Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Oh, the Irony: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Self-Righteousness

My Dear Reader,

I think the more time I spend in this world, the more I'm starting to understand that beyond the physical needs, like food, water, shelter, and oxygen; human beings have certain psychological needs. There's the need for community, companionship, etc., but I find that one of the needs that drives some of our most outrageous behavior is the human need for goodness. That is, we all have an overwhelming desire to feel like a good person.

Mostly, I think it's a very beneficial thing to the human race. We are constantly striving to be good; to be better. And we have standards that define what good and better are. Morals! We have morals!

Awesome, right?

The problem starts when the desire to be good conflicts with the thousands of other desires that we have. Despite our efforts to be good, we often find ourselves doing what is bad.

But, (un)luckily for us, we have a built-in loop hole. If the human psyche does not have what it needs to feel like a good person, it instead desires to feel like a good person in comparison to others. I think it's the way our brains justify the fact that we can never truly live up to our own standards. If we can't be perfect, we can at least be better than Suzie or Paul. So it's okay that we do X, because Suzie does Y, which is definitely worse. And Paul? Well, Paul does Z, which makes our X look like nothing, really. So we're fine.

The pursuit of righteousness is modified into the pursuit of self-righteousness. Problem solved.

This kind of behavior is self-defeating enough when we're comparing our sins to the sins of others, but when we start doing this with virtues, it just gets weird.

Like when somebody decides, for whatever reason, to leave ethical standards behind. Sometimes it's one specific standard, and sometimes it's all of them. And I mean, just deciding not to have standards is one thing, but most people seem incapable of doing just that. They don't abandon standards as much as they reject them. They decide that something in the system of ethics is unethical. And then, they not only reject their standards, they replace them with new ones. And the most bizarre part of it all is that the new standards generally have absolutely nothing to do with the old ones.

Confused? Allow me to clarify:

Let's say there's a person out there who's a little different than us. Maybe they're different physically. Or maybe they have a differences in opinions. Or maybe they're famous (somehow, that's all you need). And say that person decides that their different-ness means that they don't have to abide by all of those pesky standards that the majority of the common folk hold dear. They aren't the same, therefore they don't have to follow the same rules, and thus, they conclude, it is actually righteous for them to consider themselves an exception.

No, not an exception. Exceptional. Better.

And how are they better? Well, didn't you know? They found an ethical behavior that the rest of us missed. And they follow that ethical behavior so much better than the rest of us that it makes us look like barbarians.

And the truth is that usually it's not that we've missed that ethical behavior; we just don't care about it. It's such a low priority that it's just a blip on the average morality radar.

It's like saying that it doesn't really matter that Suzie pays her taxes and you don't; you're still better than she is because you always use your turn signal. Or that even though Paul is kind, you're better because you're a good speller. Where is the logic in that? The very fact that we need to justify ourselves proves that what we're doing is wrong, no matter what Suzie or Paul do.

I mean, there's probably a serial killer out there who pats himself on the back because he never forgets his reusable shopping bags. And maybe that self-righteousness he feels guides him in choosing his victims!

And while that's an extreme example, I think we all do a smaller version of this on a semi-regular basis.

And the true irony in it is that our desire for goodness has somehow made us completely forget what goodness is. Somehow, we've turned into people who care more about putting poor Suzie and Paul down than we care about living up to our own idea of morality.

You'd think we'd be smarter than that.

Regards, best wishes, and just leave Suzie and Paul alone, they've been through enough already, they forgot their reusable bags and that killer is on the loose,

-Cecily Jane


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just a little bit mo said...

I'm a bit late reading this post, but you are spot on. I read a comment on another girl's blog recently. Commenter 1 disagreed with commenter 2 on a moral standpoint by stating that commenter 2 was "brainwashed" and "unintelligent" for holding her views. Can't help but imagine commenter 1 patting herself on the back for being less brainwashed and more intelligent in her opposing moral stance...Just sayin'.

Nintendood said...

I concur with what you wrote here. The truth of it is that we all do things write and wrong, nobody is 100% on either side. Like our killer here, it is certainly commendable that he uses his reusable bags, but he has other issues. Most of us are not in the same field of extremity as he is, therefore (for the most part) it's none of our business what other people's good and bad attributes are.