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??????????????????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:

  • liberty
  • loyalty
  • authority
  • sanctity
  • harm
  • fairness.

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.

Looking Ahead

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.


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4 thoughts on “Our Moral Compass Is Turned Toward Self-Righteousness”

  1. John Alsdorf says:

    It’s significant that Haidt got into this research as an acknowledged liberal, wanting primarily to help his “side” argue more persuasively to the conservatives. What he discovered–that those with whom he disagreed had valid, albeit different, bases for their positions–led him to become more moderate and understanding. We too, as Christians, would benefit from being more aware that those with whom we disagree aren’t anywhere near as “evil” or ill-motivated as we tend to think.

  2. Curt Day says:

    There are some good points made in this post. For example, there is self-righteousness on the Left. I can say that because I am on the political Left. But by political Left, I don’t mean Obama and any of the Democrats. Rather, I mean those who oppose Capitalism. It frustrates me when people don’t understand the difference.

    I saw this self-righteousness at Occupy Wall Street. Not that all of the Occupy encampments were made up of Leftists, but the one at Zuccotti Park leaned that way. And one could easily see our self-righteousness in that we called for the 1% to be punished instead of trying to win them over. Our accusations against them were correct, but how we wanted them to be treated was wrong.

    The above is why we need to look for examples of how to approach causes with in a self-righteousness lite manner–not sure if any of us can actually eliminate all of our own self-righteouosness. And we can see that in those movements that sought to win over their opponents or, at the least, did not seek to dominate or humiliate their opponents. Such an example can be found in Martin Luther King Jr. who opposed ‘internal violence’ as much as he opposed ‘external violence.’ For King, internal violence was the violence of the spirit and was manifested in our attitudes and our words. Such an opposition is an admission of at least the ability to sin.

    We should expect self-righteousness to grow as group loyaly or even tribalism grows. For the more loyal we are to any particular group, the more likely we are to dismiss our group’s sins as a way to handle the dissonance between loyalty to group and our knowledge of right and wrong. This is where Trevin’s statement below comes into play the most:

    We are all self-righteous, and our self-justifying hearts go into attack mode every time we feel threatened, criticized, or condemned.

    One final point about this post, Trevin’s ability to both disagree with key components of the book he is reviewing and yet find significant areas of agreement is what is needed more and more in the Church. And it is also an example of a way to battle self-righteousness.

  3. Philmonomer says:

    Thanks for these thoughts. I look forward to the future posts on this book. In fact, I may re-read the book, as it has been a while since I first read it, and would like to be refreshed on it. One thought came to mind:

    I remember the book being largely descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, the book seeks to explain “why good people differ” over certain things, but doesn’t describe the way people should act, or what they should value. Well, to the extent it does this, it is within the context of how the left “should” talk in order to win more elections. I don’t particularly remember him saying that the “left should broaden their view of morality,” in the sense that the left should, in fact, value authority or sanctity more highly than it currently does, rather, it is that, in the sense, that, if the left wants to win more elections, this is what the right values and this is helpful information in how to “speak their language”–and the left “should” speak their language (again, to win elections).

    But that is merely my memory of the book. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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