Righteous Ego And Its Unreasoned, Inhumane Manifestations
By David Metcalfe
April 24, 2019
I think we can divide the causes of human suffering into two categories: natural and human.
There are some very awful things that are beyond any person’s conscious control. These include things like hurricanes, birth defects, disease, crop failure, or any type of accident that occurred despite people’s best intentions. These are all unfortunate things, but they are naturally occurring things. The best of human intentions can, of course, serve to mitigate the severity of these things. For example, healthcare technology has thus far failed to cure every disease, but it nonetheless has cured many, or made incurable ones more manageable for the patient. The same can be said of advancements in meteorology that help predict incoming hurricanes, or in agricultural practice that prevent pests from spoiling the crops, and so forth.
Naturally occurring causes of suffering are bad, but they are not evil. “Evil” implies a moral agent, and being that humans are the only creature with such capacity for agency, it is only human caused suffering that could be described as such.
Humans have enslaved, raped, murdered, robbed, beaten, imprisoned, and expressed a variety of other forms of hatred and violence against each other for at least as long as history has been recorded. These forms of suffering, being entirely a matter of human agency, are completely preventable and unnecessary. But if they are to be prevented, it is necessary, at least in part, to identify the circumstances and ideas which produce such suffering. “Righteous ego” may not be the only thing that leads to human caused suffering, but I think it is such a significant aspect, present in nearly every evil ever committed, that I am ok with making the generalization.
It is a funny thing about humans that we all want to be good, and yet, in seeking to be good, end up committing some of the worst evils. The majority of Nazis were indoctrinated into believing that Jews were evil and cause terrible things to happen. It was, in a way, a desire to make the world a better place that drove Nazis to think it righteous to commit mass murder. ISIS appears similar; they really believe that God wants them to kill infidels and establish his reign on the earth. They believe it will bring peace and order to the world, in the way God intended. Let’s take a third example, in regard to Marx’s communism. It was a way for the working people to have more rights and not be exploited by rich people who do nothing and reap all the rewards. But, of course, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it led, once again, to mass murder.
In other examples of human caused mass suffering aside from mass murder, we also see good intentions at work. The African-American slave trade took innocent people from their homes and families, put them in chains, and took them on crowded, disease ridden boats to America to do hard labor. The Americans thought that this was the natural order of things. The black people appeared to be savages in their natural habitat, and displayed lesser intelligence. It was considered a gift from God that slaves were provided to them to do hard labor so that white people could become wealthier and engage in other, less laborious pursuits in career and leisure. Black slaves, as far as the white Americans could tell, were making the world a “better place”. We can see similar sentiments with Japanese internment camps in America during WWII, residential schools forcefully reforming Indigenous peoples throughout the 20th century, and the persecution of a variety of groups, such as homosexuals, women, racial minorities, and religious dissidents. The people committing the atrocities were always “making the world a better place” as they saw it.
But how can an honest attempt to “make the world a better place” result in so much needless suffering? That’s where “righteous ego” comes in.
Ego is the force that makes you think you know what’s best, and more so, that you are what’s best. It manifests in enforcing others to act and be like you want them to be, with punishments for non-compliance. If the person cannot or absolutely refuses to not become the way they are “supposed to be”, they have to be removed or killed in order for the world to become a “better place”.
Nazis thought Aryan race Germans were the best, ISIS thinks their version of “proper Muslims” are the best, white supremacists think being white is the best, Stalin’s communism thought communists/proletariats were the best. Now, if it stays there, then they are arrogant, but they aren’t necessarily evil. The evil comes when they decide who is “the worst”. Nazis decided it was Jews, ISIS decided it’s apostates to Islam, white supremacists decided it was Africans (and at other times, the Japanese and Indigenous people), Stalin’s communism decided it was the bourgeoisie. This results in social stratification, with rewards for being “the best” and punishments for being “the worst”. The more fervent the group’s belief in the ideology, the more severe the stratifications, and thus punishments, become.
But no one wants to be evil (except maybe certain disturbed or psychopathic individuals). The majority of people want to feel as though they are morally good. So, ego on its own won’t get far; it has to be considered “righteous”. All these terrible ideologies I’ve mentioned are very unreasonable, and as such, their claims to being “righteously justified” need also to be unreasonable. One such means to skip reason is to claim that it was a declaration from God. This is seen in ISIS and historically within the Catholic Church. Heretics or infidels can be burned or beheaded simply because God said so.
