively trivializing about the idea “put the political stuff aside” as a condition of an interfaith dialogue. But that is a very common procedure: interfaith dialogues are often explicitly “politics free” zones.

          In one sense, Kanazi’s rap expresses a certain contempt for his adversaries, but I find the contempt justified: the contempt is aimed at those of his (or the Palestinians’) adversaries who want to conduct a “civil conversation” on the (false) assumptions that there are no clear-cut victims or victimizers involved in the Israel/Palestine dispute, that each sides’ grievances cancel those of the other (so that grievances themselves are irrelevant), and that a little mutual TLC over a nice spread is the best way of resolving the ultimately trivial differences that divide the two parties. The basic assumption is that we can do away with the very idea of a specifically adversarial conversation, or confrontation.

          Imagine that you found, after engaging in lots of such ecumenical conversations, that the very parties who had engaged you in apparent good faith then went and voluntarily offered their services to the occupation, describing you as deceitful, fanatical, and bloodthirsty. It would be impossible to deal with such people in a non-adversarial way. Their attempts to adopt an ecumenical posture would have to be exposed and described for what it was: either self-deception, or a ruse. I take Kanazi’s rap to be a seeing-through of the dishonesty involved in such ventures.

          If the factual assumptions of the preceding argument are right, then Kanazi’s response to the ecumenical approach strikes me as justified. Kanazi is easy to misunderstand because he doesn’t himself make a case for the factual assumptions, and doesn’t make explicit that he needs those assumptions to give plausibility to what he’s doing. (And even granting poetic license, there are times when his claims distort the truth in problematic ways. There are, for instance, no “settler roads” in the West Bank: there are roads intended for cars with Israeli rather than Palestinian license plates, but that’s not quite the same thing. But on the whole, I agree with him.)

          I agree that Kanazi’s video is clearly grandstanding in the sense that it involves a clear demand for recognition, but this is a case where I would insist that the demand for recognition is amply justified. A victims’ demand to be recognized as a victim (when he is one) is precisely the sort of demand that ought to be met. That’s why, if this is a case of “grandstanding,” then–unless the accuser is lying or completely mistaken–it’s justified grandstanding.

          One last example. Here’s a video on Israel/Palestine from an anti-Palestinian perspective.

          This is not clearly a case of T&W grandstanding. I would say that it involves an invitation to pile on, some ramping up, and in an interestingly restrained way, excessive emotionalism. But none of these things are overt. Yes, there is an invitation to pile on, but that is inherent in the genre of the You Tube video: the whole point of putting a video on You Tube is to get lots of hits, so there’s a premium on jazzed-up content that attracts lots of hits. It’s not clear to me whether T&W are objecting to the very genre and practice of creating You Tube videos, or would discriminate between problematic cases of piling on and unproblematic cases of sexing up your video a bit to try to get hits, views, or likes. There is ramping up here, but the ramping up is really a byproduct of a different feature of the video: its extreme tendentiousness about and cherry-picking of the historical record. There is a form of emotionalism, but the emotionalism comes out in the incendiary nature of the claims made, not in his demeanor, which is deliberately calm and restrained (mostly). There are claims of self-evidence there, but what is subtle about them is that they’re typically buried in subordinate clauses whose main clauses do not involve self-evident claims. Thus, when he talks about the Mufti of Jerusalem, the main claim is that the Mufti collaborated with the Third Reich (as he did), but the subordinate claim is that his doing so was a natural expression of his being a Muslim (all Muslims being inclined to Nazi-style anti-Semitism), which is unargued and taken as self-evident.

          That said, I regard the Condell video as much worse than the Kanazi one. (Granted, I happen to agree with Kanazi’s point of view and reject Condell’s, but the point I’m making is intended to be neutral with respect to my partisanship for the Palestinian cause.) Unlike the Kanazi video, the Condell video is a self-conscious attempt at making an argument to those on the other side of the dispute. It’s not art; it’s argument, and offered as such. What I find interesting is that while it may or may not involve grandstanding, grandstanding is not the fundamental problem with it; it’s mostly beside the point. The fundamental problem is that it’s extremely tendentious, poisons the well, and makes a series of moral accusations (lying, genocide) that it fails to substantiate. It pretends to offer purely rational argument and engage in objective truth-telling while engaging in something much closer to what Kanazi is doing–while pretending to do otherwise.

