Are The Self-Righteous Righteous?

Righteous:  upright, moral, justified.
Self-righteous:  confident of being righteous.

Righteous is positive, while self-righteous is negative.  Yet shouldn’t we expect a correlation on average between how righteous someone is and how righteous they think they are?  Sure it is bad to be over-confident in one’s righteousness, but could we be so bad at estimating our righteousness that people who think they are more righteous than average are in fact less righteous than average?  How could this be unless we had almost no ability to evaluate the morality of our actions?  And if we were this morally blind, why bother to consider morality, as our acts would on average be just as moral if we ignored it?

Yesterday’s Washington Post suggests there is in fact no correlation, because of some very arrogant very immoral people:

When two researchers recently asked people whether they felt they were moral, and then asked whether they would ever cheat on a test, those who said they were the least likely to cheat turned out to be the same ones who had the strongest conviction that they were moral. No surprise there.  But when the researchers looked at the group who said they were the most likely to cheat, they found to their surprised that this group, too, had strong convictions that they were moral. Those who lacked a strong sense that they were moral tended to be iffy about whether they would cheat. …

People with exceptionally strong convictions about their moral goodness are likely to follow extreme courses of action because they can convince themselves that whatever they do is good. When the right course of action is ambiguous … such people are likely to gravitate to opposite ends of a range of behaviors. When there is wide social consensus that something is wrong, they tend to conform to social norms.

When the researchers tested their hypothesis on managers who were asked to make a judgment call involving a conscientious employee who needed to go home early one day, they found that the managers who believed most strongly that they were good people came to extreme conclusions: They either let the employee off for the rest of the day with full pay, or insisted the employee stay and work full hours. The managers who did not think they were particularly good people tended to reach moderate conclusions: They had the employee finish some work and then leave early.

More here.

Added 8Nov: On reflection, the simplest explanation here is just that bragging is a bad sign.

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  • It’s tricky, isn’t it, because what the people who cheated presumably have a list of reasons for why they did what they did. It seems there are lots of generally accepted ethical rules of thumb, yet heroes often break rules. Perhaps I’m falling into a fiction bias, but this seems sensible to me.

    For example, if you believe reasonably that many people in class cheat successfully, and beat you for a spot in a university, wouldn’t it be reasonable to consider cheating? Otherwise non-cheaters fall and cheaters rise.

    Perhaps self-righteousness is bad because moral problems are often gray area problems, and self-righteouness in a person means he or she lack the ability to sensibly break rules when the context warrants it.

  • How could this be unless we had almost no ability to evaluate the morality of our actions?
    Seems likely to me. Can you ever show that someone is of lesser ability in that department than you? I do not know of any tests for moral aptitude, as there are for, say, mathematical ability.

    And if we were this morally blind, why bother to consider morality, as our acts would on average be just as moral if we ignored it?
    A possibility. At this very blog it was pointed out that ethics textbooks are stolen more than average.

    Assuming for the sake of argument that some things are morally better or worse than others, isn’t it possible that the extreme courses of actions are both superior to the moderate ones? What reason do we have to expect moral monotonicity?

    We consider the self-righteous bad because being different from us, we disagree with them on some things. We value our own strength in our convictions, but not so much that of others who believe different things than us. If someone both had strong convictions and agreed with us we would likely not call attention to their self-righteousness as they would be firm rather than obstinate or a pig-headed fool. The righteous are those whose behavior we like.

  • The following old trope seems to me to be true in my experience: Righteousness is not opposed to humor, but self-righteousness is (except when something nasty is said about an enemy, when laughter is not only permissible but mandatory). This suggests a genuine difference of cognitive mechanism – you can project the two quantities onto a graph, but what’s really going on involves underlying structural differences.

    I am willing to hear that this was tested and found to be false, since I am using anecdotal recall.

