Moral Indignation as a Justifiable Vessel for Change

Raging Bull.
Raging Bull.

Julie Tannenbaum succinctly delivers an important lesson taught by Aristotle, “how people feel reveals what they value”[i]. If this is our understanding of how emotions relate to ethics, then feeling moral indignation (as opposed to simple anger) reveals much about our core values. Moral indignation, often called ‘righteous anger’, is an emotional reaction that many people experience when they perceive something unjust to be happening to themselves or others. Moral indignation makes reference to our moral values in particular, rather than our values regarding banal matters such as personal hygiene or dietary preference. As such, moral indignation, while still an emotional response, is one that I would classify as a well-cultivated response to moral phenomena. This makes use of Susan Stark’s division of emotions as either representations of desire, or as well reasoned moral responses to our circumstances[ii], and places moral indignation squarely in the second category. With respect to Aristotle’s lesson, feeling moral indignation in the appropriate way reveals our value of justice, both for ourselves and for others; this is an impartial value of justice. In this paper I will argue further, that moral indignation is an invaluable asset to the individual as a cause of motivation towards moral action. I will show how, as a targeted and well-reasoned response of anger towards injustice, moral indignation presses us to change what we perceive as wrong in others and ourselves, and compels us to act in a manner that we could rationally will others to act.

Since moral indignation is largely dependent on our sense of justice, it differs from basic feelings of anger that occur because of our desires, (or in response to our desires being frustrated). It is important, though, to note that the same perceived acts could provoke either moral indignation, or simple anger, depending on how they are interpreted by the individual. We experience moral indignation when we associate the source of our anger as contradictory to our values relating to justice. Simple anger, on the other hand, is an emotional reaction expressing our personal discontent with our circumstances; simple anger does not make reference to our sense of justice and would be termed by Susan Stark as an “untutored desire”[iii].

The term ‘moral indignation’, thus, specifically applies to our feelings of anger that arise as a response to perceived injustices, either to ourselves or to others. Pretend, for example, that I receive a terrible mark on an assignment that I have not worked hard on; I may be angry in general about my poor grade but unless I feel that I actually deserved a better grade I do not feel moral indignation. My anger, in this case, is due to my desire to have received a better grade; this desire being frustrated, I naturally feel anger—but it is an uncultivated anger. By this I mean that I am not angry with my grader for unjustly giving me a low grade nor am I angry with myself for failing to deserve a justifiably high grade. In fact, I am making no reference to justice at all in this case; I am merely angry with the set of circumstances that have led to my poor grade.

This distinction is reflected in how I feel when other people receive poor grades on assignments that deserved better. If my fellows’ doing poorly does not move me to anger, it becomes evident that I am only angry with my own poor mark because I desired a better mark. I do not necessarily, though, feel that I deserve a better mark. Now, pretend that on this same assignment everyone else has scored far higher than me, even while doing less work. This gives rise to feelings of moral indignation if my sense of justice deems that (by doing more work) I deserve a higher grade. Likewise, if I recognize that my fellows deserved better marks than they received, I will feel moral indignation because this contradicts my value of impartial justice. Hopefully, this example elucidates the point that anger can only be called ‘righteous’ (or moral indignation) when it occurs in response to our moral values being offended, specifically our values concerning impartial justice.

According to Kristjan Kristjansson’s distinctions in terminology, I would characterize moral indignation as a “negatively evaluating emotion”[iv]. By this, I mean that moral indignation is caused by circumstances that we find psychologically unpleasant; we thus relate the cause of moral indignation to be something inherently negative. If we do, indeed, value impartial justice then when we perceive injustices as being committed we recognize that our moral values are being offended.  We then ‘negatively evaluate’ the cause of our feelings of anger, meaning that we find something wrong in the offending action. Because we evaluate the cause of our anger as negative, we therefore will typically desire to end the circumstances that cause us to feel unpleasant. We negatively evaluate injustices and this provokes moral indignation in us as a response to the unpleasant feelings incurred by experiencing injustice. When an emotion is called ‘negatively evaluating’ this refers to our tendency to want to change whatever it is that causes the emotion in the first place. This, though, does not imply that the emotion itself is inherently negative; rather, the circumstances that bring about this emotion are negative; this point will be discussed in more detail later on.

