The Dark Side of Righteousness

Posted on 2015 June 17

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Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Most of us want to be good people. And most around the world share similar ideas about moral behavior: no stealing, no hitting, work hard, respect the family, help the unfortunate.

But there’s a dark side to moral behavior, a side that permits us to be immoral with impunity.

We like to belong to groups. Groups give us safety in numbers. In a group we can multiply our resources, obtain friends, and feel a sense of belonging.

The group has rules to help it obtain what it wants and needs. We conform to the rules and come to believe in their rightness. If an outside group’s wants and needs conflict with ours, we regard that group as bad and wrong. Our group’s desires become virtues, while the other group’s desires are vices.

We can’t help any of this. It’s inborn. In a study, infants were given a choice of treats and then watched puppets choose treats. The infants preferred puppets that selected the same treat as they did, and they especially liked puppets that punished the puppets that chose a different treat.

We go to great lengths to construct elaborate moral arguments in favor of what our group desires. And we make lavish efforts to condemn the ethics of competing groups. (Well, of course we do — they’re wrong!) This is self serving, but it helps us to stay the course when we feel threatened by other groups. It fortifies us with the angry confidence of righteousness.

In our minds, those other groups’ members suddenly acquire ugly traits: they’re bad, malicious, ignorant, inferior … even subhuman. Once we’ve relieved ourselves of the need to see them as fully entitled members of society, we feel entitled to mistreat them — to be rude to them, lie to them, steal from them, even kill them.

In other words, the more moralistic we are, the more amoral we become in our actions.

The Mongols regarded outsiders as cattle, and killed millions of them. Europeans invaded the Western Hemisphere, met the natives there, saw them as backward and unworthy … and killed millions of them. They then turned to Africa in search of laborers, found a people they perceived as little better than apes, then enslaved and killed millions of them. Hitler regarded the Jews as wicked, and killed millions of them. Stalin and Mao took anyone suspicious as a threat … and killed millions of them.

In every case, the perpetrators believed they were in the right, which gave them carte blanche to treat the outsiders as they saw fit.

And still it continues: on the nightly news we watch as militant tribes, wrapped in self-righteousness, invade or attack other peoples, killing and plundering and raping without compunction.

So we find ourselves with a very strange situation: the most righteous people are often the most dishonest, thieving, and homicidal among us. Their opponents look upon them with unabashed horror and contempt, and onlookers can only shake their heads at the folly of it all.

Yet few of us notice that we, too, have those same immoral traits lying dormant within us, ready to burst out and take over when our own groups are threatened … or when another group merely gets in our way. Few of us recognize the dark side of righteousness in our own lives. Instead, we wrap our anger and contempt in a pretty package of virtue. But if we open the package, it’s all writhing worms.

The next time you find yourself thinking ill of some group that’s obviously bad and wrong, remember this:

They think of you in exactly the same way.

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