          So both sides do make similar videos, but can you seriously imagine you, me, Pat Condell, and Remi Kanazi going out to dinner and having a civil conversation about anything? With Alison, Kelly, and David Riesbeck thrown in as buffers? We’d have a better chance of going out to dinner with Tosi and Warmke! Even after attacking them for 25 comments.

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          • Thanks for providing more context for the Kanazi video. I’m not quite sure what to say about it insofar as it is directed toward the therapy-and-bread-breaking crowd (among both Palestinians and Israelis), but I’m inclined to say that it is making vivid considerations that these folks should not be ignoring. And that any violation of intellectual or mental autonomy involved is potentially justified. I agree that there are potential epistemic downsides to the Kanazi strategy, but there are upsides as well; his video is not toxic to the discourse he is addressing. The contrast with the pro-Israeli video was apt – different audience, different context of discourse and more clearly inappropriate to the purposes of the discourse. Not sure if, at the intuitive level, I’d call what Kanazi is doing grandstanding (despite my first-shot analysis, I still don’t have a good grip on what grandstanding is, even if I can tell you what would seem to count as T&W-definition grandstanding).

            I do wonder about third parties. The video is public and the talk is moral talk that demands some reaction from each of us (not, say, friend/enemy talk – ‘you just don’t break bread with people who treat you this way, they are your enemies’). Even if one is not implicated in any relevant wrong-doing, Kanazi’s words call one to outrage and judgment and action even if that is not their point. The “pressure” of moral talk is felt even if no reasons are given and no counter-argument considered. To me, this feels like something of an assault. I want to hear all sides, weigh the reasons, and make the call myself. The first time I heard the video, I simply shut it off. “I have the right general concerns, and maybe you are right in your conclusions, but you are assaulting me with a moral fire-hose and please just take that elsewhere.”

            I also wonder how one should approach having such strong conclusions and feelings – in the context of epistemic humility and the liberal recognition of the need to live together in conditions of vehement disagreement. This is not to say that there are not victims and victimizers as an objective matter that everyone recognizes or is responsible for recognizing (e.g., guy in your video who was bullied, dominated and had his head shoved in a urinal, apparently just for the fun of those doing it). It is just that the cases of subjective confidence in objective victimization that get it right are probably a lot more rare than we are inclined to think. Often, it is tit for tat, we experience the tit, forget about our own tat and walk away thinking we are victims. Often we overlook salient values that would make others’ stances in conflicts seem reasonable to us. I suppose the trick is knowing the ways that we typically go wrong like this (finding moral certainty where there is none) – probably very much an empirical “track record” sort of thing, not a matter of our intuitive sense of what is and is not justified in moral judgment. In any case, given this background framing, I probably would be slower to draw the conclusions that Kanazi draws. But if I believed what he believes, with the confidence that he believes it, I’d have plenty of contempt for the therapy-and-bread-breaking crowd as well.


            • I agree with all of that. Obviously, I have no disagreements with your first paragraph.

              The issue you raise in your second paragraph is subtle and difficult. One problem with the video is that, in the nature of the case, it doesn’t specify its audience. Kanazi wants hits, followers, likes, and wants to promote ticket sales for his shows. So he wants to maximize exposure, and maximize the size of his audience. That business imperative is at odds with the one thing that’s justifiable about the video: the video has a legitimate purpose, but only applied to a specific audience in a specific context, the one I described above.

              Applied to any other audience–e.g. an audience of uncommitted, relatively neutral people who lack background knowledge of the Israel-Palestine dispute–the video is inappropriate. Aimed at that audience, it functions as a form of moral blackmail; it consists of a series of tendentious appeals to the emotions. A stereotypically guilty, hand-wringing liberal watching the Kanazi video would feel guilt-tripped into agreement, and a stereotypical right-wing critic of political correctness would be inclined to tell Kanazi to fuck himself, and look for a Pat Condell video to watch. I think it’s wrong to want to induce either reaction.