  • Doug S.
  • joe

    Why should we believe that their responses to their survey are an accurate reflection of how moral they truly believe they are? You are, however, measuring how moral they will report themselves to be, and who would report that that they are immoral, even if they are confident of response anonymity. Perhaps we are not so much bad at estimating our own righteousness as we are guilty of not wanting to admit to others that we are immoral.

    Another definite possibility is different definitions of morality. Some people see actions which do not negatively affect other people as not being immoral, like a victimless crime, or at least they don’t see how an action could negatively affect another person. Is someone immoral if they are not intelligent enough to see how their actions could affect someone else negatively? They are surely different from those who know the consequences of their actions but don’t care. Anyway, cheating on an exam may or may not classify as an immoral action in their own definition of morality, but in either case, it is surely not aggegious enough of an offense to shift their perception of their own morality.

  • I wonder if it would be possible to define a class of ‘ego biases’. I’m reminded of the well circulated article “Unskilled and Unaware of It”. Some biases help us insulate our minds from moral struggles and other insolvable problems that we would rather not think about on a daily basis. These same biases help us maintain a positive self-image, which is invaluable.

  • Laura

    I don’t think we necessarily object to people “being confident of being righteous” as the definition of “self-righteous” would suggest. Rather I think the condescending attitude that “self-righteous” people sometimes assume, and the shrillness with which they proclaim the obviousness of their righteousness is what is bothersome. It is not that self-righteous people are certain that they are righteous, but that they try to use the obviousness of their moral righteousness as evidence in determining what we should do instead of carefully explaining a logical argument. “People in Africa are starving so we should send them aid, and if you don’t want to send them aid, then that’s tantamount to murder, and you’re a bad person. My intentions are pure because I donate all of my disposable income to charity so I am good and whatever I say we should do will be good…” Instead of arguing why the option is the best one among many, it is merely the right one.

  • outeast

    A propos of Laura’s comment, my SOED (consistent with my own usage of the expression, and with the claim that this is a negatiove trait) defines ‘self-righteous’ as excessively conscious of or insistent on one’s own righteosness.

  • “For example, if you believe reasonably that many people in class cheat successfully, and beat you for a spot in a university, wouldn’t it be reasonable to consider cheating? Otherwise non-cheaters fall and cheaters rise.”

    And if you become one more cheater-on-the-rise, how does that keep non-cheaters from falling? You’ve only become what you wanted to overcome. 🙂

  • As to the original question, it does depend on if you’re talking RELATIVE righteousness or ABSOLUTE righteousness. (In neither case will humility deny the obvious).

  • Samir Nurmohamed

    Thanks for the link on the ‘Ego Biases’ article – I’d love to see more on this subject.

  • Doug S.
  • Self Righteousness

    The Overcoming Bias site has posted an interesting article on Self Righteousness. They make several interesting points:

  • Denise M.

    Two comments on those cheating on tests being self defined as moral:
    First, someone who’s going to cheat on a test will be deceptive in an interview.
    Second, many define ethics by two methods, what’s right and wrong in the abstract and then, a second definition, when it’s beneficial to redefine wrong as right if it’s in one’s favor.

  • Mary Stewart

    I’d appreciate feedback on this example:
    How about the self-righteous person who feels they have strong morals and profess a strong faith in God, yet they’re unable to speak directly to a coworker they detest? I wonder how self-righteous anyone can be when they don’t have the courage to deal directly with those they oppose but prefer to spread negative comments about them to unknowing outsiders?

  • i have an aqaintencehow thinks she knows everything their is to know But no, she is very slow on just regular stuff like reading writing etc. So all i am saying is that she trys to she presents herself as knowing a lot about the bible none of us can know page to page of the bible words and mysteries of God who createdthe world and all thats in amen.

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  • Greg

    Self righteous people are hypocrites and arrogant narcissists. Things go their way. But when life gets very bad, these people are not flexible. They become destructive…either on themselves, on others, or both.

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  • Brian

    No matter how right someone is or people are; self righteousness is usually the source of the worlds ills. A balanced view is less malignant in general, even if wrong. Being right isn’t always important.