Grist for the Moral Mill

Oscar Gordon

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget.

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27 Responses

  1. I agree. My only proviso–and maybe it’s more of an addendum than a proviso–is that almost all of us are at least sometimes self-righteous in the sense that the quote above indicates.Report

    • Two more addenda:

      1. It’s possible to be self-righteous about one’s opposition to self-righteousness.

      2. Self-righteousness, no matter how hypocritical, self-serving, or a prod to horrible behavior, is usually at least a little bit righteous, even from the standpoint of the one who criticizes the self-righteousness.

      I’m particularly guilty of #1, and I often fail to see the truth of #2. But I believe both addenda have merit.Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    Is there anyone who would describe themselves in these terms, though?

    Whether its a medieval cleric torturing a heretic, or a Air Force pilot dropping bombs on “terrorists” or a citizen voting for a politician who promises to rectify some injustice, no one ever sees themselves as self righteous, just righteous.

    But just as surely, there is no one who can escape being accused of self righteously applying a boot to the neck of someone else.

    The question for the philosopher is to create some sort of sifting mechanism that can distinguish between a righteous and unrighteous cause, and guide us towards some action that avoids unnecessary harm.Report

    • Perhaps a related question for the philosopher (or anyone else) would be: in what ways is any person being self-righteous and in what ways is that person being truly righteous?

      I frame it that way because I believe almost all of us are a combination of both in any given controversy that involves right and wrong.

      You’re right to say that honest introspection is hard. But it’s also not impossible. I have hope for that medieval cleric realizing the problems of his adventures with torture, or the air force pilot, or the voter.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      But just as surely, there is no one who can escape being accused of self righteously applying a boot to the neck of someone else.

      It’s worth noting, however, that such accusations are often utterly delusional. We see this, for example, in recent demands for student loan forgiveness, where people are insisting, with impressively straight faces, that they are being horribly, even spitefully, wronged by the requirement that they pay back the $30,000 in debt incurred for a degree associated with, on average, a $25,000 annual pay premium.

      On the other side, of course, you have people who believed that, e.g., the movement to legalize gay marriage was a malicious conspiracy to destroy the traditional nuclear family. Likely there are some more recent examples, though I’m not particularly up to date on the latest conservative nuttiness.Report

      • Urusigh in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        “On the other side, of course, you have people who believed that, e.g., the movement to legalize gay marriage was a malicious conspiracy to destroy the traditional nuclear family.”

        It was, though that is more of a side effect, the primary aims was to push traditional Christianity out of the Overton Window by manufacturing a way to label its members as “bigots”. It was further supported by those who wanted to remove physical sex and reproduction as the conceptual basis for marriage.

        Easy way to check the theory though, since gay marriage was forced on society:
        Has the overall rate of marriage increased or decreased? Decreased.
        Has the rate of single parenthood outside of marriage increased or decreased? Increased.
        Have average family sizes (including number of grandparents, children, and other relatives sharing a household) increased or decreased? Decreased.
        Given those priors, has the prevalence and strength of the traditional nuclear family increased or decreased? Decreased.
        Precisely what conservatives predicted would happen, has happened. I think that, at minimum, requires that you present an actual argument based on facts, not blithely dismiss an accurate prediction.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Urusigh says:

          1) Show your data.
          2) Make sure your data extends back past the SCOTUS decision (IIRC, all your stats were already trending that way due to mostly economic conditions, rather than social ones).Report

  3. George Turner says:

    That meshes with this:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ― C. S. Lewis

    I would say that one of the distinguishing features of totalitarian tyranny, as distinguished from run-of-the-mill tyranny such as you might have with a monarchy, is that king’s didn’t think they needed to order every aspect of people’s lives. They didn’t have to bother with caring about the peasants, much less think that all of humanity will fall if the peasants didn’t sort their paper from their plastic.

    It also reminds me of an observation about American moral crusaders and activists. Modern American activists often go abroad and lecture Africans or Guatemalans about feminism or environmentalism or whatnot, while apologizing for the previous generation of American activists who’d been there preaching free markets or industrial development, who decried the previous generation of American activists who’d been there preaching anti-communism, who decried the previous generation of American activists who’d been preaching anti-colonialism, who decried the previous generation of American activists who’d been there preaching the gospels and converting people. What they will never do is stop going to third wold countries preaching at people they regard as needing the sage wisdom of whatever activist fad just swept through Boston, Denver, or Portland, so that no one, however poor, is deprived of our latest moral revelations.Report

  4. Doctor Jay says:

    Maybe this is a good time to recall the observation that most moral reasoning by most people is carried out afterwards. Which makes it more than a little suspicious.Report

  5. greginak says:

