Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Outrage Defined and Defended. Part 1 [Jay]

I wrote a previous post questioning whether or not our moral outrage is operating at an appropriate level as pro-lifers given the strength of our intellectual arguments.

A reader very fairly citicized some of my points and drew out a distinction between moral outrage and emotional outrage. The following posts addresses his criticisms and other questions I have received. Although I always intended to follow up on this with more detailed posts, some of the elements will be clearly in response to particular comments from this reader.

I went back and read my original post to get my bearings on the path that we are following. It struck me as telling that I did not make a statement about what is an appropriate moral outrage. I did ask the question of what it was and clearly stated that I did not know what it looked like. My point has always been to question if we are reacting at an appropriate level of outrage given our belief in the humanity of the unborn.

First, let me address a definition to clarify where I am coming from. I found a third party definition for the sake of avoiding the appearance of reacting emotionally against intellectual arguments, as others think that I am doing on some level. Princeton Psychology Professor Dr. J.M. Durley defined it in the following manner in an article on how moral outrage influences the judicial process that he co-wrote with Dr. T.S. Pittman in 2003:

Moral outrage consists of both cognitive and emotional components that describe a reaction toward violations of values.

This definition represents what I am saying when I use the term.

It is not “either/or” but “both/and” for the cognitive and emotional aspects of moral outrage. In the definition of moral outrage that I am operating under the two are neither exclusive nor in competition but complimentary. My question is rooted in the fact that the cognitive argument for the unborn is strong. Is the complimentary emotional response equal to the strength of the cognitive element? I think this is a fair question. I have focused the question specifically on pro-lifers because we are convinced of the humanity of the unborn and can not claim to be intellectually unsettled on the issue.

As for the validity in working on both the cognitive and emotional levels, why do we use graphic images? Stephen Schwartz in Chapter 9 of The Moral Question of Abortion (1990) entitled “A Complex Issue or a Horror?”:

“Many people support the right of a woman to choose abortion without realizing what it really means. The pictures tell us. Many people are indifferent to abortion. Others are opposed but not outraged. If these pictures shake our complacency, they will have served a good purpose.
Some people may object that showing these pictures is an appeal to emotion. Indeed it is. When we show pictures of the Nazi holocaust while exclaiming “Never Again ” we are appealing to emotion. When we argue for a policy reducing the horror of mass starvation, and include pictures of starving people, we are appealing to emotion. And rightly so. We grasp truths not only with our intellects but with our hearts as well. And we should respond not only with our minds and our wills, but with our hearts as well. This applies to many things, including truths about massive horrors. What we should avoid are false appeals to emotion and emotional appeals instead of reasons.”(Pages 125 - 127)
(Emphasis added)

I also wonder why we use ultrasounds if not for the strength of emotional impact? When all of our arguments have failed to convict the mind, the emotional connection is made through marrying a mother with the reality of her child.

As for the sanctity of life battle in our culture, I am in this to win. Questioning tactics and effectiveness is necessary. You claim that “moral conviction can be enough to spur action.” Alright. When was it enough in our country’s history? Emotional appeals were central to the abolitionist movement. If Lincoln was the enlightenment speaker, Frederick Douglass was the fiery emotional balance. Emotion was central to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. And others kept the emotional sermons going to energize the base while legislation and legal challenges were filed and fought over in the courts and Congress. They were central to the Revolutionary War, Women’s Suffrage, and every other movement in this nations history as far as I can tell. The intellectual component is necessary, but as I have said, we have that in spades. What I am asking is do we lack the other element in sufficient quantities? If so, then we must focus ourselves on being certain that we emotionally connect people to the movement and ultimately to the unborn as we convince them of the full humanity of the unborn. The unborn are human and we must care about what happens to them.

I am uncertain what powerful moral outrage and conviction looks like in the absence of a complimentary powerful emotional response. Or am I? Is that what we are seeing? Again, it is not a competition to love the unborn the most. It is a recognition that in order to win the day we have got to be firing on all cylinders. That requires asking more than, “Do they understand my arguments?” It demands that we ask, “Are we certain that this is the most outrage we can muster?” If not, we better start figuring out a way to muster the rest of what we can get because victory will not come cheap. It will take a movement of passionate individuals convinced of the humanity of the unborn and upset enough about it to change the way that this whole country lives. I fear that task is too large for those who are not fully emotionally committed.

I will address the disparate emotional ties to others relative to my personal relationship to them in the next post.


  1. Jay,

    I am assuming I am the reader to whom you refer. I am honored that my comments have prompted a special post. Ha!