              Kanazi fudges the mismatch between the the need for audience maximization, and the fact that the video has narrow application. That, I suspect, is why you’re having trouble applying “grandstanding” to the video, even if it fits the TW definition of “grandstanding.” There’s some grandstanding in the Kanazi video, but the grandstanding isn’t the central problem with it (to the extent that there is a problem). The real problem is failure to specify the background context, and the failure to specify the target audience. (Something similar is true, in my opinion, of the Mikie Sherrill and Pat Condell videos: both Sherrill and Condell engage in some grandstanding, but in Sherrill’s case the grandstanding is benign and excusable, and in Condell’s case, it’s the least of his problems and essentially beside the point. In neither case is “grandstanding” the normatively relevant factor.)

              Both guilt-tripping and deliberately offending your audience (without doing more than offending them) are occupational hazards of engaging in Kanazi’s sort of discourse. If Kanazi-type outrage is not balanced by a more measured sort of discourse (by explicit argumentation), the group employing it will inevitably be led to a kind of in-grown narcissism of outrage. “In-grown narcissism of outrage” is not exactly the same thing as grandstanding, but an environment of in-grown outrage narcissism is one highly conducive to grandstanding, among other things.

              If a whole group’s identity is invested in the unargued (or underargued) idea that the group consists of victims whose victimization ought to be recognized and trumpeted to the heavens, there’s going to be a competition within the group over whose trumpet is the loudest. At a certain point, argument will have to give way entirely to the venting of outrage–to expressions of righteous indignation–and eventually the very idea of argument will get lost in the expression of outrage. At that point, members of the group will entirely lose interest in arguing with non-members, preferring a civil war amongst themselves to engagement with the outside world.

              That phenomenon is familiar to both of us from Objectivism, but it’s also true, in my experience, of BDS and BLM. I say that as a fellow-traveler of both of the latter organizations, but one reason I haven’t signed on more wholeheartedly with either group is my worry that both BDS and BLM are left-wing versions of Objectivism–outrage on speed.

              For all of those reasons, I think it would be entirely justifiable for you (in particular) to turn the Kanazi video off on first encounter (as it would be entirely justifiable for someone to read a few pages of Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, have a reflexive “WTF” reaction, and close the book on first encounter). From your perspective, the video merely sounds like the harangue of an angry brown man pacing up and down the streets of Brooklyn, saying anti-Israeli things without explaining himself.

              But if you belong to the “break bread/therapy” crowd, Kanazi is in-your-face about something that happens to be unpleasantly true. In that case, he subjects you to a bit of salutary shock treatment–shock treatment you’d never get while immersed fully in the “break bread/therapy” milieu (and that some people never get). And if you’re convinced ahead of time of Kanazi’s case, there is a certain cathartic relief to be had in hearing someone say something that needs to be said, and in a tone of outrage appropriate to the topic.

              Of course, one problem is that it’s too easy to be “convinced ahead of time” of someone’s case, and too easy to seek cathartic relief prematurely. That’s potentially the problem in this video below, re the Stephon Clark case in Sacramento. Maybe the problem here is excusable, but it’s still a problem.

              The problem is that we don’t really know what happened here. From the protesters’ perspectives, it’s as though the reflex from “unarmed black man shot” to “an outrage has happened” ought, morally speaking, to be internalized so that we’re left incapable of asking any further questions. Not knowing what happened is obviously not a legitimate basis for violating the rights of uninvolved or innocent third parties. But absent more knowledge than “unarmed black man shot,” it’s not even a basis for justifiable outrage. (Michael Brown was an unarmed black man, but the outrage over his shooting was misplaced.) Stephon Clark’s outrage is understandable and excusable, but it’s not conducive to an objective investigation. Once again, though, “grandstanding” seems only tangentially related to the fundamental issues here. Is Stephon Clark’s brother “grandstanding” in T&W’s sense? Probably, but that isn’t where the important normative action is in this case.

              These issues (about ideology, practical identity, etc), are, I suspect, the real ones buried in T&W’s critique of “grandstanding.” Grandstanding per se is beside the point. The real issue is that intense ideological commitment becomes a practical identity (in Korsgaard’s sense) that generates a whole syndrome of discursive pathologies. The disorders themselves are just complex instances of ordinary fallacies of the sort you’d encounter in any logic textbook. We don’t need a new vocabulary to describe them; we already have one: ad hominem, hasty generalization, false alternative, appeal to emotions, circularity, etc. etc. The interesting philosophical issue is the psychological connection between ideology, identity, epistemic vice, and discursive pathology. But to discuss that, you’d need a richer and more realistic set of examples than T&W’s cardboard cut-outs. It’s interesting that it’s so difficult to apply their analysis to real-world examples: their analysis turns out either to be vague, trivial, or irrelevant.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. 28 MARCH FOLLOW-UP #2: Another thing that caught my eye on second reading is the bad job that T&W do in (a) indicating the extension of the concept ‘moral grandstanding’ and (b) providing an adequate basic characterization of moral grandstanding (or the paradigm cases of it). With regard to the first thing, ample real-world examples in which people broadly agree that the term applies would have been helpful, but we really don’t get any at all (just made-up examples). Perhaps partly because of this, they get the motivational or intentional component of grandstanding wrong. In my original post, I suggested that a more plausible central motivational component was, roughly, prioritizing public-reputation or self-image-related concerns over seeking and communicating the truth (not the bare “recognition desire” that they propose).

    I’m now thinking that T&W are much further from the mark than this. It is plausible that grandstanding, like many actions, is individuated intentionally rather than by reference to desire (or intrinsic desire). The baseball player who needlessly dives to make the catch, rolls around on the ground and then comes up mugging for the crowd could either just like the attention or be trying to impress a girl. Any number of things (and many things at once) could characterize the things that he experiences as intrinsically rewarding that are achieved or promoted by the particular thing that he is doing. If this is right, the same thing would seem to apply to moral grandstanding. Though it is true that T&W do not speak of intrinsic desires and though, for certain purposes, the distinction between intentions and desires (or at least instrumental desires) is not important, the distinction between intention and intrinsic desires (or maybe just intention and desire) does strike me as salient here.

    The intention-wise individuation hypothesis fits well with the idea that, at least sometimes, moral grandstanding is morally good or forwards the aims of moral discourse (whatever these may be). And I suspect that this idea, this intuition, that some grandstanding is good, needs to be accommodated (it is an intuition that we do well to keep). The present hypothesis allows this and does so in an explanatory way, not in a hand-waving way.

    What might the relevant intention be? Maybe it is a kind of intention to display. The show-boating baseball player has an intention of this sort. So does the moral disputant who takes herself to be simply displaying a moral truth or a moral consideration that has not been properly recognized or weighted by the intended audience. So, for a very rough first stab for the relevant intention for individuating moral grandstanding, I’ll try this: the intention to convince of moral truth or salience via display, assertion, vivid depiction, etc. It is easy to see how this is not always bad. (And, as I have framed it, this intention is congruent with the cognitive aims of moral discourse, as long as such display, as against explicit deliberation, is what is called for in the context of moral disputation.)

    On this kind of picture, grandstanding becomes bad for the cognitive aims of moral discourse when it is rational deliberation that is called for or when a display is more likely to create resistant or reactive attitudes and behavior than enlightenment. Or when the putative speaker of moral truth is not speaking moral truth, but rather moral falsity or making out a reasonable but reasonably contested view to be a moral certainty.

    And, on this kind of picture, moral grandstanding can be morally bad, in the suspect-mindset, bad-will sense, in any number of ways. One of those might be having this intention, but really aiming more at reputational or self-image ends to such an extent that one’s good moral will is compromised. Another might involve insufficient appreciation of reasonable difference of moral opinion and hence lack of proper respect in simply “displaying (what one takes to be) the plain moral truth” to others.

    What do you guys think?

