The worst vice is cruelty. I think most people would agree with this statement. Most people will also agree most of the time whether an act is cruel. (At least about the worst acts against human beings.)
The second most objectionable vice is self-righteousness. It is perhaps the most dangerous vice – the vice of fanatics. It is so dangerous because it can be hard to recognize while it undermines the conscience. The combination of self-righteousness and cruelty is especially loathsome. Vice claiming the rewards of virtue. An Islamist terrorist is a perfect example of this sort of monstrosity.
One reason we find it so offensive is that the self righteous person insults you. One way or another they convey the message that you are their moral inferior.
The problem is that it is easy to recognize self-righteousness in an opponent. It is harder to spot in oneself or in ones allies. People often condemn an opponents self-righteousness in a manner that is even more self-righteous than that of their opponents.
So how do we describe it? How do we recognize it? Especially, how do we recognize it when it is there in those we agree with or in ourselves?
The dictionary definition is "An excessive belief in one's own righteousness". This does not completely cover what we mean when we call someone self-righteous. What we really mean is that someone is trying to feel and appear virtuous rather than be virtuous. They are trying to use morality for purposes that have little to do with morality.
The self-righteous person could be seeking the pleasure of feeling virtuous or they could be seeking a cause to provide meaning to their life or they could be seeking a feeling of moral superiority over others. The trouble is these are not things we should expect morality to provide.
You see what we have is not a sense of right and wrong but a sense of right and a sense of wrong. Unfortunately the same act can trigger both at the same time.
Our sense of right is the pleasant feeling we have when we do an act of kindness or correct a wrong. Generally we feel good when we do something that we don't have to do but is a good thing or when we do something that we feel obliged to do but is difficult to do. We don't feel virtuous doing something easy which we feel obliged to do.
In fact we tend to admire most the people who feel obliged to do things which we don't think they actually are obliged to do. These are the people for whom doing something good is second nature. They are the ones who say "What else was I to do?". These are the people who do not feel particularly virtuous when they are doing something good. Often we also feel a bit sorry for them, that they didn't really have to do something, that they might be taken advantage of.
In fact for most of us most of the time the emotional rewards of doing good are serendipity. They are seldom our primary motive or intentionally sought. More often our motive is concern for another and feeling good about it is a desirable byproduct. The good feeling we get from doing right is not something that we feel all that often and is not really missed when it is absent.
What is actively sought more often is something that is related, a sense of accomplishment. This usually comes from achieving personal goals. One does not necessarily think of these goals as acts of virtue. They might be or we might see them as morally neutral, but most of the time we are not thinking about morality when we are accomplishing our goals. We could regard the satisfaction of doing good as a special case of a feeling of accomplishment.
Our sense of wrong is our conscience, the thing that stings us when we do something that we shouldn't or don't do something that we should. I do not know what the ultimate basis of morality should be. I can say that some form of morality is necessary for a society to avoid self destruction. A society cannot work unless most of its members behave morally most of the time. Our sense of wrong is also a protection against things which primarily harm us rather than others.
Again the ideal is to unselfconsciously avoid doing wrong. Surely it is best to see through evil, evaluate it as worthless and not be tempted. This is the ideal, resisting temptation is enough.
For most of us our conscience is formed by a combination of training (or indoctrination), intuition and reasoning. There have been many attempts to derive morality from first principles. I have not seen one that I was completely happy with. For many people morality is a set of rules that they are given by a supernatural source. I don't believe that any supernatural source has done so and even if it had an edict by a supernatural power is not necessarily right. I believe that if God is the source of morality it does so by determining the nature of reality not by issuing edicts. I think there is some absolute reality somewhere behind morality but I don't know what it is. Like most people my ethics are a combination of what I am used to, what feels right, what works and what makes sense. I do not believe that right and wrong can be completely captured in one sentence simple statements other than tautologies. (The tautologies I am thinking of are statements that an act is wrong when wrongfulness is part of the definition of the act. For example if murder is defined as intentional wrongful killing then a statement that murder is wrong is true by definition.) I am not saying that there are not acts which are unequivocally good or evil. Helping the victims of last year's Indian Ocean tsunami is unequivocally a good act. The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem was unequivocally an evil act. I am saying that most simple rules have exceptions. I think of morality as more a matter of approaches and attitudes than as a matter of rules.
What do we do when an act has both good and bad effects? When its purpose is something that feels good and desirable but there is something about it that feels wrong or at least disturbing? Well there are three things that you can do. You can decide that the bad outweighs the good and not go ahead with whatever you were considering. You can decide that the good outweighs the bad but you wish there was another way. You go ahead but you pay a price in moral discomfort. Or you can go ahead and persuade yourself that what felt wrong about it wasn't really wrong at all. The last alternative may sometimes be the right choice but I think it usually isn't. It is certainly always a dangerous choice.
An example of a justified but disturbing act would be killing an insane person in order to protect another person. It might be the right thing to do but most people would not feel good about doing it. They would always wish there had been another way. Doing the right thing should not always be expected to bring satisfaction or peace of mind. Sometimes there are no good choices.
A sense of proportion is a much neglected quality. It is so undramatic. But it is our main guide when good and bad are mixed and we can't completely unmix them.
I have heard hypocrisy described as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Self-righteousness could be described as virtue in the service of vice.
Actually self-righteousness and hypocrisy tend to be opposing vices. Self-righteousness at its worst is found in dreadfully sincere people. Their beliefs may be self-contradictory and incoherent but they cannot truly be described as hypocrites. One of the signs of self-righteousness is how ready someone is to describe opponents or one's less zealous supporters as hypocrites.