    You said, “I did not make a statement about what is an appropriate moral outrage.” True, in a sense. You claimed agnosticism in the beginning of your post, but your “10 year olds vs. 10 week olds being killed” analogy seems to demonstrate that you have already answered your question. The point of your analogy was that given the equal humanity and value of the two groups, we should be equally outraged at both. It seems to me, then, that you believe the appropriate level of moral outrage to abortion should mirror that of “adolescentide.” In fact, our ensuing dialogue focused on my dispute of your expectation that pro-lifers experience emotional equivalence for the two groups of humans. So I’m not sure why you are claiming to be agnostic regarding the appropriate level of moral outrage pro-lifers should feel toward abortion.

    I accept Durley’s definition of moral outrage as consisting of both cognitive and emotional components. What I dispute is that the level of pro-life advocacy is necessarily tied to the level of one’s emotional outrage at abortion. I think one can experience less outrage for the destruction of the unborn than they would for the destruction of the born, and yet still be an effective pro-life advocate based on their moral persuasion of abortion, coupled with a modest level of emotional outrage (some level of emotion is inescapable). Which leads me to my next point.

    You quoted me as saying “moral conviction can be enough to spur action.” Taken alone, that sounds as if I was arguing that no emotional outrage is necessary, or helpful. The way you responded to my statement only confirms that impression. I don’t think you meant to misconstrue my position, but for the sake of those who lack the context I want to make it clear that this is not my view. I went on to talk about the “disparity” of emotional reactions to the killing of 10 week old embryos versus that of 10 year old adolescents, not the absence of emotional reaction. Emotions are involved, but they are not central. What matters most is that we are persuaded in the equal humanity and value of the 10 week old and 10 year old human being (cognitive, moral view), and that we do something about it. Of secondary importance is how emotionally outraged we are over the evil. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect people who believe 10 week old humans and 10 year old humans are equally valuable to feel equally toward both groups, but I do think it is reasonable to expect people to act the same way on behalf of both groups given their equality. I am all for connecting people emotionally with the issue of abortion, but thinking their emotional connection to the unborn should be equal to that of the born seems unreasonable to me for reasons I stated in my original comments.

    All in all, I agree with you that many pro-lifers are complacent on the issue. Much of this may be due to a lack of emotional involvement, which may be due to a deficient perception of the horrors of abortion, which may be due to the lack of graphic images. Whatever the cause may be, I’m sure the pro-life mission would only be helped by getting people more emotionally involved with the issue. I just don’t think we should expect them to have the same level of emotional outrage over abortion that they might to the murder of other post-natal human beings. We can, however, expect that they act according to their beliefs.


  2. Jason,

    I have not claimed to be agnostic as to whether or not I think that there is disparity of emotional response between how we would react if the same thing were being done to the born versus how we do react to what is being done to the unborn. I have claimed to not know if this is the most emotional response that we can expect. You keep personalizing this as if I were talking about you, and I honestly do not know you, what you do, or how you feel. I have asked questions about a general level of emotional response from the pro-life community and stated:

    A - The unborn are being surgically killed at a rough rate of 3,500 a day in our country.

    B - I am under the opinion that the moral outrage of our pro-life community would be exponentially greater if the same atrocity were being committed against 10 year old children.

    C - If "B" is true, which you admit that it is, then what explains the extreme disparity.

    That is the point of my analogy. To ask that question.

    You have said that we can not be expected to respond to the deaths of the unborn as we would to the deaths of the born because of our relational nature to those who are immediately present. Also you have said that the emotional response is less important than the moral response which by that I assume that you mean the cognitive element of the moral response and appropriate action versus feeling.

    I think and hope that we can do better than we are currently doing at how we emotionally respond to the deaths of the unborn, and I think that if you are correct that we can not feel as much for the unborn as we can for the born, which I am not certain why that is necessary except that you insist that I expect that this will always be the case, then I have to ask, "how close can we get?"

    I still have not said that I think that everyone who calls themselves pro-life must be equally emotionally outraged at both events. I do think it is worth exploring how we can get our moral outrage more in line with how we can reasonably assume that we would respond if the ages were changed. I have, in fact, talked to passionately committed pro-life advocates that are so dispirted that they believe that I am mistaken in assuming that most people would care any more about 10 year olds than they do about the unborn. They usually draw this conclusion from the muted responses to genocide in foreign countries where 10 year olds are being brutally murdered. I disagree with that opinion, but it goes to show how little some good people trust the emotional investment of our community.

