Moral Righteousness: Intent vs Results

I had the issue of righteousness on my mind while writing a previous post (Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). In that post, I made two points in relation to righteousness.

First, there is a difference between the morality of intentions and the morality of results. To use the example of that post, there is a difference between having family values and valuing family. Intentions may correspond to results or they may not. My conclusion was that results are more important. Also, I speculated that intention when righteously held may actually undermine genuinely moral results. Or it could be that stated intention (rhetoric) can hide self-perceived moral failure (such as a minister teaching family values while using the services of a prostitute or a politician advocating against gay rights while being gay himself).

Second, I admitted to having some tendencies toward righteousness. I don’t think, for this reason (among others), that I’d make a good parent. Of the families I’ve known, those with relatively more righteous parents have had relatively worse results (in that their families are less close and less happy). In general, a righteously judgmental sense of morality is not conducive to creating a better society. My opinion is supported by the research I’ve seen and by books I’ve read such as George Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. I have in the past shared some of the data correlating liberalism and real world moral results: Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism. I think liberals have more objective reason to be righteous on certain issues, but it’s just not in the nature of most liberals to be righteous or else to be loudly vocal about what they feel righteous about and to force it onto others. A notable exception are the New Atheists, but even the righteousness of the New Atheists pales in comparison to the righteousness of fundamentalists.

I too am a vocally righteous liberal. If a person lacks respect for others or for intellectuality, if someone uses sociopathic rationalizations or apologetic sophistry, I will not treat that person with an ounce more respect than they deserve (which is approximately zero). This doesn’t mean I immediately go on the attack with everyone I disagree. I can at times be aggressive because I see how rightwingers try to manipulate the liberal attitude of tolerance. It relates to how apologists pretend to be intellectual by using logical arguments as sophistry and selectively uses data.

What annoys me isn’t necessarily righteousness itself but how it’s used and what it’s used for. Of course, I’m annoyed by my own righteous tendencies and so I try to keep it in check. I don’t see righteousness as it’s own justification in the way that the fundamentalist sees righteous belief as it’s own justification. If I feel strongly about something, I check and double-check the facts. Before I let the chain out on my righteousness, I make sure I’m actually right. Righteousness is fine as long as it’s equally balanced by humility. I admit I can be wrong and I actively seek out evidence that can prove my opinions incorrect. I’m righteous about intellectuality, about clear thinking, about objective facts. To me, that is a moral application of righteousness. A belief, no matter how righteously held, doesn’t justify itself. Justification can only come from a larger context that includes other perspectives and other data. Righteousness should be used to break free of limiting beliefs and shouldn’t be used to enclose oneself within dogma.

Even more importantly, righteousness should always be turned toward oneself first: self-awareness, self-analysis, self-criticism. I think those who judge others are inviting judgment upon themselves by others. Also, from the perspective of Jesus’ teachings, righteousness should be primarily and most strongly directed at those in power. The Christian who likes to judge the poor and the homeless, the desperate and the disenfranchised is no real Christian. The Christian who defends the rich and powerful (whether Rand Paul defending BP or Catholics defending the Pope) and so forsakes the poor and powerless is no real Christian. In this sense, there seems to be a contagion of hyopcrisy among many social conservatives (certainly among the leadership anyways).

Righteousness is a useful but dangerous tool. It does no good to defend those in power who can defend themselves just fine. And it does no good to beat a man while he is down. Defending the wealthy elite while complaining about the “welfare queens” is just plain wrong and comes close to being evil of sociopathic proportions. Righteousness in the hands of dogmatic haters leads to 9/11 attacks and the shootings of abortion doctors. In the US, this righteousness is directly fueled by the rightwing pundits such as Bill O’Reilly endless calling Dr. Tiller, “Tiller the Baby Killer”. Surprise, surprise. A crazy rightwinger kills Dr. Tiller. And guess what? O’Reilly considers himself a good, righteous Christian. Why does O’Reilly have so much righteous hate? Abortion is bad? If O’Reilly were to look at the data (which righteous ideologues rarely do), he would know that countries with legal abortions have lower abortion rates. But, ya see, it isn’t about making the world a better place. The righteous ideologue simply wants to think of himself as being right… and damn the consequences.

Let me share two examples of liberal righteousness.

The first example is Derrick Jensen who is a righteous environmentalists. I think it’s obvious that he has plenty of justification for his righteousness. No rational and compassionate person (meaning everyone besides righteous ideologues) could deny the data he shares in his books. Jensen analyzes in detail the sociopathic tendencies of our society. However, he sometimes, out of frustration, pushes his rhetoric a bit far. It’s hard to know if he pushes too far or not considering the potential dire consequences of the present trajectory of our civilization. It’s not like Jensen is a fundamentalist warning about the end of the world because of his interpretation of biblical prophecy. Jensen is talking about the real world. He seems like a genuine intellectual and I sense he’d be open-minded about new info that challenged his own views. As far as I can tell, Jensen’s righteousness is based in the actual facts. So, it’s not a blind righteousness. Furthermore, it’s a righteousness directed toward those in power… meaning those who have the power to change the world for the better if they so chose.

