Righteous vs. Self-Righteous

Might humility alone determine whether a person is virtuous or just righteous?

Posted Jan 13, 2021

Tatiana Gladskikh / 123RF by permission
Source: Tatiana Gladskikh / 123RF by permission

Investigating the literature on this subject yields a teasingly twofold result. Traditionally, the two personality categories have been examined in a predominately theological light. They’re now, however,  being considered along noticeably more secular lines.

In both instances, self-righteousness emerges as more culpable, or less to be respected, than righteousness. Still, if these two existential stances are viewed through the lens of contemporary moral psychology, independent of scriptural dogma, the ultimate distinctions between them become somewhat blurry.  

The Theological Perspective

Let’s explore first how righteousness and self-righteousness have been differentially defined from a doctrinal vantage point. Biblically speaking, righteousness is about being in right standing with God—vs. self-righteousness, recognized as giving final authority for one’s decisions not to God but to one’s self. So self-righteousness becomes, paradoxically, a kind of self-trusting sacrilege: The person isn’t serving God’s will but profaning God by serving, or taking final direction from, themselves.

To one writer, Jesus was 100% righteous and, too, 100% right. And since we’re all sinners, when we deign to see ourselves as righteous, we’re actually being self-righteous. This notion is absolutist, as this author’s repetition of “100%” clearly implies. And, of course, such authoritarian teachings don’t allow for any exceptions or modifications.

Similar to other religious interpreters of canonically accepted tenets, self-righteousness is seen adversely as unrighteous. Consider the words of another sectarian author:

The irony of self-righteousness is that it trust[s] in itself, its feelings, its emotions, its desires, its logic, and its understanding. So it never sees the error in its own ways.

In short, as deemed by many theistic writers, self-righteous individuals have a bad attitude: they’re intolerant, smug and sanctimonious, and—overly confident about their righteousness or moral superiority—they attempt to “lord” it over others, unjustifiably putting them down as weak, dependent, and indiscriminately placing collective faith over individualized, non-religious experience.

Compare this to the often-quoted biblical line: “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Or, if you’re going to judge anyone, you ought to first judge yourself. (Otherwise, because it’s premature to “throw stones” at others, you have no business doing so.)

On the contrary, the righteous are assumed to be humble, devoutly and dutifully revering God as He’s worshipfully depicted in Holy Scriptures. Moreover, it’s not the righteous but the self-righteous who implicitly (and unjustifiably) declare themselves “holier than thou.”

The Secular Perspective

Those perceived as self-righteous don’t really fare any better when seen in a more secular light. But it also needs to be added that the righteous (or so-called “godly”) are themselves typically viewed less positively when placed under this more worldly microscope. In fact, the two types don’t diverge anywhere as much in this context. In some ways, they’re almost as complementary as they are contrasting.

Here, people labeled as self-righteous are negatively identified as characteristically vainglorious and self-deceiving; gratuitously feeling superior; and being arrogant, elitist, and self-aggrandizing (sometimes falling headlong into the pitiable pit of narcissism).

Beyond that, the self-righteous are also regarded as hypocritical in that they employ a double standard when it comes to “right” behavior. Despite their being just as prone to displaying faulty judgment and acting in a blameworthy manner as those deemed righteous, they nonetheless proclaim that their morality is more enlightened and moral than these more pious individuals (sometimes sarcastically described by them as self-righteous “goody-goodies”).

Applying far more lenient standards for assessing their own personal behaviors, they exhibit a favorable self-bias that itself may be eminently deserving of criticism. And as already suggested, they can be highly judgmental of, and disputatious with, others.

Yet unmitigated righteousness may not, at least viewed secularly, fare much better. Once again, pondering the irony of many of the routine distinctions that writers have come up with to distinguish between the two orientations to reality, here’s how one author endeavors to separate—and maybe not separate—the two:

Merely holding the view that the righteous are superior to the non-righteous, whatever that means, strongly hints that you consider yourself in the former category. If so, you’re self-righteous. [Or, in other words, if you’re not truly humble about your righteousness, then you can’t really be regarded as righteous at all.]

There are definitely times when a person sincerely believes that they have more authority to judge themselves than do others, even if there exists a broad consensus that their behavior is reprehensible. And in this regard, consider the biographical movie Monster, in which the serial killer (played by Charlize Theron) says—and with utter conviction—that she’s “good with the Lord,” absent any remorse for all the men she’s ruthlessly murdered.

Regrettably, it’s all-too-easy for certain individuals to vindicate themselves apart from evidence that would make their “righteous” self-justification seem almost psychotic. For a person’s deeds can betray their “divine” righteousness as a total sham.  

Reconciling the Religious With the Secular

If righteousness pinpoints a person’s allegiance to a moral code without their feeling compelled to self-advantageously compare it to another’s, then we can conclude that—whether seen monastically or materialistically—it involves a humility free of self-righteousness. And it may well be that, first and foremost, authentic righteousness is best perceived as portraying a truly humble attitude.

The quotation below, from New Testament theologian Darrell Bock (1994), makes a forceful case for seeing humility as at the core of what’s missing from the self-righteous:

Pride preaches merit; humility pleads for compassion ... Pride separates by putting down others; humility identifies with others, recognizing we all have the same [essential] need[s]. Pride destroys through its alienating self-service; humility opens doors with its power to sympathize with the struggle we share. Pride turns up its nose; humility offers an open and lifted-up hand.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), attempts to reconcile the enduring dissension about what constitutes righteousness by resorting to contemporary moral psychology. Utilizing this subjective but non-prejudicial approach to better apprehend divergent ethical viewpoints, he believes we can foster an understanding that, potentially, could bridge the gap among people whose biases markedly differ.

With greater comprehension such age-old conflicts might be made more congruent, offering themselves up to a mutually adaptive resolution—which unfortunately has yet to occur. As Michael Hogan (2012) puts it in his essay “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt’s goal “is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of political and religious debate and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity” [what secularists themselves typically view as “spiritual”].  Admittedly an idealistic solution, this viewpoint is supported by scientific procedures for appreciating the “deeply emotional, intuitive, selfish, and groupish nature of our moral psychology.”  

So, to conclude this discussion, taking God or a higher authority out of the equation permits us to focus on essential matters of justice and fairness as most (though not all) humans recognize them. And looking for values that are universally shared, even by individuals who differ in their religious and political priorities, might at last connect us by centering on what, without betraying our ideals, we can agree upon. Only then can the gulf be bridged between views based on orthodox religious teachings and those grounded in the scientific study of unchangeable human nature.

Doubtless, the sooner we can effect this reconciliation the better, since we’re all in this disjointed, embattled, and chaotic world together. And whether we like it or not, our destinies are inextricably entwined.  

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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Wax, T. (2019, Apr 04). Self-righteousness wears many disguises. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/self-righteousness-wears-many-disguises/

Wright, M. (2016, Sept 22). Righteousness vs self-righteousness. https://heartofworshipchurch.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/righteousness-vs-self-righteousness/