    I agree with this and GC’s addendum. I think an even greater challenge to face is still maintaining moral beliefs and standing up for them without excessive or harmful self righteousness. The answer to being self righteous can’t be to have no beliefs or to stand silent when faced with bad behavior. Some self righteousness is inevitable when you stand up for a cause. Of course your opponents will be exquisitely sensitive to your own self righteousness and the people who agree with you wont’ see it. In the end we need to try to avoid being overly SR and review ourselves but still stand for something. A bit of self righteousness is not much of a problem as long as you dont’ fall into the hole of wanting to put the boot into the other side.Report

    • George Turner in reply to greginak says:

      I’ll suggest a scale that we should populate, for a start, with:

      Amish or Buddhists
      Southern Baptist revival preachers
      Climate activists
      Antifa activists

      Or perhaps it should be a two-dimensional graph with the sincerity and passion of the beliefs on the X axis and how evangelical, preachy, or confrontational the people are on the Y axis. Then we can have fun trying to place various types of people, such as vegans, closeted gay Republican congressmen, Instagrammers who push kale smoothies, vegans, joggers, Tesla owners, etc.Report

      • Urusigh in reply to George Turner says:

        I think it’s actually more useful to simply plot groups on an axis of deontological to consequentialist. With deontologists that first idea is inherently false and the 2nd can be universally prohibited (i.e. “Thou shalt not kick a man when he’s down” can be agreed upon as a moral imperative.) How self-righteous they are is then largely irrelevant because you can credibly accuse them of hypocrisy if they do either of those two things.

        With consequentialists there’s no such guarantee because idea #1 is basically a restatement of their entire moral philosophy and idea #2 is only dependent on whether the result of “putting the boot in” is counterproductive to their “righteous” goal or not. You can’t actually have a moral argument with them about these because for them #1 is an a priori axiom and #2 is empirically-determined.

        So if you want to reduce these behaviors you can’t do it at the level of moral argument itself. You need to first shift the guilty parties into using a deontological moral framework before you can then debate what the moral rules should be and where specific actions fall in regard to those rules.Report

  6. InMD says:

    I think what’s really at issue is less self righteousness in itself and more a void of humility. There’s a nasty little feedback loop in our culture that rewards self righteousness and we’re all susceptible to it. Most people though I believe see their self righteousness as courage to call a spade a spade, which is also a good thing when its merited. Self righteousness happens when someone lacks humility thereby also losing the perspective to actually or convincingly call a spade a spade.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    I have always been impressed by people who have had a transformational experience and concluded that they need to change their own lives.

    I am exceptionally unimpressed by people who have had a transformational experience and concluded that I need to change mine.Report

  8. JoeSal says:

    The leviathan isn’t about grace it’s about brutality. Get used to the boot in the room.Report

  9. Having read the whole thing, I have a couple more observations.

    The author leads off with a claim that the temptation to self-righteousness is inherently human. Per my comments above, I don’t have a quarrel with that.

    The author partly frames his critique of self-righteousness as something that indicates lack of maturity, something that’s inherently adolescent and needs to be grown out of. I have some quarrel with that framing. If he means that a mark of maturity and wisdom is to eschew the worst temptations to self-righteousness (maybe not completely…as Greginak seems to say above, if I read him right, a little self-righteousness is or can be a good thing), then I agree. But if he means to say that self-righteousness can be outgrown or that self-righteous people, like the two he criticizes in the post, are “acting like children,” then that seems to let himself off the hook and use a not very convincing tactic of name calling. Maybe I’m being unfair, but that’s something I get from his post. (To be sure, I liked it a lot, but that aspect bothered me.)Report

  10. CJColucci says:

    I am righteous.

    You are self-righteous.Report

  11. Oscar Gordon says:

    Two points:

    1) Self righteousness is not necessarily bad. But it is an abyss, and if you stare too long into that abyss… If you are so certain of your righteousness that you lose the ability to have empathy or compassion* for others who disagree with you, and/or you lose the ability to see that you are being just as horrible to them as you accuse them of being to others, then you have a problem.

    2) Staying back from the abyss requires humility, which is a marker of maturity. So as to Gabriel’s point, yes, those who are so utterly convinced of the rightness of their position are being immature. I mean, we even have an old joke about, about how teenagers should wake up, move out of their parents home, etc while they still know everything! Or the saying (& I think I am paraphrasing) ““Only idiots are confident in their opinions. It requires a great amount of wisdom and knowledge to be uncertain.”

    People who are so utterly certain of their opinion that they feel justified in being horrible to those who disagree with them, who lack the humility that comes with experience and maturity, are, by definition, immature. Are they not?

