Indignation Is Not Righteous
Gary Longsine and Peter Boghossian
September 27, 2012
The Twin Fallacies of Appeal to Righteous Indignation and Appeal to Sanctity.
Appeals to righteous indignation or sanctity—which attempt to shield ideas from contemplation, discussion, investigation, or criticism—are common, impede rational discourse, and should be recognized as logical fallacies.
The following article is scheduled for the January/February 2013 Skeptical Inquirer and is being released pre-publication due to its topical nature.
Riots erupted on the streets in Afghanistan in late February 2012 in response to an apparently accidental burning of a few copies of the Koran. Placed in an incinerator along with other materials confiscated from Taliban prisoners, the singed Koranic remains were discovered later by Afghan workers. Apologies from United States officials were immediately forthcoming. However, rioting continued and reports indicated that at least twenty-nine Afghans and six American soldiers were killed in the violence (Rubin 2012).
For many Muslims, including an influential council of Muslim scholars (Rubin 2012), the apology was greeted with righteous indignation. The response of the rioters was continued (and perhaps even intensified) rage, as demonstrated by the murder of people who had nothing to do with prior events. A second outbreak of such violence in Libya (where the United States ambassador was murdered) and other Muslim countries occurred in September 2012 after a virulent anti-Islamic independent video appeared on the Internet via YouTube.
The problem of righteous indignation is conspicuous in, but not unique to, the Muslim world—it permeates cultures across religious, ethnic, and national boundaries. The destruction of Andres Serrano’s artwork, “Piss Christ,” by Catholic fundamentalist protesters in Avignon, France, is another well-known example.
Profound feelings of insult to a deeply held belief ranks among the most pervasive, powerful, and potentially dangerous failures of human reasoning. This reaction carries with it both practical dangers that threaten harmonious interactions between and among peoples, and also the capacity to insulate not merely a person, but an entire culture, from criticism and self-reflection.
We argue that “Appeal to Righteous Indignation” and the related “Appeal to Sanctity,” warrant recognition as fallacious types of reasoning and should be included in the larger lexicon of fallacies. (See “The Top 20 Logical Fallacies” by Jesse Richardson in the July/August 2012 Skeptical Inquirer for an overview of commonly recognized fallacies.)
Righteous Indignation: A Brief, Incomplete Genealogy
Righteous indignation, perhaps rooted in primitive instincts for social enforcement (Haidt 2001), appears to be an emotional response to perceived injustice (Haidt 2003; Dubreuila 2010; DeScioli and Kurzban 2009). The concept of “the sacred” appears to be more modern (Rossano 2006; Kirkpatrick 1999), but the impulse to sanctity may be rooted in emotions like disgust (as opposed to anger) (Rozin et al. 1999).
Science is only beginning to piece together the potential neurological basis for the impulse behind righteous indignation and its role in human behavior. Scientist and author David Brin, for example, has appealed to the scientific community to study righteous indignation more closely. Brin suggests that dogmatic thinking is driven by the emotional impulse to righteous indignation and the underlying brain biochemistry of behavioral addictive reinforcement (Brin 2011)—such as is involved in gambling (Blaszczynski et al. 1986).
In recent years, related phenomena (e.g., the role of punishment in the evolution of cooperation and the emotional basis of moral judgment) have been subjects of inquiry in anthropology (Sosis and Alcorta 2003), economics (Grant 2008), game theory (Dreber et al. 2008), psychology (Hunter 2005), and evolutionary psychology (Kirkpatrick 1999). Righteous indignation may have evolved to trigger participation in group punishment for non-compliance with group norms, and it may have influenced the evolution of cooperation (Boyd and Richerson 1992; Krebs 2008; Jaffe and Zaballa 2010). There is also a line of research literature suggesting some specific emotional foundations for moral behaviors, with indignation linked to anger, for example (Rozin et al. 1999).
Logical Fallacies: Righteous Indignation and Sanctity
There exists no nonideological reason why any given idea or belief should be placed beyond contemplation, discussion, investigation, or criticism. Two logical fallacies are routinely employed to shield ideas from such inspection. In accordance with the custom of the taxonomy:
Appeal to righteous indignation (argumentum ad probus indignatio); and
Appeal to sanctity (argumentum ad sanctimonia).
An Appeal to Righteous Indignation is a logical fallacy in which a person claims to be offended, insulted, or hurt by criticism of a proposition they hold, or by the advancement of a proposition with which they disagree. The expected consequence of the demonstration of the verbal or physical behavior associated with righteous indignation is that no further discussion or criticism is allowed.
An Appeal to Sanctity is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to deflect criticism of an idea by claiming that the idea or argument is holy, sacred, sacrosanct, or otherwise privileged and immune from critique.
A few possible rebuttals might be offered. It could be argued that an Appeal to Righteous Indignation is merely an appeal to emotion, which seeks to ignite an emotional response and dampen susceptibility to further reasoned discourse. It could be argued that Appeal to Sanctity is merely an example of circular reasoning. Appeal to Sanctity may be considered a compound fallacy, comprising an appeal to authority and emotion, at least to the extent that the ideas in question are associated with institutionalized dogma. However, Appeal to Righteous Indignation and Appeal to Sanctity have distinguishing traits.
The salient feature of an Appeal to Sanctity is that it is employed as a shield against the critique of an idea or even a wholesale ideological critique. An Appeal to Sanctity is a claim that one must not critique an idea because the idea in question is sacrosanct, holy, or sacred. In other words, an Appeal to Sanctity, reduced to its simplest form, asserts as a moral virtue the claim that an idea is beyond critique. The circular appeal to special privilege frequently carries an implicit and credible threat of violence, for example, the decades-long aftermath of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoon controversy, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Christian millennium terrorist plots in Israel, and the bombing campaign dubbed “saffron terrorism” in 2008 in Malegon, India.
An Appeal to Righteous Indignation similarly attempts to place an idea beyond the reach of critique, but it employs a different mechanism. Rather than suggesting that the idea itself is privileged and thus must be immune from criticism, an Appeal to Righteous Indignation implies that a critique of an idea is equivalent to an attack on a person. Intrinsic to an Appeal to Righteous Indignation is the notion that attacks on an idea are morally equivalent to verbal or physical attacks on people, that an attack on an idea justifies a response at least proportionate to an attack on a person. Credible threats of violence often accompany displays of righteous indignation and are sometimes viewed as justified by members of the community. Consider the odd case of a man who burned a VFW flag in a drunken fit. He was taped to a flagpole for several hours the next day by an indignant VFW member, who then spoke about his actions openly to a local television reporter (Gardinier and Martínez 2009), apparently unconcerned about any possible legal repercussions.
Those who engage in these fallacies believe that becoming indignant, or refusing to question a particular belief, are virtues. In other words, one should become indignant, and not becoming indignant indicates a moral flaw in one’s character; one should refuse to question privileged beliefs, and persistence in questioning represents a character defect.
In recent years a growing number of public intellectuals, including Richard Dawkins (Dawkins 1996), Salman Rushdie (Duffy 2004), and Douglas Adams (Adams 1998) have asserted the general fallaciousness of Appeal to Sanctity, but no standard label exists, and no attempt to promote these as a standard part of the taxonomy of fallacies has been advanced.
Righteous indignation undermines civil discourse and often corrodes efforts aimed at reasonable compromise. When righteous indignation is invoked, conversation stops and violence may begin. For the indignant party, reason may be suspended. Righteous indignation muddles thinking, elevates emotional reactions to primacy in the discourse, and displaces its alternative: impassioned, reasoned, thoughtful analysis.
Righteous Indignation may be a valid emotional experience and response to injustice. As Greta Christina has observed (Christina 2007) anger can be an important tool for motivating social change. However, its use to shield ideas from criticism impedes rather than advances discourse. Appeal to Righteous Indignation is therefore fallacious in the context of rational discourse.
The continuing demonstrations of the pervasiveness and disturbing nature of Appeals to Sanctimony and Righteous Indignation as primary or even sole arguments, and in an effort to end, rather than further, discussion in Afghanistan and elsewhere, make a compelling case for the urgency of this project. It may seem somewhat overdue to skeptics, atheists, and freethinkers that these classifications are necessary, but the cultural, social, and political world situation give these classifications an added urgency.
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