    Finally, I am not comfortable giving us a pass on this one. I understand your argument and position, I just reject the premise that we can not expect people to feel as strongly for the unborn. I do accept that we do not currently feel as strongly for them, but I do not see that as compelling evidence that we can not. Just because I will never be as emotionally attached to other children as I am to my own does not mean in my mind that I am then incapable of profound feelings for others even if it never rises to the level of the emotional bond I share with my children. I understand your point that one must not be that emotionally invested to be effective. Do you think that we will change the laws and culture of the United Stated if we remain at this current level of emotional investment? Do you think the answer is better arguments?

    I used the graphic images tool as an example, but not the solution. I hoped that creative and intelligent pro-lifers could start to explore ways that we could fully engage this fight on both levels. The same way that every other movement in the history of United States was forced to do to see success. The only real difference is, as I stated in an earlier post, colonial Americans, slaves, disenfranchised women, and disenfranchised and racially hated African Americans were naturally more emotionally invested in their own causes for many of the reasons that you have stated. They were the entities immediately affected by the injustice. The unborn can not champion themselves with the same fervor. We must do so for them.

    I hope that you do not feel as if I treated your argument unfairly. I linked this post to the original and called your criticism fair. Short of conceding that I think you are right about what you say about what I am thinking and how we should be expected to respond to things emotionally, I am not certain that I could have done more.

    I am thrilled that you and I are on the same side. I respect your opinion. I disagree.

    God bless you,

  3. Jason,

    I just saw this in the response to our earlier post.

    You said:

    "You wrote, “I am not convinced that the current path is leading us to that victory. It is too easy for the post modern mind to intellectually embrace a proposition as true and to not apply that truth to the rest of their world view or moral responses.” I agree, but the problem here is not their lack of emotional response, it’s their lack of active response. They are not acting on their beliefs. True, emotional outrage is a good motivator to action, but whether someone has what we think is an appropriate level of emotional outrage about abortion is not the issue. What they do to end or limit abortion is the issue.

    That said, I admit that if pro-lifers experienced more emotional outrage over abortion there would probably be more action to end/limit it. I think we would generate more emotional outrage if pro-life teachers would use graphic images. And since we are prone to forget, they should be shown again and again over the course of time."

    I largely agree with this. I do admit that this is hard to quantify and that is why I am not making absolute statements about emotional reactions but just saying that in general there should be more. I do think that I obviously believe that the emotional aspect is more important over all than you do. That is based enitrely on a pattern of historic changes being both intellectaul and emotionally driven. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" inspired a powerful emotional reaction to slavery that connected to what people were already thinking. The connection of the two is ultimately lethal to the opposing view.

    But I like people hammering me. If my ideas are bad then root them out.

    In Christ,

  4. Jay,

    I know this is not about me, but I happen to be an avid pro-lifer who fits your bill about emotional disparity. And frankly, I think a lot of others fit the bill as well. So while I am personalizing this, I am doing so as a representative of a larger group.

    I did not say you claimed agnosticism “as to whether or not [you] think that there is disparity of emotional response between how we would react if the same thing were being done to the born versus how we do react to what is being done to the unborn.” You acknowledged that there is a disparity, and implicitly argued that it should not exist. What I am claiming that you are not agnostic on is how much moral outrage we should feel toward the destruction of the unborn, because although you do not directly say so, you seem to indicate how much you think we should feel in your original post: an amount equal to, or commensurate with that of the destruction of 10 year olds in killing facilities.

    As for you’re A,B, and C, what explains the disparity? I tried to explain it in my original comments to you. I think you and I differ, not on the cause of the disparity, but on our evaluation of the disparity. I think the disparity of emotional outrage is understandable, whereas you do not. But we both agree that a disparity of action is not understandable, and inconsistent with the pro-life worldview.

    In my estimation, your concern that the pro-life movement have a particular level of emotional outrage at abortion is spawned by your concern that the pro-life movement act to mobilize against it. You think we are failing to do so because of a lack of appropriate emotional outrage (a more appropriate level being commensurate with the emotional outrage we would experience if 10 year olds were being slaughtered). I can agree to an extent. I just don’t think it describes all pro-lifers. I know there are pro-lifers out there who are advocates for the cause, but whose emotional outrage at the destruction of the unborn is not commensurate with the moral outrage they would feel for the genocide of 10 year olds, and yet they are active pro-life apologists and activists. I think you have put too much weight on the effectiveness and necessity of emotional outrage for advocacy.

