The Perils of Self Righteousness

Posted by A.C. Ping
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We all love to right, right? And it can be painful to be wrong, humiliating even? Righteousness compels us to stand up for what we believe in and is associated with being courageous. See Martin Luther King Jnr.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King Jnr.

Or John Paul Mellencamp,

“If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything.”


“Let the word go forth… let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price… to ensure the survival of liberty.”
John F. Kennedy, 26th January 1961

Or Robert Kennedy (1966),

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal,
or acts to improve the lot of others,
or strikes out against injustice,
he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope
and crossing each other from a million
different centres of energy and daring,
those ripples build a current that can
sweep down the mightiest walls of
oppression and resistance.”

But is there a difference between being courageous and standing up for what you believe in and being so pig headed and self-righteous that you are willing to violate the very values you ‘say’ you believe in just to prove a point – or in simple speak – to cut off your nose despite your face?

There’s a few things in play here – firstly there are Values – Values are the things that you believe in that give meaning to life, things like freedom, truth, fairness, equality. The thing about Values is that we aspire to live them but most often we fail to actually deliver. For example, most of us would aspire to live by the Value of honesty but most – if not all - of us have told a lie. So, our Values live in the future as aspirational states of being.

Then there are beliefs about how you think the world works, what is right and wrong, and the way things actually are. These tend to be absolutist things like – either you believe in God or you don’t.

Then there are stories about who we think we are and how we describe the world to ourselves – especially the past – because we need to be able to make sense of what has happened in the past to be able to reconcile our current reality. The who we think we are part is bound up in what’s called ‘Self Identity Theory’ and part of this is our ‘Moral Self Identity’ – in other words how we see ourselves as a good or a bad person. For example a priest is likely to see themselves as a good moral person whereas a thief is likely to see themselves as a bad person.

Now the tricky bit is how these three things mix together – Aspirational Values, Beliefs and Stories.

You’d think that someone with a high Moral Self Identity would be least likely to do bad things but you might be surprised to know that the more tightly you are attached to your Moral Self Identity – the more likely you are to be self-righteous and the more likely you are to use justifications that enable you to do bad things without having to reassess your own view of yourself as a good person – oops…

Check out the graph below 


You see aspirations live in the Future, stories and who we believe we are live in the Past. Someone who has a strongly held view of who they are will fight to defend that view by telling a supportive story that leaves them in the position of being RIGHT – hence self-righteousness.

Complicated huh? What makes it even more complicated is that we have an inherent self-serving bias which leads us to perceptual blindness – in other words we see what we wish to see in order to support our fixed view of the World.

A ‘supportive story’ then won’t be based on all the facts, it will be based on a selective view of the World and will justify why the action needed to be taken and why it is fair. Some moral justifications for doing things however, actually neutralise the very Values that we say we aspire to up hold. There are seven common ones:-
-    It’s not my responsibility (e.g. Nazi Germany “I was just following orders”)
-    It’s not hurting anyone (e.g. Graffiti)
-    They deserved it (e.g. Israel v Palestine)
-    Condemning the condemners (e.g. “If you think I’m bad you should see them”)
-    Appeal to higher loyalties (e.g. I did it for Family, Country, God…)
-    Everyone else is doing it so I had no choice (e.g. bribes in developing countries)
-    I deserve it (e.g. “I’ve worked back for the last two weeks so I deserve to take whatever stationary I want”)

Now this article is about Self Righteousness so let’s put it all into perspective – the more attached you are to being RIGHT, the more willing you will be to use these justifications which neutralise morals, to ensure that at least in your own mind (and maybe to your supporters) you remain RIGHT.

Good for you :)

However, in your determination to be RIGHT you may have violated the very Values that you aspire to uphold and in doing so have well and truly trapped yourself in the Past and closed the door to creating the possible Future you want – go figure? – and all because you are determined to be RIGHT…


Right/Wrong thinking traps us in the Past and holds us in an ever spiralling cycle of ego based conflict.

If you find yourself in this cycle try reframing by asking better questions – What is it that you actually want? What do you need to do to create this? What do you need to let go of to allow you to move forwards?

Most importantly – as hard as it may be sometimes it’s incredibly empowering to be able to simply say “I’m sorry”.

In peace and love always.

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