Grandstanding: What Kind of Problem Is It?

The Cleveland Humanities Festival is focused on the topic of public discourse and for one of its sessions brought on Brandon Warmke, a philosopher at Bowling Green State University, and me, to discuss “moral grandstanding.”

Moral Grandstanding discussion at the Cleveland Humanities Festival

Warmke is the co-author (with Justin Tosi) of the book, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Grandstanding, as Warmke and Tosi describe it, is moral talk for the sake of looking good–a way of improving your social status by saying things that make you appear to be a morally good or even great person. A central aspect of moral grandstanding is that it’s motivated, consciously or subconsciously, by the satisfaction of the speaker’s desire for recognition as a morally good person.

Warmke and Tosi think that moral grandstanding is a problem. It’s a kind of bullshitting, and so is kind of immoral in itself. But, they claim, because it is widespread, moral grandstanding contributes to political polarization and outrage exhaustion, among others social problems.

In the session, moderated by Matthew Jordan (Dean of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College), Warmke laid out some of the basic elements of grandstanding and why we should think of it as problematic.

In my main remarks, I raised some skepticism about the prevalence of moral grandstanding. Since an utterance is grandstanding only when the speaker or writer is acting on the “recognition desire,” it would seem that identifying moral grandstanding would involve mind reading of sorts, and we have reasons to think we might not be especially good at this. I went over five reasons we might be inappropriately led to think someone is grandstanding: it’s easy, it’s comfortable, it’s intellectually self-serving, it is tempting for the same reason grandstanding itself is, and we might be fooled by the availability heuristic into thinking most moral utterances we come across are like the one’s we hear about most in the news (which may be instances of grandstanding or hypocrisy, etc.).

A good discussion and q&a follow the main remarks.

You can view the session here.

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