Everybody suffers from it…except me, of course. Well, I sometimes get up on my high horse about gas-guzzling SUV’s, but that’s different. I’m right, and I am just trying to help out all those poor deluded people who don’t get it. Even when I ascend the pulpit and thunder, “Repent, ye wastrels!” That’s not self righteousness. Of course not!
Here’s a definition from the dictionary:
“Confident of one’s own righteousness, esp. when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.”
Usually, the term refers to people who lecture others about morals or faith, but it applies equally to politics, choice of automobile models, or even physical fitness and food choices. Any subject that is dominated by opinion rather than facts or logic has its self righteous advocates. Self righteousness is often accompanied by complete ignorance of facts or logic.
Humans seem to have this “need” to impose their views on others, either through persuasion or, sadly, often by force. The Crusades and the Inquisition are examples of the terrible results of self righteousness from the distant past. Religions, by their very nature, are self righteous. The followers of every single one of them believe that theirs is the only “right” one, and that everyone else is in a hand basket headed for you-know-where.
As the definition above notes, self righteousness is intolerant. One need only read the Bible or the Koran to be inundated with lurid and gory descriptions of the fate awaiting nonbelievers. This is reflected in the actions of some of the truly devout believers, who can be driven to commit crimes in the passion of their self righteousness.
Others attempt to use their influence to impose their beliefs on everyone else through political action. Without self righteousness, the issues of contraception, first trimester abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage would not even be discussed in our politics.
The opposite of self righteousness is best articulated by the expression, “Live and let live.” The underlying principle here is tolerance: I can hold whatever beliefs I wish on issues of morality or faith, but what others do is none of my concern as long as it does not harm me. If I am a devout Bible-reading Christian, I am not harmed by the married gay couple who live next door. It does not threaten my conventional heterosexual marriage in any way. But the self righteous deny this obvious fact. When asked for a reason, they quote Leviticus or Deuteronomy from the Old Testament of the Bible.
Islamist terrorists have carried self righteousness to the ultimate extreme, deliberately murdering innocent people whose only “crime” is unbelief in the Koran. But Christian fundamentalists aren’t much better, actively promoting conflict in the Middle East in hopes of hastening the End Times, of Armageddon and the Apocalypse. Islam has similar teachings. Self righteousness has within it the seeds of our own annihilation.
I do not know what can be done about this unfortunate, but all too human trait, but we had better make an effort to outgrow it, or at least control it if we wish to survive as a species.