Julie Tannenbaum raises an interesting insight that I have applied to moral indignation. This is that, as an emotion, moral indignation is itself subject to evaluation with respect to our moral values[v]. This is to say that, before we act in anger (which is essentially negative), we should be sure that our anger is justified. This can be problematic, though, because, as many people have varied moral values, what qualifies as ‘righteous anger’ is, of course, evaluated differently by different individuals. Different people also have different conceptions of justice, what qualifies as ‘unjust’, and how to rectify these different views of justice with regards to other people’s views. For example, while some cultures accept violence as a permissible form of retribution for injustice, in other cultures violence is never seen as justifiable. Likewise, what some cultures identify as unjust is often deemed perfectly acceptable elsewhere. This naturally leads to issues when one group of people find something morally reprehensible in a particular action while another group does not. Unfortunately, this is a common issue in a rapidly globalizing world, and has led to interminable strife between cultures vying for control of our moral values.

My response to this issue, though, is simple: as long as our moral values are grounded in desires, beliefs, and assumptions, as opposed to reason, people will naturally differ with respect to their moral values. Where people with different values collide, there is bound to be some degree of anger on both sides of the issue. It is important, though, to recognize that this anger is not necessarily moral indignation. The anger that stems from our cultural values being ignored or violated does not always reflect a well-reasoned sense of impartial justice. I would, instead, argue that this anger arises from our frustrated desires to see our own cultural values as the dominant and ‘correct’ set of core beliefs.

We cannot ever simply assume that our cultural beliefs are correct. It is vital to recognize that most people have different beliefs depending on the culture they identify with and that most people are psychologically inclined to favour their own cultural values; this is why moral indignation should be a well-reasoned and well-cultured response. The morally indignant individual needs to weigh many different conceptions of justice. Ultimately, their anger must stem from a well-reasoned and impartial sense of justice, and the sense that this impartial standard of justice is not being met. It is, hence, invaluable when justifying our anger as ‘righteous’ that we are using our powers of reason to negatively evaluate the cause of our anger as fundamentally unjust. We are thereby validating our anger as a natural, and rational, response to injustice; this validation of our anger serves to establish an interesting moral position—namely, this is that we may now consider our righteous anger as an inherently ‘good’ thing.

While I have already explained how simple anger can be a very destructive emotion, I have also made allusions to moral indignation as an important, and even constructive, emotion. In this section I will argue that moral indignation has what Kristjan Kristjansson calls “instrumental-value”[vi] as an emotion. This means that, while anger can be very damaging in its own right, as a targeted response to injustice it can play an invaluable role to motivate us towards moral action.

Anger is, in of itself, a very powerful emotion; as such, it provides us with the energy to do many things that we normally would not (or could not otherwise motivate ourselves to) do. Anger can provoke us to an array of emotively charged actions and, thus, it is important to remember the influence that anger exerts on us before we permit ourselves to act in anger. It is useful to bear in mind that, unless our anger is rationally justified, we may actually be under the control of our simple anger, and thus (possibly) acting in an unjustifiable way. Once we can rationally assure ourselves, though, that we are in control of our anger—and that it is indeed ‘righteous anger’—we find ourselves in the possession of a powerful tool with which to change the initial circumstances that leads to our moral indignation. Moral indignation provides us the motivation with which to pursue and mete out justice where we perceive it to be lacking. By experiencing and acting on moral indignation, the individual becomes, themself, an arbiter of the value of impartial justices.

The anger we feel when experiencing moral indignation is a channeled, or targeted, form of anger. This is not the sort of general, simple anger that leads us to become sultry and kick mailboxes; if anything, it can be an uplifting feeling. Our anger resulting from moral indignation is narrowly focused upon the perpetrators of whatever acts cause our moral indignation in the first place. As such, moral indignation provides us with a strong drive to rectify the circumstances that we perceive to be unjust. This can, indeed, be an absorbing emotion; but, as long as it is well reasoned and justified, I argue that we will end up acting morally. This is because of an important distinction of Kant’s that Susan Stark makes reference to: (this is) the distinction between emotions that “prompt us to adopt a purpose and those that result from the adoption of a purpose”[vii]. In this distinction, Kant stipulates that emotions only have moral worth when they belong to the latter category. Moral indignation can then be said to have moral worth where simple anger does not, because it depends on our value of impartial justice.

