The Moral Saint Fallacy describes our tendency to overestimate the virtues of our own character. (Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash. Cropped to fit).

the Moral Saint Fallacy

We’re all true, in our own eyes.

Note: This article originally appeared here and was co-written by Evan Selinger.

Figure from Hannah ST, Avolio BJ, May DR. 2011. Moral maturation and moral conation: A capacity approach to explaining moral thought and action. Academy of Management Review. 36(4):663–685

Ideals, Action and Education

The Case of Lt. Pike: Action and Expectation

The next clip recalls a infamous example of digital pillory (or cyberstoning). At its zenith, the Occupy Wall Street movement spawned sympathetic sit-ins or “occupy” protests at cities and college campuses throughout the United States. A confrontation between protesters and campus police at the University of California — Davis was especially well documented. In this video, UC-Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike is shown wielding a can of pepper spray. He first makes a show of displaying the can to onlookers, and then dispassionately discharges the pepper spray directly into the faces of the sitting students.

Moral Conation and Obstacles to Action

It is easy to see where Bosquet is coming from. If people are let off the hook for doing things they should be held accountable for, justice is violated. But is that really the case here? Let’s assume for the moment that Lt. Pike could recognize the moral problem with spraying non-violent protesters (thus exhibiting moral sensitivity). He nevertheless was required to make moral judgments about the relative merits of his obligation to duty (in Bosquet’s language, “obedience”) versus the moral principle of non-violence.

Even if Pike believed that pepper-spraying the students was wrong, he may have been unable to actually act on those beliefs, given the circumstances in which he was embedded.

Understanding Pike’s dilemma changes the rhetorical question of What Would You Do? to something like, “What could we reasonably have expected Pike to do?” Could we really have expected Pike to take a different moral stand at the scene? Defying his Chancellor? Breaking ranks with his colleagues, as he no doubt thought refusal would have required him to do?

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