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Abusing Moral Talk for Selfish Ends

Review of 'Grandstanding' by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke

George P Wood on August 31, 2020

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Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s Grandstanding is a work of philosophy informed by psychology. Its authors evince no religious commitments one way or another, and they work from secular premises. So, you might wonder why I’m recommending their book in a magazine for Christian ministers.

The answer is that Grandstanding trains a searchlight on “the use and abuse of moral talk,” in the words of its subtitle. Moral talk is an intrinsic part of spiritual leadership. Proclaiming the moral excellency of Jesus and calling believers to imitate His example are among a Christian ministers’ most basic duties (e.g., Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). But with this duty comes a temptation to abuse moral talk.

For example, Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, only the tax collector went home “justified before God.”

Tosi and Warmke would describe the Pharisee’s prayer as an example of grandstanding, that is, “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” Grandstanding consists of two elements: “Recognition Desire” and “Grandstanding Expression.” In other words, grandstanders want “to impress others with their moral qualities,” the authors write, and they “try to satisfy that desire by saying something in public moral discourse.”

“It is far less important to identify grandstanding in others than it is to know how to avoid it in ourselves.”

Grandstanding can take a number of forms. Tosi and Warmke identify five, which they term piling on, ramping up, trumping up, expressing strong emotions, and dismissiveness. The Pharisee’s prayer, for example, combines a strong emotion of disgust (toward lawbreakers and tax collectors) with an air of dismissiveness (as if the Pharisee’s righteousness were self-evident). All five forms of grandstanding are legion on social media, especially Twitter.

Interestingly, write Tosi and Warmke, “You don’t have to know you’re grandstanding in order to grandstand, nor do you have to say anything false.” Perhaps, like the Pharisee, you really think you’re that good and others that bad. And maybe the others actually are nasty pieces of work, while you’re an upstanding citizen by comparison. Regardless of whether you’re witting or wrong, however, you’re still grandstanding. Jesus criticized the Pharisee for exalting himself, after all — not for telling a lie.

But if grandstanding can be unwitting and truthful, what exactly is the problem? As moral philosophers, Tosi and Warmke draw on the three main streams of ethical theory — consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics — to describe what’s wrong with grandstanding. In a nutshell, they argue, grandstanding has social costs, it disrespects people, and it manifests a defect in moral character.

The social costs of grandstanding include “polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion.” Grandstanding disrespects people “by using others to show how good the grandstander is, or by misleading others about how good the grandstander is.” And it manifests a defect in moral character because to be virtuous, “you must do the right thing for the right reasons.” A grandstander, however, is selfishly (that is, wrongly) motivated.

Tosi and Warmke conclude Grandstanding by suggesting several strategies, both personal and social, for reducing self-promoting moral talk. As the United States enters the home stretch of its presidential election season, these strategies are helpful, especially for spiritual leaders like you and me whose calling requires speaking prophetically — that is, morally — to the pressing issues of the day.

But let us make sure we speak with clean hands and a pure heart. “It is far less important to identify grandstanding in others,” Tosi and Warmke write, “than it is to know how to avoid it in ourselves.” Or, as Jesus put it, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Only by doing so will we avoid the Pharisee’s temptation to abuse moral talk for selfish ends.

Book Reviewed

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

This review appears in the September/October 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

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