    (I have to say, the more I think about the T&W paper, the more I come around to Irfan’s speculation about the psychology or motivations behind it. It seems pretty plausible that T&W got excited about the right and right-libertarian moral critique of the left, in the present political context, as grandstanding, moralizing nags. And then more or less plucked the bad-explaining features from the moral and social psychology literature that reveals keen individual concern with reputation and status and documents some of the bad – specifically social-epistemologically bad – effects that these psychological elements can give rise to in the right circumstances. And then, as the cherry on top, the common idea that such concern with reputation (or status) and self-image constitutes morally suspect motivation – maybe generally but at least when given sufficient priority. What they needed to do, and I think failed to do, is come up with a solid analysis of what moral grandstanding is. This would involve lots of examples and integration with the relevant literature, however thin, on moralizing and hypocrisy. I say this with no small degree of sympathy for the idea that the left often, even typically, errs on the side of inappropriate moralizing and grandstanding, to their moral discredit and at the expense of how civil moral discourse needs to go in a pluralistic, liberal society.)

    (More material coming up, on moralizing and contrasting moralizing with grandstanding, as I work my way through the C.A.J. Coady anthology “What’s Wrong with Moralism?”. The anthology is quite a mixed bag and it is surprising to me how thin and weak the literature on moralism is.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with almost all of that, and find it very well put. I would also add that not only are the examples T&W give very contrived, but they’re susceptible of more benign interpretations than are offered in the paper. I don’t have time to explain that point in any detail, but may return to it later in April, when I’m scheduled to teach the paper.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting | Policy of Truth

  10. Just a kind of quick postscript on this. I happened to teach the Tosi-Warmke paper at the end of the semester in my ethics class, and came to some interesting realizations after “road-testing” it on my students. I’ve taught the paper before, and everytime I do, I have them do a quiz question on “trumping up”: Tosi-Warmke describe trumping up, but give no examples of it. So I ask my students to do so. The genuinely responsive answers fell into a couple of interesting categories:

    1. A few students gave clear, uncontroversial cases of trumping up. One that stands out is “the danger of comic books.”

    2. Lots of students gave cases of trumping up that seemed uncontroversial to them, but which struck me as question-begging or tendentious. A surprising number of respondents seemed to think that moralistic complaints that emanate from “white people” or “rich people”–or better yet, rich white people–were cases of trumping up, not so much due to the nature of the complaints, but due to the nature of the complainants. In the extreme cases, any “rich white person complaint” qua rich white person complaint (about virtually anything), was construed as an instance of trumping up. (I have to confess to a sick sense of vindication here, as I suspect that Tosi and Warmke qualify, in my students’ minds, as “rich white people,” and my students’ interpretation of their account of trumping up kind of serves them right.)

    I found it interesting, however, how difficult it was both for the students and in my own teaching, to come up with cases of trumping up that were (a) realistic, and (b) clear or uncontroversial cases of the phenomenon. We came up with a few examples that satisfied both criteria, but most failed one or the other. The realistic cases of supposed trumpings up were not uncontroversial; the utterly uncontroversial cases were not particularly realistic. Tosi-Warmke fail to note the trade-off involved. They also fail to note the extreme relativization involved: it’s very easy to declare something a moral non-issue if it doesn’t affect you, or operates at a distance from you. But people differ pretty drastically on what they regard as morally important, and there are no clear criteria that determine what has or lacks moral importance. So a lot of what Tosi-Warmke say about trumping up strikes me as vacuous.

    3. A lot of students conflated trumping up in Tosi-Warmke’s sense with trumping up in the colloquial sense, and ended up with gerrymandered examples that half-exemplified Tosi-Warmke trumping up while also being cases of “trumped up charges,” i.e., cases where someone is accused of a criminal act on the basis of false evidence.

    Category (3) resembled the most interesting set of responses:

    4. Cases where a real problem was explained by a fabricated (“trumped up”) cause, i.e., cases where a real explanandum is explained by way of a fabricated or trumped-up explanans.. Thus one student cited “illegal immigration” as a trumped-up explanation for the real problem of unemployment. Another student cited “the Jewish problem” as a trumped-up explanation for the real problems that beset Weimar Germany.

    It’s not clear to me that these false cause/scapegoating cases are what Tosi-Warmke intended by “trumping up,” nor is it clear that these cases involve a particularly good (or particularly bad) fit with their account. In one sense, they fit the account of “trumping up”; they may also involve grandstanding; but recognition-desire is not really central to what’s going on in these cases, or what’s wrong with them. It strikes me as a weakness of their account that we’re left unsure what they want to say about cases of this sort.


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