Bryan Caplan  

What Is Self-Righteousness?

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What exactly does it mean to be "self-righteous"? 

1. "Self-righteous" is definitely not the same as "hypocritical."  A hypocrite talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk.  A self-righteous person can definitely do both; in fact, you're probably more likely to be called "self-righteous" if you're strictly observant of your own principles.

2. "Self-righteous" also seems distinct from simply being morally mistaken, or even extremely morally mistaken.  Indeed, we occasionally accuse people on "our own side" of self-righteousness.

3. You are likely to be accused of self-righteousness if you loudly brag about your moral virtue - even if (especially?) your claims are literally true.  But is that all that's going on?

4. When I call people "self-righteous," the subtext is normally that they're loudly observant but morally unreflective.  (As Nietzsche said in Human, All Too Human, "The most dangerous party member.-- In every party there is one who through his all too credulous avowal of the party's principles incites the others to apostasy.")  But perhaps that's just my pet peeve.

Further thoughts?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
BZ writes:

Doesn't self righteousness preclude both humility and meekness? If one considers those virtues, then a self righteous person is never virtuous.

Grant Gould writes:

I think that it often also involves radically prioritizing one moral value out of proportion with all others -- dietary purity over social nicety, for instance, or religious proselytizing over humility or respect for privacy.

A couple of years ago here in Massachusetts there was someone who was poisoning illegally off-leash dogs who strayed onto a municipal lawn. That is a perfect example of self-righteousness: Someone who believes so strongly in one proposition (letting dogs off-leash must be punished) that other obvious moral requirements (poisoning people's pets is wrong) vanish into insignificance.

Matthew Moore writes:

Self-righteous = moral + obnoxious

Likeability and morality are orthogonal dimensions ( I wonder if the correlation is positive or negative? I'm guessing an inverted-U shape)

KenB writes:

I'd contrast the self-righteous person with the righteous person -- they each see a problem in the world, but the latter focuses on how to solve the problem while the former focuses on blaming & judging others for the existence or persistence of the problem. IOW the self-righteous person's true motivation is serving his/her ego.

Student writes:

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Toby writes:

I'll go with a dictionary definition on this one:

having or showing a strong belief that your own actions, opinions, etc., are right and other people's are wrong

It seems to be used primarily pejoratively. I've seen it used largely in the context of that the person using it disapproves of the strength with which another person holds the belief that he/she is right and other people are wrong.

Quantitatively we could say that a person is self-righteous if he or she is willing to bet at rather unfavorable odds that he or she is right (e.g. 19/1).

Toby writes:

^That should be 1/19.

jj writes:

Simply somebody who considers themselves to be righteous.
And we don't like this because everybody (except you) knows you're not.

Jess Riedel writes:

Righteousness is doing the morally right thing. Self-righteousness is looking down on others (or some other form of asserting status) for being righteous. It is the opposite of moral humility, just as arrogance is the opposite of humility in non-moral things (e.g., with regard to skill or importance). Self-righteousness is the moral flavor of pride.

Daniel Klein writes:

Good question. I too have ponder the question.

What about this?:

We call Jim self-righteous when Jim self-consciously tramples what would seem to be one sort of propriety, from Jim's openly displayed attitude that doing so is necessary to his satisfy propriety in some other matter, considered higher, and does all this in a way that makes us doubt Jim's scruples in justifying in his own mind the trampling of the supposedly lower propriety.

Weir writes:

Here's an example from Monday's New York Times: "Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone's humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned."

There's a reason that Ulrich Baer, who is responsible for that sentence, has got everything twisted into a pretzel out of Lewis Carroll. It's to avoid saying that censoring Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald involves censoring Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald.

Everything's back to front with this guy's argument because he needs to deceive himself about whose "right to participate in political speech" is in fact under attack. He's with the attackers, but he likes picturing himself and the throng of young thugs as the victims, the underdogs, the little guy.

He thinks he's pulled out a trump card with the claim that "someone's humanity" is being attacked, demeaned, and questioned. That's not even remotely close to engaging with any of those arguments he doesn't agree with. But what could be worse than questioning someone's humanity? By pretending that Christina Hoff Sommers is guilty of invalidating someone's very existence, he doesn't have to respond to what she's saying. By pretending that Larry Summers is guilty of invalidating someone's very existence, he doesn't have to respond to what he's saying.

That's the whole point of being a dogmatic, self-righteous prig. It's to stop the discussion happening. You put your foot down and say that there's only one possible legitimate position, and if anyone talks back he's just in denial, because the correct view is just self-evident and there aren't two sides to the argument. Nor is there both a downside and an upside to weigh up or take into account. Nor is there anything worth discussing at all, so just shut up.

So you get this escalation, one trump card on top of another. The first guy says there are fundamental human rights that must not be violated. The second guy says there's something even worse than violating someone's rights, and that's war. The third guy says war is hell, and war is brutal and bloody, but genocide's even worse than war. And Ulrich Baer comes along and says that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is basically Hitler.

It's unreflective, and it's also irresponsible. You're disclaiming responsibility for having chosen this point of view over some other point of view. Yours is the view from nowhere. When you're being self-righteous, you're saying you didn't even choose this argument, because you're not involved in the decision. There's simply the truth, and you are its oracle. The truth has chosen you. And anyone who disagrees hate puppies and America too.

RPLong writes:

I think self-righteous means righteous in one's own mind.

As previous commentators have noted, being righteous means consistently doing the right thing. Traditionally, people have considered it sinful to declare oneself righteous or not. That kind of judgment is supposed to be reserved for either god or other people, but definitely not oneself.

A self-righteous person is one who believes himself/herself to be righteous, ie. one who has judged himself and believes he has passed the test. The most important moral judge in the mind of a self-righteous person is himself.

Sebastian H writes:

I think it also tends to carry with it a lack of empathy. The self righteous person will feel good about sending the bread-stealing starving parent to prison.

Alia D. writes:

The concept of self-righteousness has its roots in Christian Theology. There "It is impossible for any natural human to actually fulfill the standard of righteousness" is not an observation taken from looking at the standard of righteousness but an axiom that can be used to test a proposed standard of righteousness. So if anyone proposes standard of righteousness 'A' and is seen to be meeting 'A', then that proves that 'A' is incomplete or defective because it can be met by a human being. The suspicion is that instead of properly looking at an outside standard of righteousness and trying to conform their behavior to it, the proposer has looked at their behavior and come up with a standard of righteousness that conforms it.

Translated to a more secular context "self-righteousness" my be an accusation that a person is choosing a moral standard based on what comes easily or naturally to themselves. Or the accusation might also be that the utility some gains boasting about doing moral action 'X' and looking down on people who don't do moral action 'X' exceeds any utility they loose by doing 'X', so there is actually a self-interested motive for act 'X'.

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