Robert Frank: Moral Outrage

Every year at its annual meeting, the Society for Business Ethics holds a joint session with the Social Issues in Management division of the Academy of Management.

This year’s speaker at the joint SBE/SIM session was Robert Frank (Cornell University). Frank’s talk was called “Identifying the Right Targets for Moral Outrage.”

Nearly-exact quotation of Frank’s opening sentence: “Moral outrage is socially useful. It is a scarce resource. So it’s crucial that we expend it wisely. And it seems to me that we’re currently expending an awful lot of moral outrage in unwise ways.”

It was an interesting & engaging talk. Basically, Frank’s argument was that we ought to consider carefully which kinds of cases expression of moral outrage can expected to be effective in. In particular, he argued that moral outrage is particularly unlikely to be useful when aimed at people caught in competitive domains where they really seem to have few alternatives than to engage in the kinds of behaviour that sparked our outrage. So, for example, we ought not to be outraged at the board of directors that decides to pay some ‘ougrageous’ amount to their CEO; that seemingly excessive rate of pay might be justified by the market for talented managers and the expected value that this particular CEO is likely to bring to the firm. (Loosely: “don’t hate the player; hate the game!”)

Mostly, Frank seemed to suggest that we aim our moral outrate at political decision-makers who structure the systems within which the rest of us interact. (But Frank’s answer was disappointing — in fact, he didn’t seem to have an answer — when during Q&A, he was asked why we ought to be morally outraged at politicians who, after all, are caught up in the logic of their own competitive domains.)

See also Robert Frank’s books:
The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas (2007)
Luxury Fever (2000)
Passions Within Reason (1988)

1 comment so far

  1. […] year I saw a talk by economist Robert Frank, on “Moral Outrage.” His overarching theme was that moral outrage is a useful thing, and that we therefore ought not to […]


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