This article was originally published in the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness blog in January 2021. Republished with kind permission from the author.
The alarming circumstances we’re living in – a global pandemic claiming millions of lives, the resurgence of overt racism and rollback of civil rights protections resulting in civil unrest, an insurrection against the US government – has many of us thinking about what is right and wrong in the world. Most of us understand the importance of doing good and standing up for what is just, but how might we discern being “upright” from being self-righteous?
The unfolding of events of the last several years have provided additional evidence that there is a cost to standing idly by when great harms are being committed. Antisocial sentiments and actions don’t just automatically take care of themselves when left unaddressed. Self-serving and other-harming attitudes and behavior tend to create a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering. Not only is this what many of us know in our hearts to be true, but this pattern is observable in the record of human history and corroborated through a long list of social science experiments.
Both self-righteousness and genuine integrity are linked to morals, which are merely personal standards of behavior – what we deem is right and wrong for us to think, say and do. Individuals and cultures have different ideas of what is moral and amoral. In addition, when a judgment is likely to reflect badly upon us, fairly or unfairly, we have a tendency to blame the messenger. Despite these complexities, history and research show that upholding moral standards is crucially important to a healthy functioning society. A number of interesting studies have demonstrated that expression of moral boundaries promotes cooperation, interpersonal trust, and generosity that benefits us all. Scientific American writer Rob Willer cautions, “…while we may fear the judgments of our peers, we should fear more an anonymized world where they were impossible, as this would be a social reality where cooperation is tentative, trust rarely extended, and acts of benevolence harder to find.”
When I was in primary school, it was widely considered uncool to be seen as a person who earned good grades – especially if one appeared to care about academic performance and made obvious effort. Those who did so were disdained as “nerds” (way before nerd chic was a thing). This had real consequences that can be seen in the devaluing of science and expertise. Today we seem to be trending toward a disdain of morality. Some now consider upholding morals to be “elitist” or “whiney” and the label “woke” is increasingly used as an insult. In some ways this is understandable given the level of hypercriticism and hypocrisy we’ve been exposed to through the media. But just as being “holier than thou” is an unhelpful extreme, so is the condemnation of morality. We are seeing the negative consequences of this backlash unfolding before our very eyes.
How might we discern self-righteousness from standing for what is “right”?
No matter what topic I write about, again and again I come back to the wisdom of balance. Differentiating the sanctimonious from sincere depends quite a bit upon how much “self” is included in the mix and to what degree we feel we are “right” and others are “wrong”. Our mindfulness practice can help us examine the true intentions behind our expressions of moral boundaries. Self-righteousness elevates the self above others – are we concerned about our own reputation? Do we fear censure? Does cutting others down promise us a place on a pedestal? Self-righteousness is intolerant of other views – are we making space for different perspectives? Have we truly listened to and considered what others have to say or are we merely bulldozing ahead with our own version of truth? When we pay close attention, we often discover that the superficial reward of feeling “above it all” comes at the painful cost of cutting ourselves off from our common humanity, without whom we cannot truly thrive.
Is there an antidote to self-righteousness?
According to Jack Kornfield, “The first step is simply to not hate” – to put it more broadly, to resist the urge to other. We can start by recognizing that our anger comes from a deeper truth of caring – that we care very much about the world, its inhabitants, and our place within it. We can also reflect upon our common humanity – that we’re all susceptible to error (ignorance and delusion – though the details may be different) and this shared human frailty causes suffering. By acknowledging our own human vulnerability, we equalize ourselves with others, develop a greater sense of humility, and deepen our feeling of belonging within a wider web of existence. Finally, we can make a vow to do whatever we can to stop the suffering we see around us – or at the very least, to not contribute to it. We will all make mistakes and at times drift into self-righteousness, but we should not let this deter us. Doing our best to be mindfully aware when this happens, we can offer a sincere apology and learn from our mistakes. Finally, we can take courage from the lessons of our ancestors and the revelations of science showing us that the benefits of being an upstander far outweigh the risks.
To us all towns are our own, everyone is our kin,
Life’s good comes not from others’ gifts, nor ill,
Pains and pain’s relief are from within,
Death’s no new thing, nor do our bosoms thrill
When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o’er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho’ storms with lightning’s flash from darkened skies
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise!
We marvel not at the greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate.
– Kaniyan Poongundran, Purananuru (Adapted from translation by G.U.Pope, 1906)
Everett, J, Pizarro, DA, & Crockett, M (2016). Inference of Trustworthiness from Intuitive Moral Judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General Forthcoming.
Simpson, B. et al. (2017). The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in Groups. Sci. Rep. 7, 42844.