Hypocrisy tends to protect against the worst excesses of self-righteousness. Hypocrites after all tend not to be excessively zealous.
I have seen arguments that we need conflicts with other groups as a means of affirming our identities as members of a group. The group could be a tribe or a nation or a social class or a religion or a corporation or something more amorphous. I don't know whether this is a built in tendency or something we acquire from our societies or a bit of both. It is certainly something that people do. It is something that we must keep under control. It is wrong to pick fights so we can have a feeling of group solidarity but people do it. The self-righteous person uses morality as a pretext for and a weapon in conflicts. Morality is used as an identifier of in and out groups.
Another bad effect of using morality as a group identifier is that it stops you from seeing opponents and their positions clearly. It leads to opposing everything that an opponent supports because of who supports a position rather than what that position is. No one is wrong all the time.
While desiring to feel virtuous or important is not a bad thing it is generally wrong to suppress mixed feelings about one's actions. The self-righteous person trivializes the harm caused by actions that they approve of. Turning blind eyes to Gulags is a classic example.
Seeking a feeling of moral superiority is always bad. Letting oneself enjoy a feeling of moral superiority is questionable. If you believe you are morally superior to someone else surely your primary reaction should be disappointment and possibly anger over their failure. It certainly should not be smugness over one's own comparative virtue.
What do you do to get a feeling of moral superiority? It's hard to outdo others in morality. The main way that people try to feel better than others is to interpret the actions of opponents in the worst possible manner. To attribute malign intentions to those who disagree with you.
You want to feel virtuous? See those who oppose you as not merely wrong but evil. That way you become fighter against evil.
Oh, while you're at it become part of an elite group, the wave of the future. Or perhaps just those who God favors.
While self-righteousness about personal matters is obnoxious, self-righteousness in political matters is dangerous. To everybody! They are not just dangerous to those who disagree with them. They can be trouble when they are on the same side as you. They discredit you by association and they underestimate the opposition. They might be able to spot an opponent's weaknesses. They tend to not spot an opponents strengths. To do so they would have to be able to see their own weaknesses and the real reasons why people oppose them. A good example of this tendency was Adolf Hitler. I think he understood his pre-war opponents. He misunderstood and badly underestimated his wartime enemies especially the Americans and the Russians.
The self-righteous elements of the political left and right generally have different motives. The self-righteous on the left seem to be driven by conceit and the desire to feel good. The self righteous on the right seem to be driven by fear of uncertainty. This is probably because the left tends to emphasize feelings as a basis for morality and the right tends to emphasize rules. These are only tendencies and most conservatives and most progressives do not base morality entirely on either rules or intuitions.
The self-righteous elements of the right tend to be the more religious elements. They are the people who want certainty and want their beliefs to be given to them by a source that they cannot doubt. They want morality to be encapsulated in simple rules that have no exceptions. They suppress empathy for those that fail to live up to their standards. They refuse to recognize or they trivialize the cost of following their rules. They lack a sense of proportion. They refuse to live with uncertainty about the righteousness of their acts. The rules become an end in their own right not just a means to an end. I find some of them more obnoxious than their left-wing counterparts but see them as less dangerous. Following inflexible rules does put some limits on the harm that they can do. The problem is that human beings and human behavior are complicated. It is not reasonable to expect principles governing human behavior to be simple.
What is particularly objectionable is people gaining gratification from punishing those they see as wrongdoers. It isn't vengeance that creeps me out. It is people who see punishments as an assertion of the righteousness of their position.
A good example of what I am complaining about is the War on Drugs. Stopping drugs becomes a cause, an obsession not just a means of preventing harm. Some people oppose needle exchange programs becauause they want to use the fear of AIDS to discourage drug use. Disproportionate punishments are imposed. Some people start to gain a sense of importance from imposing these punishments. Justice and a sense of proportion are forgotten.
The left tends to place more importance on empathy and on the context of actions. They are less likely to try to reduce morality to simple rules. Unfortunately they there is a tendency to reduce it to feelings. This is more dangerous than over simplified rules because feelings do not put limits on acceptable behavior and because it can blind people to some of their own motivations.
The problem comes when empathy becomes everything. The danger is that the focus can shift away from empathy with others to how empathy makes them feel about themselves. "If I feel empathy for this poor and oppressed group then I must be a good person." People look for causes that they can adopt. They gain an interest in seeing wrongs that they can oppose.
Allowing for the context of an action can degenerate into excusing the inexcusable. "They are victims of oppression. We can't blame them." If you excuse someone's atrocities you can feel good about taking their side. More opportunities to feel good about helping the oppressed. They refuse to recognize that some actions are beyond the pale, no matter what cause they are in.
An example of this sort of behavior is making excuses for Palestinian suicide bombers. Setting off a bomb in a cafe or on a bus is wrong. It doesn't matter whether the Palestine an cause is just or not. Such acts are just wrong. They say the Palestinians have no other options. This is not true. Non-violent resistance has not been tried to any great extent and probably would have been more effective than the bombings. Israel is a democracy and susceptible to public opinion. The point of the Ghandi approach is to change public opinion. Excusing the bombings allows people to turn the Palestinians into a cause that the sensitive and virtuous can adopt without reservation.
The self-righteousness of the Islamists seems to spring both from fear and conceit. Fear of uncertainty and conceit about their place in the world.
Morality is not a means of counting coup or getting warm fuzzy feelings. These are immoral uses of morality. The attempt to use morality this way undermines morality both weakening society and corrupting the people who see themselves as oh so moral.
This essay was not meant as preaching or a rant. These are things that I had to say. Unfortunately the people that I would want most to reach probably won't recognize their behavior in my descriptions. I just hope I've provided some ammunition for the rest of us.