“It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

I have been reflecting on this quotation from C.S. Lewis. It seems to contain a warning for our time, when people are inclined to gorge themselves on the nectar of “righteous indignation”. Intoxicated with the sensation of apparent virtue, the “righteous” then set upon anyone who falls beyond their moral pale.

Indignation has no natural political or ideological home. It can be found in equal measure among so-called “progressives” and “conservatives”. Each group has its own ranks of “shock troops” ready to do the most terrible things in the firm belief that they are justified by the rightness of their cause. They are like the sans-culottes of the French Revolution or the Nazi “Brown Shirts” of the last century — convinced that callous indifference should rule the fate of those whom they bully until their targets either retreat or break. Any sense of common decency, based in a recognition of a common humanity, is dissolved in the acid of resentment.

Fortunately, in Australia, righteous indignation rarely gives rise to violence on the streets. Instead, it is enacted, for the most part, in an online environment made all the more vicious by the fact that one can cause harm at a distance (and often cloaked in anonymity) without ever having to confront the awful reality of what is done.

My colleague, Tim Dean, has written about the ethics of outrage, which touches on a number of the matters that I point to above. My intention, here, is to look at a particular philosophical problem with righteous indignation — namely, its tendency to destroy (rather than express) a capacity for virtue. This is not simply a matter of philosophical interest.

The implications of this argument also have practical implications, especially for those who are truly committed to changing the world for the better.

In my experience, most of those who ultimately embrace the excesses of righteous indignation start from an entirely reasonable and defensible position. This is typically grounded in some form of ethical insight — usually relating to a genuine instance of wrong-doing, often involving the oppression of one group of people by another. For example, the ancien régime swept away by the French Revolution was corrupt. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement begins with a true insight that some lives (black lives) are being discounted as if they do not matter either at all or as much as the lives of others. Which is to say, BLM is based on valuing all lives. And so it is with most movements: they begin with a genuine and justifiable grievance, which risks being converted into something far less subtle and far more dangerous.

Robespierre undermined the integrity of the French Revolution by harnessing “The Terror” in service of his ideal — the creation of a “Republic of Virtue”. He unleashed the mob to ravage those who differed from them even to the slightest degree of privilege. To be “privileged” was to be doomed — as Robespierre himself discovered when the mob eventually turned on him and despatched him to the guillotine.

Unfortunately, every movement has its “Robespierres”. They amplify the general sense of there being a wrong that needs to be righted. They exploit the sentiments of those with a sincere desire to do good in the world. They fashion an “index of commitment” where you are judged by the extremity of your action — the more extreme, the more committed you are shown to be. Excess of zeal becomes a badge of merit, a token of sincerity.

So, what might this have to do with I’ve called the destruction of virtue? The answer lies in the implications of “excess”. For Aristotle, the phrōnimos (the person of practical wisdom, or phrōnēsis) attains virtue when they rid themselves of the distorting lenses of vice so as to see (and act according to) the “golden mean” — a point between two vicious extremes. For example, the virtue of courage lies between the poles of “reckless indifference to the risk of harm” at one end and “hiding away from danger” at the other. That is, a courageous person has a clear appreciation of danger and takes a measured decision to overcome their fear and stand fast all the same.

Righteous indignation disavows the golden mean. Instead, it creates a counterfeit version of virtue in which the extreme is presented as the ideal.

This distortion leads otherwise good people, with good motives, in the service of a good cause, to do abominable things.

Worse still, those who act abominably are encouraged to think that their conduct is excused because done “in good conscience”. Yet another counterfeit.

It is easy enough to justify all manner of wrongdoing by an appeal to “conscience”. That is why one of the greatest exponents of conscience, St. Thomas Aquinas, insisted that we are only bound to act in conformance with a “well-informed conscience” — and as my friend Father Frank Brennan, SJ, would add, a “well-formed conscience”.

I think it sad to see so many people being sucked into a world of “righteous indignation” that has little, if any, relationship to a conscientious life of virtue. People of virtue exercise ethical restraint. They are not wantonly cruel. They do not index the intrinsic dignity of persons according to the colour of their skin, their culture and beliefs, their sex and gender or their socio-economic status. They know that “two wrongs do not make a right”.

Instead of tormenting others for their own good — and, perhaps, for the good of the world — the virtuous will seek to engage and persuade, exemplifying (rather than subverting) the ideals they seek to promote. If ever there is to be a “Republic of Virtue”, it will have no place for the righteously indignant.


This article originally appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics.