Beware! The Hubris of Righteousness

Beware! The Hubris of Righteousness

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

At first glance, one might think that this article is about self-righteousness. While the infamy of self-righteous behavior is typically based on the unfounded belief in one’s moral superiority over others on a particular subject, the hubris of righteousness has to do with the conflation and extension of one’s righteousness into unrelated domains. It is an important distinction to recognize.

For example, a religious person might be called self-righteous if she or he considers themselves more pious than another of the same religious order. Hubris of righteousness, on the other hand, will cause a person to think that their expansive knowledge of their own religion somehow gives them superior qualification to make commentary or judgment on completely different religions, without having sufficiently studied the other religion.

I use religion as an example only because I think most people reading this will be able to follow the point I am trying to make.

In our limited lifetimes, it is impossible for us to wholly know all there is to know about everything. Indeed, to the extent we can dedicate our limited mental capacity to the study of any one nontrivial thing, we still cannot be 100% certain that we know all there is to know about that one subject.

But humans like to know things. One of the ways we know new things is by building on the knowledge of things we already know. For example, when learning mathematics, once we know addition (2 + 2), we can learn multiplication (2 + 2 + 2 = 2 x 3).

It may sound obvious, but knowing and learning are not the same thing. It seems to me that at some point, some - dare I say most - people stop learning things, all the while knowing about things that they have not yet learned.

Most, if not all, of these people have the capacity to continue learning new things. The problem arises from the hubris that stems from the vast knowledge they have garnered about one particular subject. They begin to confuse that “2+2+2” in their sphere of understanding equals “2x3” in another.

This is particularly harmful when making moral judgments that lie outside the domain of righteousness in which one is an expert. (Please be aware that I am not saying that one can never make moral judgments about others.)

For example, I know a person in the animal rights movement, for whom I have the utmost respect, who refuses to wear or support the wearing of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. They equate the wearing of face masks to the unfair and immoral subjugation of non-human animals who are bred to be used by humans and who are made to wear tags, weaner rings and harnesses so that they may be more easily controlled by humans who profit from their flesh and secretions.

They are truly and honestly righteous in their understanding of the domination of non-human animals. However, the hubris of their righteousness has blinded them to the real danger of not wearing face masks. Suppose they lived in a world where non-human animals were not exploited by humans in any form. Would they still feel the same way about wearing face masks? It is a moot question, as in such a world they would not be able to make such comparisons, thus such an objection to wearing face masks could not be raised.

(Some vegans would like to point out that in such a world, COVID-19 would not exist either. While that is likely true, there could be other pandemics that might necessitate the wearing of face masks.)

The hubris of righteousness can also infect the domain in which one is a righteous expert. Another example from the vegan movement, only because I have a lot of experience with it, is when long-term animal rights activists/organizations fail to give credence to new activists/organizations who may have new ways of accomplishing the same goals or gain more popularity in a short time, which they themselves have failed to accomplish. Rather than working together on their commonalities, they find ways to subvert the younger activists/organizations out of the hubris of their own righteousness.

I don’t know about you, but if my goal were to create, say, for example, world peace and someone else came after me and accomplished the same task, I would still rejoice in the fact that now we have world peace.

Not everyone may be able to relate to the two examples above, so here is one more example with which I have some experience:

Many environmentalists are righteous in their cause to ensure a habitable planet that has clean water and air for future generations. However, the hubris of their righteousness in the elimination of the use of fossil fuels has blinded them to the fact that animal agriculture is a huge contributor to the problem of climate change or led them to the false belief that we can continue breeding animals to be exploited by humans in a just and equitable way.

At this point, a lot of rational people are probably thinking about the times they have been victims of the hubris of righteousness. I must remind you: Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are not exclusive to the irrational. Be careful not to dismiss someone because you think they suffer from the hubris of righteousness without giving their argument proper thought. It is only with critical thinking and thorough examination of claims, ideas and opinions that can we be certain who is truly suffering from the hubris of righteousness.

Because I have thought about this quite extensively, I try to avoid the trap of the hubris of righteousness. To that end, whenever I make any claims, for example, about the degree to which animal agriculture is destroying the planet, based on extrapolation of data that is available to me, I always end with something like, “If anyone has evidence contrary to anything I've said or sees a flaw in my reasoning, I'd love to hear about it as I'm always looking to learn more, think deeper and improve my understanding of these issues.”

It applies to this article as well.

(With much gratitude to my friend, Sheryl, for reviewing and editing this article.)

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