The second example is Barbara Ehrenreich who is a righteous journalist. Like Jensen, she seems to base her righteousness on objective data and not mere ideological belief. I’ve seen videos of her speaking, but I’ve only just started reading her book Bright-Sided. In that book, she is criticizing a type of optimism popular in America which is superficial and which is too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. I’m not sure she talks about righteousness, but I get the sense that righteousness would relate to her portrayal of positive thinking. She does go in some detail about Christianity and so makes the direct connection to belief as an unquestioning, uncritical mindset. It reminds me of research I’ve seen on positive thinking which shows optimists have a tendency to take credit when results are seen as beneficial or desirable (whether or not the optimist actually earned this credit) and optimists have a tendency to blame externalities (unforeseen factors, other people, etc) when reults are seen as having turned out bad. When an entire society embraces positive thinking, major catastrophes happen. Blinded by optimism, those responsible can honestly claim to not having seen it coming (despite all the evidence that should’ve been heeded as a warning).

The righteous are always right even when they turn out to be wrong. It’s like how social conservatives blame the failure of abstinence only sex education not on the programs themselves but on society. Society is seen as having failed the values preached by the righteous person, but the righteous person will never see themselves as having failed society. So, to go back to the original example, “family values” are believed to never fail even when the results would seem to point towards failure. Families fail and societies fail according to this view, but family values can never fail because the fundamentalist perceives them as having originated from thousands of years of righteous tradition or even from the righteous Word of God. This is righteousness as defensive self-rationalization.

The main moral purpose that righteousness should be applied to is righteousness misused. That is my ideal, anyways. I don’t know how often I live up to my ideal, but I try. Hopefully, my results correspond with my intentions.

Re: All Evidence to the Contrary

The article excerpt below explains so much.  I’ve heard of this kind of research, but it’s always nice to see further confirmation.
 
The problem with irrational beliefs isn’t a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of respect for knowledge.  What a liberal education offers is teaching the young the importance of critical thinking skills.  And if not taught at a very young age, a person is unlikely to ever learn these skills and values.  It’s very dangerous to allow any particular dogmatic ideology to control or limit education (and this is particularly true for non-rational ideologies such as espoused by fundamentalists).
 
Society, at present, has several problems in this regard.  Liberal education has gone out of favor and critical thinking skills aren’t seen as having practical value in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.  To the degree that critical thinking is valued, it is extremely compartmentalized in particular fields rather than being the overall basis of public debate.  For these reasons, the average person has both limited ability to think critically and limited respect towards this ability.
 
Although the article doesn’t mention it, I would add that this issue relates to moral development.  The ability to think critically isn’t merely a cultural value.  Rather, it’s a specific stage of development that any intelligent human will develop towards if given the opportunity (and the encouragement).  Morality is related to the ability to think abstractly and to think outside of the constraints of subjective experience.  Morality and intellectuality are co-dependent factors in human development.  So, when a child has their intellectual potential stunted by ideology and lack of liberal education, their moral ability also becomes stunted at a lower stage of development.
 
All Evidence to the Contrary
Lane Wallace
The Atlantic
 
In a recently published study, a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel HIll, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College found that people often employ an approach the researchers called “motivated reasoning” when sorting through new information or arguments, especially on controversial issues. Motivated reasoning is, as UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman put it, the equivalent of policy-driven data, instead of data-driven policy.
 
In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create “cognitive dissonance”–discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence–selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic. 
 
That’s not a news flash to anyone who’s paid attention to any recent national debate–although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions. 
 
Needless to say, these findings do not bode well for anyone with hopes of changing anyone else’s mind with facts or rational discussion, especially on “hot button” issues. But why do we cling so fiercely to positions when they don’t even involve us directly? Why do we care who got to the North Pole first? Or whether a particular bill has provision X versus provision Y in it? Why don’t we care more about simply finding out the truth–especially in cases where one “right” answer actually exists?
 
Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is “the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little.” And, he adds, “there is no more destructive force in human affairs–not greed, not hatred–than the desire to have been right.”
 
So, what do we do about that? If overcoming “the desire to have been right” is half as challenging as overcoming hate or greed, the outlook doesn’t seem promising. But Kleiman, who specializes in crime control policy and alternative solutions to very sticky problems (his latest book is “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”), thinks all is not lost. He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because “it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead.”
 
A liberal education, Kleiman says, “ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one’s current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right.”
 
 – – –
 
If you’d like to see this issue discussed from a different angle, read this earlier post of mine: