Outrage, praise and empathy

I often defend the following formulation of the moral argument (taken from William Lane Craig):

1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral duties don’t exist
2. Objective moral duties do exist
3. Therefore, God exists

In defence of premise (2) I usually offer the following three points:

2.1. If objective moral duties don’t exist, then everything is permissible. But some things are not permissible.
2.2. If objective moral duties don’t exist, then moral outrage and praise is irrational. But they aren’t irrational.
2.3. We are rationally compelled to trust our perceptions until we are given a defeater for them. Since we perceive an objective moral realm and no defeater has been given, we are rationally compelled to trust our perceptions and so believe the existence of objective moral duties.

Now I’m not going to spend this post trying to defend all of this. I’ve tried in a previous post to defend 1, 2.1 and 2.3, so I thought I’d spend some time on 2.2 here.

So, what do I mean by the term “moral outrage”? In all honesty I don’t have a reductive analysis of it, but I think we all have an intuition for what I mean. Consider the following examples of moral outrage and praise:

  1. The daughter of two parents is raped and killed, and so they are outraged at the rapist when they come face to face with him.
  2. A gay pride stand is maliciously burnt to the ground as an act of homophobia, and onlookers are outraged at the people who did it.
  3. A group of people risk their lives to stop the oppression of women in a country, and they are praised because of it.
  4. A man stops another man from being shot by jumping in the way of the bullet and is praised for saving him at the cost of his own life.

These kind of situations are commonplace in normal life. They might not always be as extreme (sometimes we’re outraged at people because they are insensitive, arrogant or insulting and sometimes we praise people when they are selfless even when it doesn’t burden them all that much) but I think we can distinguish this outrage/praise from other forms. For example, with moral outrage we aren’t outraged at the effectiveness of the action. If I’m working with someone who is incompetent, I am outraged at their inefficiency. This outrage, I think, is better understood as irritation anyway. I can’t think of other kinds of outrage, but I’m sure there are others. I think if we keep a clear idea of the outrage and praise seen in the examples above we should be fine ūüôā

Of Pens and Pain

Now, I hope most people would agree that the people in examples 1-4 are rational in their outrage or praise. But why? For the person who affirms the existence of objective moral duties we can quite easily see why: we are outraged at people who do what they ought not do and we praise those people who go beyond their duties[1]. So, the rapist in example 1 ought not have raped that girl and in doing so he has primarily wronged her and secondarily wronged the people who loved her dearly (such as her parents). It is wrong that he raped her and we are rationally compelled to be outraged at his actions because of it.

But suppose we deny the existence of objective moral duties. Why should we think that moral outrage and praise are in any way rational responses to the actions of these people? In fact, if we think of examples where clearly no person is wronged, then we’ll see that they aren’t rational responses at all. Let’s say I ask someone for a pen to write ¬†something down and they give me a blue pen. Now assuming that I don’t have a particular preference against receiving a blue pen (as opposed to, say, a black pen), the person has not wronged me by giving me one. Certainly in this case, if I showed moral outrage (or praise) to the person, people would start looking at me funnily. And with good reason, for such a reaction would be misplaced and irrational. Now, some might object that me getting a blue pen rather than a black pen is worlds away from me getting raped rather than me not getting raped. Surely the pen scenario is a triviality compared to the rape scenario! Such a response only betrays that those who would say that they deny the objectivity of our moral duties, don’t actually do so. After all, if there are no objective moral duties then the rapist in the rape scenario has done nothing more wrong to the girl than the person has to me in the pen scenario. And if I can do no wrong, then I can do no wrong to you. Therefore, I have been wronged (in the pen scenario) as much as the girl has (in the rape scenario)[2]. This is simply the logical consequence of denying the reality objective moral duties. So, to the person who denies their existence, the answer is no: there is no moral difference between the two scenarios.

