The Evil That Is Self-Righteousness & Why It Is Better To Pretend It Does Not Exist

Updated: Jul 22

To be kind is a quality admired, aspired, and inspired by many. It is the ability to give freely without expecting a return, whether it be a comforting smile, a needed embrace, or a helping hand. It is no secret that an individual labeled as 'kind' is openly applauded in society, a trait that, if not possessed by another individual, results in a response that is ironically the opposite in nature; self-righteousness.

Self-Righteousness - the unfounded certainty that one is morally superior, is a motivator of kind actions and yet a negator of the true essence of those actions. When stating kindness is doing something without expecting a return, self-righteousness expects that return in the form of moral high ground. Some of the defining acts of self-righteousness are performing actions with the intent of establishing an unspoken power imbalance or repeatedly mentioning the act in an attempt to bring down the person it is done for.

An example of self-righteousness, which is so prevalent in today's society but often goes unrecognized, is publicizing one's kind acts through different media under the delusion of encouraging those same acts. Youtubers, celebrities, and other social media influencers often post their generosity and kindness to appear 'holier than thou' when the essence remains that if they were truly holier than us, they would not need to prove their righteousness. When criticized, they defend their behavior by arguing that it is to encourage others to follow and repeat these acts of kindness. However, they don't realize the humiliation that those on the receiving end of their 'kindness' may face since their needs and helplessness are being broadcasted to the world.

Another instance of self-righteous acts becoming a source of insecurity for others is the parading of animals intended for sacrifice around the time of Eid ul Adha. Sacrifice, an act that in its essence is so righteous and humbling, is compromised when the animals are shown off in grand settings, their price tags hanging off their necks in an attempt to put a value on the act of piousness. It is a value much greater than most people's incomes and would tell the onlookers that those parading the animals are more pious and definitely more righteous than them.

However, self-righteousness does not end with the belief that " one is more likely to do good than others." It also includes the impression that "one is less likely to do worse than others." For example, in a fight for justice, an individual would not fight for the rights of prisoners no matter how unfairly they are treated because they themselves did not partake in criminal activities. Thus, by being 'less evil' than the prisoners, they are under the impression that the prisoners are not deserving of the same rights as them in the form of protection from harm. A study by psychologists suggested that self-righteousness is more correctly evaluated in situations with immoral actions than moral actions, thus making it better characterized as the belief of 'less evil than thou'(Klein, N., &, & Epley, N. (2016).

Keeping in mind the occasions in which it occurs, the types of self-righteousness, and its impact on others, the question poses itself: when does an inherently positive act of kindness become such a dangerously damaging act of self-righteousness? Well, the answer is both simple and complicated - intention. Giving money to charity can become either an act of kindness or a stunt of self-righteousness, the yardstick being its intention. If an individual were to post about their donation to publicize the charity to raise more money for the cause, it would be rightly labeled an act of kindness. However, if the individual were to post about their donation with the intent to share that they 'out of the goodness of their heart' had spared money for the needy, it would be an act of self-righteousness.

Since the difference between a kind act and a self-righteous act, in most cases, can be determined only through the underlying intentions and motivations, which are usually personal, and we have no way to know about them with certainty. Therefore, it is difficult to identify the nature of an act or to specify the exact point(s) at which an act would change its nature. In simpler terms, it is beyond our capacity to judge someone's actions or decide when an act of kindness becomes self-righteous or if an act is self-righteous or kind.

In the state of the world as it is now, truly kind acts are few and far between. In my opinion, to believe an act is simply kind would do more benefit to us than to question its resolve. Acts of self-righteousness can indeed have a negative impact, such as instilling insecurities in the recipient. However, as there is no way to define the difference between the two kinds of actions, there remains a possibility of considering those negative impacts as unintended consequences of an inherently positive act. In such cases, ignorance is truly bliss. Endeavoring to know the true intentions behind an action, at times, can seem pointless when the action can be perceived as 'some good in the world,' some good that this world really needs.


Nur Us Sahar Kamran is an in-house writer at Perspective.

Find her on Instagram @nur_kamran9

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