    *Compassion and empathy are in that class of concepts that are intrinsic to you, and not dependent upon the acts of others. If you only have empathy or compassion for those who are empathic or compassionate toward you, you don’t really have empathy or compassion, you just aren’t a raging asshole.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      The social justice theologians have wrestled with these issues for quite a while, going all the way back to the Just War theory.

      One of the salient points they make is that the Righteous course of action requires debate and consensus-building among many people.

      It isn’t enough to have a moral revelation that something is wrong; It isn’t enough to marshal facts and logic to prove the point; There needs to be a wide and honest discussion where many different points of view are brought to bear so as to weed out erroneous or biased opinions and to challenge people to see things from another’s viewpoint.

      And even then, there is an implicit admission that this too might fail.

      Which is where I think the posted thoughts are true, but trivially so; They imply that knowing the difference between righteousness and self righteousness is easily discovered and obvious.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        I agree, the difference is not obvious, nor is it, I think, always consistent (a person could be overly self-righteous about one or two things, and exhibit a healthy humility with regard to everything else).

        I also can’t help but wonder how much of the self-righteousness is fed by echo chambers and the disconnect from the targets of ire. Their ideological opponents are just archetypes, not living people whose humanity they never have to come to terms with.

        That said, I still hold that if you’ve lost the ability to have empathy or compassion for an ideological other, especially if you would not normally have such a problem, then perhaps you’ve gone too far down that road and you need to step back.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      This is fine for those in relative safety. And indeed, we can look back and respect the person who “loved their enemy” even while their enemy gassed them, but why should we do that?

      I’m very suspicious of people who haven’t suffered oppression, but who admire those who did so graciously. Sure, grace is a wonderful thing, but it just seems a bit convenient. To me it reeks of “niceness” over justice.

      No matter how noble they seemed, they still got gassed. Or they got whipped to death. Or their children were taken away.

      We will do these things again in the future, and yes, here in America. Should I hope the victims are gracious as they suffer?

      Sure, John Brown would probably score high on “self righteous,” but dammit he was right. Perhaps “self righteous” isn’t really a useful metric.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to veronica d says:

        I can concede that there is a rather significant exception, for those who have suffered real harm at the end of ideological opposition. People who advocate for the oppression of others aren’t just expressing an ideological difference, they are demanding that either the government exercise force in support of their ideology, or they want the government to turn a blind eye to their exercise of force.

        If Saul and Lee piped up and said that they will dance a jig when they hear Richard Spencer has shuffled off his mortal coil, I wouldn’t think any less of them, nor would I suggest they are self-righteous.

        But if someone told me that I was evil and should die in a fire because I think Hayek had it right and Keynes was a hack, then perhaps someone needs to take a step back.

        Like I suggested above, the boundaries of such things are not always clear, and in any given case, we need to ask, “Is this a thing where people are truly being horrible*, or simply strongly disagreeing?”

        *Or advocating for the right to be horrible without sanction.Report

        • veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          There are a lot of people for whom, when they finally shake their mortal coil, I shall be quite pleased.


          There is a tendency to abstract everything away. For example, it’s very popular among Quillette/rationalist-sphere for folks to compare themselves to the intellectual freedom fighters of the past. But are they?

          Leonid Kantorovich discovered linear programming long before Dantzig did. However, he discovered it in the Soviet Union, and thus faced endless hurdles to present his ideas. So much rested not on mathematical truth, but instead on political nonsense among the authoritarian dickpimples in Moscow. In other words, just presenting an optimization algorithm, even its most abstract form, entailed political risk.

          Notice this occurred in the home of central planning, which strikes me as ironic somehow.

          By contrast, the Quillette crowd is upset that they cannot say black people are stupid. At least, they are upset they cannot say it without consequence.

          Shall we compare those things? They seem different to me, even if both groups know linear algebra.

          “We’re fighting for intellectual freedom!” they shout.

          But nah. They’re fighting for something terrible. It’s plain to see.


          We have to let people disagree on economics. After all, anyone who pretends to be certain about economics is a person who doesn’t understand complex systems. Regarding things like economics, we should distrust the purists and trust a tiny bit more those who seem skilled at “muddling through.”

          However, there are many things unlike economics. For example, the belief that gay people are “degenerate” — even if someone backs their bigotry with charts. (See elsewhere in this thread.) In the latter case, we really are dealing with a bigot. Such people at least should be mocked and shunned.

          As far as I can tell, you (Oscar) don’t have a racist bone in your body, nor a sexist bone, nor a homophobic bone. This is why your “economic conservatism” doesn’t bother me, whereas I have pretty much zero patience with the Quillette crowd. They’re reactionaries with a thesaurus. You’re not.

          It’s really that simple. Values are important. Justice matters. The strong protect the weak. Some people really are monsters. Sometimes you have to fight them.Report