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Moral Outrage[edit]

Moral Outrage is an emotional response derived from feelings of oppression or injustice that provokes a collective identity. The basis of solidarity provides the initial motivation in mobilizing a social movement that demands justice and equality. To obtain these demands the group focuses on a target that can be blamed for such injustices (Goodwin, 171).

Collective identity plays a crucial part in refuting feelings of inferiority and shame, which in turn transforms into mobilizing a collective pride and strength that introduces a mighty counter-force (Flam, 129-130). The mechanism of reconstituting feelings of inferiority into feelings of self-worth is a phenomenon associated with moral outrage.

There are multiple components present in the development of moral outrage. The first is “cogitative accessibility,” which is defined as “organizational and relational positioning that affords exposure to norm-violating information” (Goodwin, 160). In other words, it must be a situation that people can obtain information about. They must perceive this information as a violation of moral norms. In addition, the information must come from a source that is deemed credible, for the threat to be taken seriously. Another factor that has been identified is the establishment of a sense of personal identification with the group that is being exploited (Godwin, 161). Although these preconditions are a crucial factor in gaining the publics concern, they do not necessarily lead to moral outrage right away. Reflection of one’s own values founded in a group identity may infuse this information with a sense of urgency and a compelling need to respond. This is known as “subjective engageability” (Goodwin, 166). The confluences of all these factors generate moral outrage.


Barrington Moore, one of the greatest American sociologists of the 20th century, should be given the credit for developing the term “moral outrage”. There was one main question that guided his work: “which historical circumstances favor, and which inhibit, the making of modern societies that are decent and worth living in?” (Rubenstein,745) Moore explored why people sometimes choose to remain victims of their societies and other times become angry and try to rebel (Rubenstein,745). To begin his research, which led to the discovering of moral outrage, Moore looked at how a violation of social rules can lead to moral anger and feelings of injustice (Rubenstein,746).

In Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery, Moore speculates as to what conditions encourage moral outrage. His theories are derived from historical analysis of social movements. He examined things such as the rise of the Social Democratic Party, the First World War, and the emergence of the Nazi Party. The historical analysis is “accompanied by a discussion of the thesis that a social contract specifying norms of reciprocity and the principles of injustice is practically universal within human societies” (Smith, 153). He studied oppression and looked at what conditions encouraged moral outrage to occur (Smith, 153).


“Moral shock” is a result of an unexpected event or piece of information which raises outrage in a person that leads to political action. This may take place in the absence of a social movement but must lead to action to cause a meaningful experience (Flam, 111). “Human beings are not inclined to act upon injustices and suffering unless they perceive them as socially caused” (Flam, 111). Therefore, a collective identity is needed to change people’s outlooks of the social world so that they begin to question the morality of those in authority (Flam, 111). Moral shock is reconginzed as an important first step in moblization of social movements.

Emotion is defined by Theodore Kemper as “ a relatively short-term evaluative response essentially positive or negative in nature involving distinct somatic components” (Goodwin, 10). Many theorists believe emotions are socially or culturally constructed. Some emotions are dependent upon an understanding of the events around us; however, politically influenced emotions are more constructed and cognitive. Constructed emotions are not automatic and it takes an event causing feelings of injustice or oppression to bring these to light, therefore causing moral outrage (Goodwin, 10). Such things have a leading role in the development of protests, which express outrage and blame to those responsible for the injustice (Goodwin, 8).

Debating Theories on the Role of Emotion[edit]

Social Constructionist There is a conceptual link between emotion and inequalities; therefore there is an acknowledged importance of emotions in social movement. Until recently, research on social movements has ignored the significance of emotion. However, pioneering cultural analysis (such as Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta) has brought back the importance of the role emotions play in social movements. They understand emotions as critical to sustaining all components of a social movement. They use the tools of cultrual analysis, aided by psychological awareness as the "best means of coming to grip with the emotions that matter most in politics and social conflict" (Goodwin,13).

Biological Evolutionist A study by UCLA anthropologists looks at the evolutionary roots of moral outrage. It concentrates on human anger due to uncooperative behavior. This is something that has puzzled economists and evolutionary biologists. The study ultimately found that people who were always cooperative and never became outraged at the lack of other people’s cooperation, were the least likely to survive. They were considered “too nice,” and had a hard time surviving [(]. Based on this study, it appears that an occasional moral outrage could be a good thing.

Critical Analysis[edit]

Debates have raged over the sources of emotion. One prominent contender is biology. Some have argued that emotions have been hard wired through evolution to help us act quickly as an innate way to protect ourselves (Goodwin, 12). This prospective does not take into account how emotions can be developed from social experiences. "Unfortunatly, social constructionist have spent more time arguing with the biological evolutionist than developing their own models" (Goodwin, 12).


Flam, Helena and Debra King. Emotions and Social Movements (2005), Routedge. Newyork, NY.

Goodwin, Jeff, James M. Jasper and Francesca Polletta. Passionate Politics; Emotions and Social Movements (2001), The university of Chicago Press. Chicago and London.

Rubenstein, Richard L. Moral Outrage as False Consciousness (1980), Theory and Society, Vol. 9, No.5, p.745-755.

Smith, Dennis. Morality and Method in the Work of Barrington Moore (March 1984), Theory and Society, Vol.13, No.2, p.151-174.

External Links[edit]

University of California. UCLA study points to evolutionary roots of altruism, moral outrage (Nov 2004) [1]

Infoplease. Moore Barrington [2]