    No, I don’t think we’ll change the laws and culture of the U.S. regarding abortion at our current rate, but I don’t think this is primarily due to our lack of emotional investment. I think it’s due to a combination of ignorance, a lack of emotional investment, and a lack of political involvement. Many who consider themselves pro-life don’t really understand what that means. I don’t think they are fully committed to the position on a cognitive level, yet alone an emotional level. Furthermore, I don’t think we’ll change our laws when so many of us who are pro-life don’t vote, or don’t make abortion a key decision on who we vote for!

    You are correct in your assessment that you put more stock in the ability of emotional outrage to effect change than I do, but we both agree it is necessary, and both agree more of it would be better. We simply can’t agree on the appropriate level. You think it should be commensurate with how we would react to the genocide of 10 year olds, while I don’t think that is achievable for most people, nor necessary. Either way, we are both working to end this barbaric practice, and I support anything that will increase advocacy. Keep up the good work!


  5. I think the reason for the lack of outrage among pro-lifers is this:

    Mankind can get used to almost anything, and man has what I might call an "emotional survival" inclination to get used to things that he cannot change or thinks he can't change. There's this feeling that you just can't deal emotionally with going over and over X in your head when there's nothing you can do to stop it, so you try to get used to it. For example, how do parents whose children have been kidnaped and disappeared for years deal with it emotionally? To avoid going nuts, they must just learn to harden their emotions to it somewhat.

    I think a lot of pro-lifers are in this position emotionally because of Roe v. Wade and the whole "rule of law" thing. With the whole machinery of the law against us, we feel that we won't be able to rescue the children in the direct action sorts of ways that we might be able to rescue the 10-year-olds. So we harden ourselves emotionally, because the alternative seems to be doing something at least illegal and possibly immoral or violent and getting ourselves in major trouble without saving anybody. I think there's a feeling of emotional necessity about setting aside the level of outrage that is in one sense really objectively called for by the situation.

    If this is a correct analysis, I don't know what to do about it.

  6. Jason,

    First, I want to thank you for being willing to continue this exchange. I truly appreciate the criticism.

    Second, I want to be clear that I am also one of the people that I am accusing. I include myself in the group of people that have not emotionally responded appropriately to the cognitive element of moral outrage. I am my primary target on this question.

    As I think we have explained our views well enough, I will not restate them. Clarification on one issue, I do not think the reaction must be commensurate with our hypothetical reaction to the same scale of killing of 10-year-olds. I do think it ought to be closer to that reaction than no reaction at all. That is why I used that illustration. Because we would be going nuts (technical term) with urgency in the one scenario and we seem to lack some urgency here. That is, I think, primarily what the emotional component of moral outrage gives us. Urgency. Lydia may be right in her reasons for the lack of that urgency.

    I was recently reading a book on Dr. King and the author was discussing the wild nature of the SCLC meetings and the unstable nature of some of the key leaders. Andy Young quoted Dr. King as responding to that observation as saying that normal people don’t think they can change the nation. It takes someone a little crazy and maladjusted to take on the machine. (As always, paraphrasing)

    I am emotional by nature. I love to read and study, but God knows I run on emotion. I preach from emotion. I speak and teach emotionally and passionately. I see the task before us as much larger than changing a bad law. We have to fundamentally change our culture to win the battle for the definition of what it means to be a human being and how we assess value to life. In order to do that, we will have to get a little maladjusted. We may need to get a great deal more riled up. My opinion, of course.

    Lydia points out a strong warning. I do think emotion unchecked leads to bad things. The emotion that I am principally looking to see awaken in us all is love. Love for the unborn. That is how I think we fight this battle. Find ways to help teach people to love the unborn as we teach them of the humanity of the unborn.

    As I said, I do not apologize for taking a Christian focus. God loves the unborn. If I believe that, if I know that, then my next response is to love them as He loves them. I do think that there is sufficient scripture to support that God’s love is more than how He acts, but how He feels as well. Song of Songs, Hosea, the Psalms, and all through the bible we read about a God who loves us with an embarrassing intimacy and level of emotion. Sound doctrine is critical, but sooner or later so is the passion. I see the same thing here. I see it as the only hope to overcome this. The sound arguments are critical, but sooner or later we will have to awaken the passion to overcome the odds stacked against us.

    We are fighting not just a bad law, but also a relational difficulty and a sense of necessary desensitization according you and Lydia. As I think that you counter wrong with right, we counter death and insensitivity with life and passionate love. I admit that I believe the more we learn to love them, the better we will become at advancing this effort.

    God bless,


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