The Dangers of Moralizing

Human beings are moral creatures. Whether you believe God made us that way, or that evolution favored people who worked well with others, doing what’s right matters to everyone. (Well, maybe not to psychopaths.)

For millennia, morality has been a religious monopoly, but today millions of atheists show that you can be good without God. Secular morality (such as the wrongness of homophobia) is overtaking religious morality (such as the wrongness of homosexuality). And that’s a good thing.

But not all moralizing is the same. Some moralizing is an abstract investigation of general principles, or ethics. Some moralizing is self-critical – striving to be a better person, or character. And some moralizing is accusatory, pointing a finger at others and demanding better behavior. Which is to say, self-righteousness.

I grew up in a very religious, Catholic family. In 8th and 9th grade I attended a Christian school run by the Pentecostal, evangelical Assembly of God church. I need not detail the characteristics of right-wing preachers. But I see liberals railing against right-wing evangelicals without pausing to consider why their reaction is so visceral. Yet, a casual glance at Twitter’s left-wing Puritans solves that mystery.

Another example is that the judge who released a court transcript where Bill Cosby admitted giving women Quaaludes for sexual reasons (that is, rape according to two dozen women) said he did so because of the “stark contrast” of Cosby the public moralizer who has behaved in an “improper (and perhaps criminal)” manner.

Which reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A priest once told me that Jesus wasn’t saying don’t judge. Rather, he was saying you’ll be held to the same standard, so be careful of the judgments you make.

I’ve heard it said, “When you point a finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” (Point your index finger then look at your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers.)

The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s often a cover-up for bad behavior. This includes passive-aggressive self-righteousness, where the person doesn’t say, “You are bad,” but rather, “I’m the kind of person who lives by a higher moral standard.” In other words, I’m better than you and you need to be more like me.

As a young social worker in the late 1990s I worked at a residence for people living with AIDS, some of whom were recovering heroin addicts. One resident (I’ll call her “Jane”) had become particularly vocal about the importance of recovery, and how most of the people at Narcotics Anonymous were lying about their sobriety. It got to the point where she began targeting a certain peer.

The residence manager, and de facto substance abuse counselor (and best damn substance abuse counselor I’ve ever known, even if she didn’t have the credentials), told me that Jane had either relapsed or was about to.

I was doubtful. How could someone so passionate about recovery be using? That’s the first sign, she told me. Jane is pointing a finger at others, and she doth protest too much. Sincerity is typically self-focused: the recovering addict talks about fighting her own urge to use.

That lesson stuck with me. As a counselor, she struck a balance between toughness and deep empathy. Such a hard balance! I can be empathetic. And I can be confrontational when need be. But I’ve never been able to be tough and empathetic simultaneously.

This is why I don’t like Dr. Phil. It’s easy to judge him. But it’s true that I don’t like what I see in him because I see it in myself. This is true for all of us, and the people we don’t like.

And that’s the key. If I see something that really riles me about someone else, I need to find where in myself that same fault resides.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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