Perhaps some will attempt to escape such a conclusion (because, hopefully, they see that outrage is in fact rational in the rape scenario and not in the pen scenario) by pointing out that in the rape case, pain is inflicted on the victim and the victim doesn’t want this pain, whereas in the pen scenario, no pain has been inflicted on me and I don’t have any preference against receiving the blue pen. But if we deny the reality of objective moral duties, then there is nothing wrong with inflicting pain on someone or forcing them into something against their will or going against their preferences. This is because there is nothing wrong, period, since this is what it means to deny objective moral duties. Now if there is nothing wrong with any of these acts, then it true that hurting someone (against their will) is just as wrong as not hurting someone. And going against someone’s preferences is just as wrong as respecting someone’s will. All these acts are morally neutral, like what side of the road a country decides to drive on, or what kind of food we like to eat, and so on. So such an attempted escape only reveals, once again, that the objector really does believe in objective moral duties, even if they don’t want to admit this to themselves.

Enter Empathy

But perhaps there is another way out. You could bite the bullet and affirm the absurdity that the rapist is no more wrong than the person giving me the pen, but affirm that moral outrage is still rational by virtue of one’s empathy for the girl and her family. After all, we wouldn’t want one of our family members to be raped and we certainly wouldn’t want to be raped ourselves, so we can empathise with the family and the girl and so be outraged at the rapist.

However,¬†moral outrage only follows from empathy when someone has wronged someone else. Consider, again, the pen scenario. Say there was a third person and they felt empathy towards me because they themselves prefer black pens over blue pens. I think it’s safe to say that any moral outrage that they felt towards the person giving me the pen is misplaced and irrational. After all, what has the person done wrong to me? And as we saw, in the absence of objective moral duties, all actions are just as wrong as the person giving me the blue pen, meaning empathy doesn’t help in any scenario.¬†Furthermore, empathy is directed at the victim, whereas outrage is directed at the¬†perpetrator. It would make no sense, after hearing that the girl had been raped (now, even assuming objective moral duties) to be outraged at someone other than the rapist (or anyone else related to the act). But without objective moral duties, as we have already seen, the innocent bystander is equally as morally responsible for the rape as the rapist himself. The furthest empathy can get you is feeling sorry for the girl and her family[3]. In order for you to be outraged at someone, they need to be morally responsible. And they can’t be if there are moral duties are not objectively binding.


In conclusion, then, it seems quite clear that in the absence of objective moral duties, moral outrage and praise[4] are misplaced and irrational. Using morally loaded scenarios to show otherwise won’t do, because the only reason we agree that the outrage is justified in these scenarios is because we already believe in objective moral duties (whether we’d like to admit it or not). This is seen when we consider clearly morally neutral scenarios.

I personally find this conclusion (along with 2.1 and 2.3) to be a compelling reason to accept that there are in fact objective moral duties. If anything, it makes it more obvious that objective moral duties exist than not[5].


  1. I recently learnt that the technical term for going beyond one’s duties is called supererogation.
  2. An absolutely horrific consequence of denying the reality of objective moral duties is that the girl being raped is equally as morally responsible (or culpable) as the rapist himself. I must admit that if someone told me that with a straight face I’d probably smack them straight through their face. This remains as a footnote, however, because it is only relevant to 2.1 and not 2.2.
  3. It’s not clear you can even get this far, for why would you feel sorry for someone who hasn’t been wronged? Consider the pen example again. So, empathy itself seems misplaced in the absence of objective moral duties.
  4. I haven’t focussed on praise in this post, but all of what I said about outrage could equally be applied to praise and is left as an exercise to the reader.
  5. We have no more reason to think that moral relativism is true than we do to think moral realism (ie. objective moral duties exist) is. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case: given that it at least seems true that (1) there is a real difference between morally neutral actions (like the pens) and morally loaded actions (like rape) and that (2) moral outrage and praise are rational, moral realism seems more obviously true than moral relativism. Meaning the burden is on the moral relativist, not the moral realist. This is contrary to how people like to see the situation: they usually assume relativism is the default position.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s