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Kaplan, H.A. (1997). Moral Outrage: Virtue as a Defense. Psychoanal. Rev., 84(1):55-71.

(1997). Psychoanalytic Review, 84(1):55-71

Moral Outrage: Virtue as a Defense

Harvey A. Kaplan

A patient came into the session and began describing what she had just witnessed. She was sitting at the back of a bus and saw a woman who was walking toward the rear exit passing a lady in a mink coat. As the bus slowed to a halt the woman exiting turned quickly with a scissors in her hand and cut off a lock of the lady's hair yelling, “Now you know how a mink feels.” The patient who reported the incident was stunned almost as if it had been done to her and as if she were the injured party, probably some identification with the victim.

In this paper, I shall describe a character type organized around recurrent themes of injustice, virtue, and immorality. At times, these people appear to be paranoidlike in their outrages, so critical of social inequities, so high-mindedly moral in their expectations of society that they are often seen as excessive purists and upholders of justice.

The cases I will present are illustrative of a pathological character attitude, that of moral outrage, which I regard as a defense. A character attitude is not an immediate reaction to an anxiety-producing event; rather it is a personality reaction that functions against exposure to a whole set of possible anxiety situations. A pathological character attitude is a position taken up against a class of dangers and includes a number of defenses aimed against allowing oneself to be subjugated to the will of others. This relates to passive-submissive tendencies that loom as a constant threat to overcome.

Moral outrage as a historical phenomenon is a potent force that has given rise to creative radical and political change. In this paper, however, I am referring to moral outrage that exists as a pathological character attitude.

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