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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Moral Superiority–It Starts With Self-Esteem And Ends In Irrational Divisiveness

Citing a recent study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay who suggest that it is Americans’ overweening sense of moral superiority that has contributed to our divisiveness, The Federalist’s A.D.P. Efferson says:
“Most people believe they are just, virtuous, and moral...These beliefs demand scientific attention for several reasons. For one, in contrast to other domains of positive self-belief, they likely contribute to the severity of human conflict. When opposing sides are convinced of their own righteousness, escalation of violence is more probable, and the odds of resolution are ominously low.”
So why is it that we as a people are so self-righteous? 
Anyone, regardless of personal estimation, can jettison reason in believing in his or her lofty moral station. The authors attribute the almost universal findings of moral superiority to participants’ strong sense of personal virtue accompanied by an irrational view of how moral others are in comparison.
Yet, how do people get this way? If they have no exaggerated feeling about their own rectitude, then why are they so quick to accuse others of moral dereliction? How is it that we are so quick to judge on sentimental, often irrational criteria?

Self-esteem, say the authors, is not a good reason; yet it is hard to dismiss the insistence on ‘feeling good about yourself’ hammered home during the seven years of primary school has no impact.  If children are trained to believe that there is no difference among them, that abilities are simply personal markers with no universal value, and that worth  is less a function of intelligence, intellect, insight, and discipline, then of course they will have a tendency to overvalue their personal judgments, opinions, and conclusions.

This philosophy not only creates an unrealistic view of human society which, progressive educators’ convictions to the contrary, is competitive, ambitious, purposeful, and demanding.  Only those students with native intelligence who are encouraged, guided, and applauded by teachers can prosper in it.

As importantly, students with less intellectual promise and native ability who are given the same goals as brighter students – academic excellence, curiosity, intellectual discipline, and all-around performance – can more fully realize the only potential that counts, navigating in increasingly complex and demanding world.

Be that as it may, children are not educated this way, and move from one grade to the next with idealistic notions about their promise, potential, and personal value.

What to expect, then, when children who have never been asked to think logically, deductively, and conclusively enter adulthood? Of course they make irrational judgments about politics, economics, social, and international issues and rely on those aspects of their personality which have been singled out as worthwhile whether or not they have anything to to with rational analysis.

          Immanuel Kant

Without the moorings of disciplined logic, conclusions can be based on anything. It is no wonder why positions on contentious issues are formed on the basis of subjective criteria.  Religious fundamentalists need go no further than the Bible for guidance on social issues or evolution.  Convictions on immigration need have nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis, statistics on crime, unemployment, and welfare dependency.

Once a person has made up his mind about a particular issue, then it is only logical to dismiss those who believe otherwise.  Conversations between two individuals, schooled in the same anti-intellectual environment, encouraged only to follow their instincts, can only be intolerant, inconclusive, and angry.

The culture of self-esteem is even more pernicious because of its influence on group behavior. It is very understandable that young men and women taught to get in touch with their feelings, to value their emotions, and to value their personal commitments no matter how determined, can join protests with others schooled in the same educational environment. 

Worse yet, the self-esteem culture engenders an easy, idealistic solidarity in which logical conclusions have no place.  Statistics have no place for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or The Women’s March on Washington.  It not only feels good to express your own special, passionate convictions; but it feels really good to express them with others who share them.

All this, of course, happens within the big tent of American Exceptionalism.  Ever since the earliest days of the Republic, we have felt better than anyone else.  Perhaps because of our geographic isolation, our economic enterprise, our victory in the World Wars, our Westward expansion, our rapid industrialization and our Protestant values we cannot possibly think otherwise.

In recent years our exceptionalism has come under scrutiny and attack.  Fewer Europeans and Asians can ignore our internal social chaos, our failed military adventurism, and our uncertain foreign policy.  Yet, we persist in the notion that we are the greatest country on earth.  President Trump has vowed to ‘Make America Great Again’; but everyone knows that it is already great and he is only going to make it greater.  We have not shaken off the persistent belief that we are God’s anointed people.

Demographic factors have also made uniformity and social cohesion impossible.  We are a more ethnically and racially diverse country than we ever were.  The European migrations of the late 1900s were relatively uniform – Irish and Italians on the East Coast and Chinese on the West.  Now we have to deal with hundreds of ethnic groups and sub-groups.   They add their own measure of particular moral codes and social mores – few, like ours, based on any rational basis.

As importantly such ethnic diversity fuels the irrational, self-righteous judgment of the poorly-schooled.  More minorities? More minorities to suspect and hate.

Last but not least of considerations concerning moral superiority is human nature – an innate, unchanging, ineluctable force which is aggressive, self-interested, territorial, expansionist, and defiant.  It is hard enough to be generous to family and friends let alone the millions of Americans and would-be Americans trying to take our place.

No one, then, should be surprised either at American moral superiority or the divisiveness which it encourages.

Besides, interview most Frenchmen and they will hardly hesitate to claim their cultural, if not moral superiority.  France after all gave the world democracy, high art, literature, and thought.   India has a five thousand year history, a sophisticated philosophical cosmology, and a highly-evolved social system.  It is no wonder that traditional Indians look at American culture as shoddy and unremarkable.   Few countries can be called humble.

The Federalist article refers to Arthur Brooks in this paragraph:
We will never understand we have common moral objectives, however, if we don’t first humble ourselves to accept that perhaps we are not morally superior, and perhaps we may have something to learn from listening to someone who thinks differently than we do.
As has been argued above, this is very unlikely to happen.  Self-esteem; a distorted interpretation of democracy favoring uniformity over distinction and excellence; American exceptionalism; demographics, and human nature all militate against humility, tolerance, and mutual respect.
If it feels like we are in a broken blender, we are.  We should have figured out how to create the republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers, but we haven’t.  Far from a nation conceived in liberty but devoted to community to one of uncontrolled individualism and hostile separatism. 

Our moral superiority may at last be eroding.


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