Sounding Off: Self-righteousness is never an excuse to throw away other morals 

If one feels their moral compass is correct, they assume that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. If all of those who disagree with the overly self-righteous person are wrong, then that person might be inclined to feel that they can use whatever means necessary to convince others of “the truth.” Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

When discussing the actions of countries both today and throughout history, perceived moral high ground often comes into play. Over 100 years ago, former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson uttered this now famous quote: 

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We see no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.” 

The philosophies that this quote both was inspired by and itself inspired have been scrutinized over the years since Wilson uttered it, specifically with respect to the U.S.’ place in the world. Whenever this country takes strong action somewhere in the world, with the justification of playing “world police,” there is always at least some contingent of people that disagrees about whether the U.S. has a right to mettle in such a way. 

Now, I’d certainly consider myself to be amongst that contingent — I don’t think that simply saying that “we have no selfish ends to serve” and marching off to save the world justifies all of the actions the U.S. has taken — but this is not an article critiquing U.S. foreign policy; instead, I want to examine something that is much more of a microcosm of that: individual self-righteousness. 

It’s very easy to look at a subject as large as the U.S. and point out the flaws, but when looking introspectively, it’s a bit harder. When one truly feels that they know themself and they decide that they are intrinsically a good person who falls on the right side of a certain issue, it becomes very easy to make a few assumptions: First, if one feels that their moral compass is correct, they will assume that anyone who does not agree with them is wrong. Second, if all of those who disagree with the overly self-righteous person are wrong, then that person might be inclined to feel that they can use whatever means necessary to convince others of “the truth.” 

This is a very Machiavellian way to view the world, and it’s also a very simplified one. A person having tunnel-vision that only allows them to see things as absolute good or absolute bad is dangerous. By ignoring the inevitable gray areas of life, one can easily become oblivious to the fact that some of their actions fall squarely in that gray area. 

I am certainly guilty of this at times, I’ve gotten so engrossed in an idea that some injustice in my life needs to be dealt with, that I’ve forgotten to check my self-righteousness at the door. When this happens, it’s very easy for me to do things I’ll regret later, and whether or not the end is achieved often becomes irrelevant, as the gray area behavior becomes a problem in and of itself. 

In short, there is always room for nuance, whether one is running the most powerful country in the world or just trying to navigate everyday life. Problems can have more than one right answer, and while often some ends require more work to get to than others, these are usually the ones that minimize the amount of collateral damage done. Thoughtfulness and the ability to see through a wide scope are essential skills, because while stating that one has “no selfish ends to serve” is very easy to say into a mirror, where no one can disagree, there may be many with valid opinions that don’t share the same viewpoint. 

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