The second reason, and the one I wish to develop further, is self-aggrandizement. Humans have a tendency to be selfish, and we love things that feed our self-esteem. In fact, we may love the way something sounds to our ego so much that we do away with reason and evidence in favour of it. If you are a white person, and you hear that you are better than black people, it feeds a sick but significant aspect of your self-esteem. It might feel so nice to think that you are better than other people that it occupies your thoughts in such a great extent that reason and proper contemplation never make their way in. If you are Muslim, and someone tells you that Muslims are better than other people, or if you are a man getting told that men are better than women, or if you are a poor, working class peasant being told that you are better than rich people…you might be too inclined to agree without properly thinking it through.
But these ideas in the individual are small and relatively harmless. No normal person will casually think they are better than other people and then proceed to murder people they think of as “lesser”- that takes a group. Insanity can be caused by mental illness, drugs, or a sudden burst of emotions, but it is most commonly caused by a collective excitement. There was racism against Jews before the Nazis, but the Holocaust needed the rallies and propaganda; it needed thousands of people waving to Hitler in unity. African slavery needed to be preached from the pulpit to the affirmation of hundreds of devout Christians. Stalin’s “Great Purge” needed the ultranationalism, despotism, and propagandist displays. ISIS needs their isolation and group prayer rituals.
What I am describing here is the “herd mentality” i.e. that me and my little group are amazing and everyone else is terrible. Righteous ego is created by the individual’s desire to be better than other people, but its evil manifestation is bred by the herd mentality. The herd chants “we’re better than other people!” and moderate, individual egoism turns into extreme, collective evil, all under the guise of a “righteous” cause.
In modern day America, we think of our society as much better than that of the Nazis, ISIS, or Stalinism, and we are right for thinking that. But we commit the same mistakes, just in smaller ways. Of course, there are pockets of actual racists, like the resurgence of neo-Nazism in certain areas, or religious hate groups, like Westboro Baptist Church, or any number of other hate groups that deviate significantly from the mainstream. And those are obviously terrible, so no reasonable, humane person would ever think that’s ok. What I wish to close with is how normal, mainstream, humane people incorporate disturbing aspects of “righteous ego” in their ideologies.
As America becomes more polarized, political discourse and ideologies are getting more factional. Extreme views require the herd mentality, and news that obviously panders to select groups, combined with the misinformation so prevalent on the internet today, and a general unwillingness to appeal to expert opinion, has caused Americans to have very different versions of reality. There’s a reality where one side says Hilary Clinton is a criminal and should go to prison, and herds of people chant “lock her up!” in collective excitement. There’s a reality where the other side says Donald Trump is a criminal and should go to prison, and herds of people rant and rave in a mob-like mentality on Twitter. Does anyone remember that the criminal justice system goes based on evidence, and is impartial to whatever your bias about someone happens to be? Does anyone remember that locking up political opponents is what totalitarian regimes do, not free, democratic countries?
Moderate, well-reasoned opinions with lots of evidence does not make “good news”. It doesn’t appeal to our impulse to think we are better than other people. When we watch politics, all Democrats want to hear is “we’re better than Republicans!” and all Republicans want to hear is “we’re better than Democrats!”. We want to idolize ourselves, and that’s bad, but it’s just arrogance. The more disturbing aspect is how quickly we look for enemies to degrade as “lesser”.
The cure to the ills of “righteous ego” are simple to state, but hard to put into practice. The first is to be humble, the second is to recognize that all people are equal, and the third is to maintain reason and evidence as the standard of truth.
Pride serves not only to corrupt within the individual, but causes mass suffering when placed into a collective, as the herd mentality ensues. If one is able to maintain a proper sense of humility, it is only natural that they will be led to think that all people are equal. Inequality is largely, if not entirely, a result of pride from one group, and the use of power to express that pride. But after that, we still have to create an opinion on issues as they come up. It may be true, for example, that a group like ISIS really does need to be stopped, but if we are unreasonable about it, and get into a herd mentality, we may end up hating all Muslims. Since ISIS is violating human rights in horrific ways, it is reasonable to be intolerant of them, but most Muslims are good and peaceful, so there is no reason or sufficient evidence to say that we should be intolerant of them.
We can hope to be rid of many of the natural causes of suffering through human centred technological innovation, and that is hopeful. However, the human condition is such that we have some terrible impulses, and it is quite difficult to get rid of them. A thoughtful view of history in the context of ideologies in our current culture shows us that there are certain principles that have produced much suffering, and others that have cured it. The “righteous ego” appears present in every great human caused atrocity, and there is reason to be worried about it in the modern day. The opposite of the “righteous ego”- humility, equality, and reason- appears to have cured many evils and caused a great deal of good. It’s what America was founded on, and it’s what most of the world’s countries have attempted to adopt in some form in their constitution. When the citizens of these countries live up to those values, people get more rights, face less inequality (racial, economic, religious, etc.), and are free to pursue and attain happiness as they see fit.