The Moral Psychology of Self-righteousness

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. When we self-identify as good people, any questioning of this is likely to be experienced as a personal attack. It is, after all, your perceived identity as a good person that is being challenged. In this case, a defensive reaction is to be expected.

But what if we aspire to be good people without self-identifying as such. It’s the self-identifying as good that makes criticism an attack. Aspiration, on the other hand, calls for continual self-assessment and course correction. Here-in lies the deep wisdom of the Christian idea of original sin. The acknowledgement that we have things to atone for, areas for improvement, even concerning issues we might not be fully aware of, instils a kind of humility that can only be born with grace. The proud person may only see humiliation or self-debasement in owning their mistakes. The humble aspirant, however, sees opportunity for growth.

Bearing the humble recognition of our own fallibility with grace is not easy. There’s an ironic human predicament here. Often what’s hard about coming to terms with our own fallibility is just going easy on ourselves even as we observe a responsibility to work on ourselves.

Why should this grace towards ourselves be difficult? I think part of the answer is that we must square our attitudes towards our own shortcomings with the attitudes we have towards the transgressions of others. When we see badness in others as deserving of harsh condemnation, consistency demands harshness towards our own failings. This, I suspect, is the difficult turn that leads many to spurn humble aspiration towards goodness in favor of rigid and fragile self-identification with goodness. And this is the essence of self-righteousness.

At this point we might interrogate our harsh and unforgiving attitudes towards others. Why are we so punishing? The idea of retribution carries a lot of weight here. Philosophically, the idea of retribution is the idea of returning the wrong upon the wrongdoer. Kant thought of retribution as a moral duty, a matter of respect for the wrong doer embodied in treating the wrongdoer according to his own standards. Kant would also hold that we only see moral virtue in administering this duty when we do so dispassionately, or even against our inclination to let things slide. The emotional craving for vengeance would mask or even negate the duty of retribution.

Maybe Kant could keep retribution apart from revenge, philosophically anyway. But people who crave retribution often have a harder time at this. I worry that retribution more often than not amounts to a thin veil of rationalization for the baser motive of revenge.

The vengeful motive is powerful, perhaps instinctive. I think of it as the fight or flight response after the fact. Sustaining hostility through revenge was probably adaptive long ago on the savanna where the member of a rival clan who kills a member of your clan remains an ongoing threat.

We haven’t outgrown this emotional and motivational legacy of evolution. But restraint serves us well. When it comes to the wrongs of others, we usually leave retribution to the state where it can be administered somewhat more in the spirit of duty than for the emotional motive of vengeance. Granted this might be a half measure in practice. We still often see criminal justice as “getting justice for the victim” rather than seeing it just as holding the wrong doer accountable and treating them as they deserve based on their own motives and actions.

But to our present point, whatever vice there may be in vengefulness towards others, the prospect of finding ourselves deserving of that spite is a driver of self-righteousness. When I self-identify as good and judge those who fail to measure up harshly, the stakes for finding myself in error may be too high to bear. The Christian imperative to forgive others as we forgive ourselves won’t be much help if we are harsh judges in both cases. And so, we often see the self-righteous person doubling down and refusing to acknowledge their errors.

In trying to understand the moral vice of self-righteousness we find a helpful intersection between ethics and critical thinking. The critical thinker is someone who is skilled at learning from her mistakes. The moral vice of self-righteousness prevents this up front by ensuring that we remain blind to our mistakes. Perhaps then, self-righteousness is as much an intellectual vice as a moral vice.

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