I am arguing here that, by adopting the purpose of impartial justice, we inherit a tendency to feel certain emotions when we see injustices being done. It is the strength of these emotions that propel us to action but these emotions are also very important in their own right for what they reveal about our underlying purposes. Not only does moral indignation motivate us to act in a moral way, it also enlightens us as to just why we consider it important to act in the first place. This is because our very ability to experience moral indignation shows that we feel a duty to eliminate injustice when we encounter it. The high value that we place on impartial justice demonstrates just how important it is to our sense of morality that everyone be subjected to the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. Simply put, when we see injustices being done we recognize them as wrong by feeling moral indignation and we are then strongly compelled to fix these wrongs in order to relieve our feelings of moral indignation. By negatively evaluating circumstances in which we detect injustices as being done, we incur in ourselves the powerful emotion of anger—but this is a righteous anger that guides us to moral actions, not the random actions of basic anger.

Throughout this paper, I have tried to be explicit in the description that anger can only be considered ‘righteous anger’ if it stems from a fundamental dedication to impartial justice. I have also tried to be explicitly clear that moral indignation is caused by circumstances that we perceive to be negative in their evaluation. I will now raise the point that, while moral indignation is caused by psychologically unpleasant circumstances, it is not (in itself) an unpleasant feeling. It is true that moral indignation encourages us to end the causative circumstances that have led to our anger; but I argue that feeling righteous anger can actually be a pleasant experience.

To quote one Zach de la Rocha, “Your anger is a gift”. This simple line strikes upon a resonant and elegant conception of righteous anger as an emotion with its own inherent value. By directing us towards actions that are morally justified, moral indignation serves as a motivation to change the things in the world that we perceive as unjust (and therefore psychologically unpleasant). Insofar as we are acting on our moral indignation, we are essentially trying to remove the root cause of our psychologically unpleasant feelings that occur in response to injustice. This desire to remove our psychologically unpleasant circumstances is a secondary motive to the desire to remove injustice—although, by removing this injustice from our world, we are also removing a large source of our own stress; this is, thus, an activity that we should take joy in—not something we should see as a chore.

The natural objection to this point is that, by acting on our desires to alleviate our sources of stress, we are merely acting in self-interest. While it is, indeed, true that the morally indignant individual may experience powerful emotional desires—these are emotional desires that stem from the adoption of a moral purpose. Following Kant’s line of reasoning, these emotional desires then have moral worth because they are representations of a rational and impartial value for justice. This is opposed to simply emotional desires that incline us towards what is only an apparent value of justice. This difference in the origin of our emotions can be seen in the example of two men that both appear to value impartial justice equally, but actually do so for very different reasons.

The first man in this example defends impartial justice because he believes that by doing so others will, in turn, defend his right to impartial justice. This approach to moral value is reminiscent of a social contract theory of ethics whereby we should treat others as equals on the assumption that we will be treated likewise. This approach strikes me as fundamentally wrong and not representative of a true morality because it appears to rely on the general assumption that humans only value the rights of others in order to further their own interests.

The second man in my example defends impartial justice because he actually values the rights of his fellows; he recognizes that people are themselves inherently valuable. This man’s appreciation of the inherent rights of all people is intellectual rather than purely emotional; certainly, he experiences powerful emotions (such as moral indignation) but these result from his intellectual awareness that impartial justice is not being adhered to. Even if this man takes profound joy in acting morally, I would argue that he is not being controlled by his desires; rather, he desires to act morally because he recognizes that it is his duty. This second man’s emotions can be said to have moral worth because they are guided by reference to his moral values, rather than the other way around.


[i] Tannenbaum. Julie. Emotional expressions of moral value. Springer Science. 132:43-57. Pg. 43.

[ii] Stark. Susan. A Change of Heart. Journal of Moral Philosophy 1.1. The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd. Pg. 33.

[iii] Stark. Susan. A Change of Heart. Journal of Moral Philosophy 1.1. The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd. Pg. 33.

[iv] Kristjansson. Kristjana. On the Very Idea of ‘Negative Emotions’. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 33:4. 0021-8308. Pg. 355.

[v] Tannenbaum. Julie. Emotional expressions of moral value. Springer Science. 132:43-57. Pg. 44.

[vi] Kristjansson. Kristjana. On the Very Idea of ‘Negative Emotions’. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 33:4. 0021-8308. Pg. 359.

[vii] Stark. Susan. A Change of Heart. Journal of Moral Philosophy 1.1. The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd. Pg. 37.


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