Self-righteousness is to me one of the more loathsome of personal characteristics, and I despise it equally whether it rears its ugly head in myself as much as anyone else.
It’s something I wrestle with 24/7: Scrutinizing my thinking to avoid it when I can, and I do this continuously, though often it goes on in the background, and sometimes I do it consciously during a moment of reflection.
And sometimes this gets me thinking… What are the most immediate rewards for behaving ethically? Isn’t the whole point of such actions, besides the positive feedback we get from others and the resulting social benefits, the feeling of improved self-worth we usually get when doing the ‘right thing?’
The longer-term rewards of such actions have already been well-looked into by social psychologists, and there seems to be considerable survival value to them, since ethical behavior fosters trust and thus cooperation of group members and thus contributes to the success and survival of a group, since social entities without mutual trust and interpersonal cohesion don’t last long.
The problem arises when our sense of self-worth becomes not only inflated to an extreme, but also that we can come to see ourselves as having surpassed others rather than only ourselves, and this can happen when we fool ourselves into thinking that our introspective abilities are infallible, causing us to get sloppy in our thinking and internal monitoring.
Where does self-worth leave off, and become magnified to the point of gratuitous moral hubris? Where is the demarcation between them? I fear that there’s no easy formulaic answer…
I think, and this is my opinion, that the trick is to balance the self along a healthy mean between the extremes of moral self-loathing and sanctimonious narcissism, to feel good about doing right when we do, noting when we do wrong, and minding our thinking to do the former and when possible, avoid the latter, at least choosing the lesser of two evils when faced with them.
Let me tell you, I’m not a saint…not even close…and neither is anyone that I know of, even those whose work and writings I admire. But one thing I do know: There is no one on this planet more critical of me than yours truly, and if anyone who’s ever left a comment on this blog was nearly as critical of moi as I am, I’d think thrice about saying and publishing what I do.
Why do I feel this way about over-congratulating oneself? Because this can, if unchecked, mislead to the conviction that one is more moral, sometimes absolutely, than one really is. And THAT could lead to acts of unethical behavior whose nature one becomes oblivious to even in the doing. It often does, unfortunately.
And let’s face it, I see this very sort of behavior on religious and pseudoscience propaganda sites all the time. In the articles and videos of antiscience evangelists, I see the dark side of belief, and what skepticism, my skepticism, could become if I allowed my reaction to the the cavalier disregard for sound reasoning and facts, the casual cynicism toward critical opinions, and most of all, the grotesquely sanctimonious attitude and hypocrisy of some of the more vocal and less logical apologists, to make me just as bigoted, condescending, and intellectually dishonest as I see them.
I have a strong suspicion that the reason they do this is that they are absolutely certain that they are crusaders on a moral mission to convince others of the Truth, and all actions and behavior devoted to it, no matter how seemingly reprehensible the means used, are justified by that ultimate, and yes, righteous, end.
I’ll paraphrase the 18th century philosopher and critic of organized religion, Voltaire: “Doubt might be a disagreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”
Seeing this sort of thing used to make me angry, though I am becoming accustomed to it over time and now only get mildly irritated, and sometimes even amused. The sort of thing I see on these sites is becoming increasingly less odious, but still the sort of thing I want to avoid in myself.
It is alright for me to think that I am better than myself at a given time, but it is inexcusable to think myself as being better than someone else, because that leads to needlessly demonizing people. I know well the distress from the ugly feeling that results when I let my guard slip, and it is most surely not a pretty thing to me.
I do not wish to become a metaphorical monster, and I bear one thought in mind during all waking hours — “Know thyself.”