There were a variety of celebrity feuds in 2015 (Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly, Floyd Mayweather vs. Ronda Rousey, Drake vs. Meek Mill, Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry) in which one or another of the disputants was alleged to have sought to end the feud by “taking the high road,” that is to say, by refusing to respond to some disparaging remark made about him or her and thereby at least temporarily allowing the dispute to be put to rest.
Similarly, there were several occasions during the early months of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2015-2016 when Democratic and Republican candidates "took the high road" by refraining from personal attacks against one another. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders, during a debate with Sec. Hillary Clinton on Oct. 13, 2015, refused to attack her for her use of a private email server to access classified email communications while she was U.S. Secretary of State from 2009-2013. Sanders said, "Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America." Sen. Ted Cruz, on Feb 22, 2016, said that he was “taking the high road” by firing his communications director for having posted a video on Facebook that falsely accused Sen. Marco Rubio of having insulted the Bible. Gov. John Kasich, on Mar. 14, 2016, said, "I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land." Unfortunately, there were also many occasions during the campaign when the candidates did indeed engage in scathing personal attacks against one another.
What then does it mean to “take the high road” or to “claim the moral high ground”? A variety of explanations may be proposed: taking the high road means being fair, just, kind, and forgiving, and being guided by one’s better and more virtuous impulses. It means treating others as one would like oneself to be treated, rather than as one has been treated by others (although if one has been treated kindly and generously, then one may have a duty to reciprocate).
Taking the high road also means being mindful, considerate, and understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings. It means turning the other cheek, being tolerant of others’ faults and transgressions, and showing forbearance and self-restraint.
To take the high road is also to refrain from responding to spiteful and hateful personal attacks against one’s motives, conduct, character, or reputation by launching the same kind of spiteful and hateful personal attacks against those who have initiated them (“taking the low road”). It is also to refrain from pettiness, vindictiveness, revenge, dirty tricks, ad hominem attacks, and attempts to suppress free speech. It is not to descend to the level of those who will use any means at their disposal, no matter how callous, cruel, or heartless, to promote their own personal advantage.
To claim the moral high ground is not to indulge in “tit for tat.” It is to refrain from always having to have the last word. It is to understand that one may not always be able to change the attitudes and opinions of those with whom one disagrees. It is to accept the fact that there may always be differences of opinion between individuals, and that some individuals’ opinions may be difficult to change.
To claim the moral high ground is also to be scrupulous about the means that one chooses to advance one’s own ends. It is to keep in mind the needs of those who are disadvantaged and suffering, and to defend the rights of those who have been abused, victimized, stigmatized, discriminated against, or oppressed. It is not to actively or passively condone moral injustice or social oppression. It is to appeal to people’s unselfish and altruistic impulses, and not to surrender to the politics of fear. It is also to promote political, economic, and cultural pluralism, and to encourage peaceful means of conflict resolution.
To take the high road is also to do whatever is morally right, regardless of any personal inconvenience or disadvantage to oneself. It is not to merely do whatever is expedient in order to solve a problem or settle a conflict. It is also not to engage in devious practices or underhanded quid pro quo transactions.
Sometimes when people are angry, it may be helpful to let them vent their feelings in order to defuse their anger. “Taking the high road” may mean simply listening to them and not trying to make them understand one’s own feelings of being unfairly subjected to their complaints and criticisms.
Robert H. Frank (1996) asks the question: at what personal cost (or at what level of personal disadvantage) will we still be willing to take the moral high ground? What kinds of sacrifices, if necessary, will we be prepared to make? Frank argues that various kinds of social and economic choices may be significantly influenced by unselfish motives. For example, the career choices of individuals may be influenced not only by financial incentives, but also by social incentives provided by opportunities to help others and contribute to society. The ability of a corporation to attract new employees may depend not only on its ability to offer attractive financial compensation, but also on its ability to demonstrate social responsibility. Employees may require much higher salaries before being willing to switch to less socially responsible employers.1
While taking the high road may be praiseworthy insofar as it is motivated by the desire to act virtuously, it may also be unpraiseworthy insofar as it is motivated by self-righteousness, arrogance, and condescension. Telling others that one is taking the high road may be self-serving. It may be a means of praising and congratulating oneself about one’s own level of self-restraint, even when one has engaged in needless arguments and petty disputes. It may also be a means of allowing oneself to say that one will not descend to a certain level of debate, thus expressing scorn or disdain for whomever is deemed to have engaged in that level of debate. Telling others that one is taking the high road may also be a method of saving face, and may represent a fallacy of relevance whereby the superiority of one’s own motives or intentions is asserted in order to establish the truth and validity of one’s beliefs or opinions.
If a particular set of moral rules or principles is said to characterize a moral high ground, then what makes that ground higher than other grounds? Is it because those moral rules or principles are somehow higher, more far-reaching, and of greater priority than others, or because they reflect a higher set of moral values?
A ground for something may also be a reason, explanation, or justification for that thing. The sufficiency of a ground may thus be its reason-giving ability, its foundational or justificatory capacity, and its explanatory power. The more sufficient the ground, the greater may be its justificatory capacity and explanatory power.
Paul Bloomfield (2003) explains that the concept of a moral high ground may generate a theoretical topology of normative ethical positions whereby some moral positions are higher or lower than others in terms of their normative consequence or theoretical validity. The notion of a level playing field of normative positions (or the notion that no normative position is higher than others in terms of its consequence or validity) may lead to a form of moral relativism (or the view that all normative positions are equally valid, and that their normative consequence or theoretical validity depends merely on the subjective viewpoint of the observer).2
Taking the high road may require one to act from a position of strength rather than weakness, since one may not be able to take the high road if one is desperate to make use of any means at one’s disposal in order to gain advantage in a dispute or controversy. At the same time, the taking of the high road or the claiming of the moral high ground may itself bestow strength upon the taker or claimant. The high road or moral high ground is to some degree a path to, or a position of, moral power and authority.
1Robert H. Frank, “What Price the Moral High Ground?” in Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1 (July, 1996), pp. 1-17.
2Paul Bloomfield, “Is There Moral High Ground?” in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XLI (2003), pp. 511-512.