Say “self-righteous” and people are likely to think of super-spiritual religious person who looks down on everyone else for their failure to attain the same standard of holiness. There’s the persnickety church lady, or the condescending attitude of a conservative elitist, or the aggressive Facebook commenter who specializes in snide remarks.
But what if we’re so used to seeing self-righteousness on the right that we’re blinded to the self-righteousness of the left?
And what if we are so good at smelling self-righteousness in others that we miss the stench coming from ourselves?
Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion provides a crash course in the psychology of human morality. Haidt believes human nature is not just intrinsically moral, but also “moralistic, critical, and judgmental” (xix). In other words, “an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition” (xx).
In other words, we all default to self-righteousness.
People on the left are just as obsessed with their righteous pursuits as people on the right, and no matter what side you take, you’re likely to find a tribe that will reinforce your own “rightness.” No wonder our political process so often sinks into a quagmire of competing agendas! We all think our cause is righteous, and the other side is sinister.
3 Principles to Remember
Haidt offers three principles of moral psychology to help us understand why decent, upstanding neighbors and citizens can be so bitterly divided when it comes to religion and politics.
1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning; the elephant is the other 99 percent of our mental processes that actually govern our behavior.
Because we are led first by intuition rather than reasoning, we are quick to believe conspiracy theories and outlandish tales, as long as they comport with our understanding of the world. We judge first, and then we look for (or invent!) arguments that back up our moral judgments.
Reason isn’t the determinative factor in our moral considerations; reason is the reinforcement for our moral intuitions.
2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
Haidt compares the righteous mind to a tongue with six taste receptors:
Politicians on the right tend to activate more of the receptors, while politicians on the left focus on harm and fairness as the dominant moral considerations. Haidt thinks the left should broaden their view of morality so that it encompasses more aspects.
3. Morality binds and blinds.
Once we’ve developed reasons for our moral intuitions, we look for people who share the same moral sensibilities. Haidt explains:
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds” (xxiii).
The binding and blinding aspect of morality explains how rational, morally literate people are able to participate in generous acts of charity and altruism as well as horrifying acts of war and genocide.
The Self-Righteous Mind
As a Christian, I don’t buy into Haidt’s evolutionary assumptions or his rejection of a universal morality that transcends culture. But I find aspects of his study of human morality that back up what Scripture teaches: the human heart’s default mode is self-justification – a desire to put forth our own righteousness in order to maintain our standing before God and others.
We are all self-righteous, and our self-justifying hearts go into attack mode every time we feel threatened, criticized, or condemned.
Recognizing the inherent self-righteousness in the human heart, Christians, more than anyone else, should display a greater measure of humility when interacting with people who have radically different assumptions about what is right and wrong and why it matters. We expect others to be self-righteous because we’ve seen this superior spirit so often in ourselves.
The gospel doesn’t close down conversations between people who disagree; it makes them possible. It diagnoses our self-righteous tendencies and offers a breath of fresh humility into our polarized conversations.
Over the next few weeks, I will draw on Haidt’s work as I offer some reflections on the polarization between Republicans and Democrats and between conservative and progressive churches on some of the more pressing issues of our day.