The Pleasure of Self-Righteousness

People sometimes think that pleasure-seeking is a matter of eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex but this takes too narrow a view of pleasure.  Suddenly learning that we have won the lottery is pleasant.  Getting away from a lion is pleasant.  Giving vent to our anger is a rich pleasure.  And feeling better than our fellow human beings is a rich pleasure that motivates many of our actions.

There are many ways of feeling better than others, just as there are many kinds of tasty desserts.  We can feel that they are less refined than we are, or less beautiful, or less accomplished.  Many of these ways for modern people have a mixture of pain in them because we know that we are not supposed to glory in our superiority.  We feel a little guilty for being snobs or jerks.

One brand of pleasure that avoids this admixture of pain is the pleasure of self-righteousness.  We enjoy the feeling that we are morally better than other people.  This plays out in politics.   Consider for example the issue of immigration.  Those who want to liberalize immigration enjoy the feeling that they are more compassionate than their mean opponents.  Those who want to restrict immigration enjoy the feeling that they are courageous enough to take an unpopular stand.

If both sides are hedonists, how do we decide between them?  By determining which sort of hedonism is more likely to bring about a longer lasting pleasure.

The restrictionists pleasure, of indulging in nationalism is inherently self-limiting.  A nation state brings the pleasure of belonging but carries with it the pain of fear of those who are different from us.  Since we are always worried about the different people coming over and taking our stuff, it is not a very forward thinking form of hedonism.

The most hedonistic proposal is to enjoy the success of everyone.  It allows us to enjoy the feeling of being good people and thus better than those who are not on the side of justice.  And it lets us enjoy the vicarious pleasure of seeing our friends and brothers and sisters flourish.

The only worry I have with it is that it seems to force us to forego the pleasure of feeling that of all people we are the best of all.  If we strive towards a world in which everyone is both doing well and doing good, don’t we lose that particularly delicious sensation, of feeling that the very finest person of all is our own self?

We do.

And is that acceptable?

It is not.

That is why I propose that the institution of romantic love be preserved.  Within the secrecy of the bedroom we get to indulge our aptitude for pleasures, including the sublimest pleasure of infinite self-righteousness and absolute smugness.Of course the price for that is to somehow think our way through to acknowledging that the person we are sharing the bed with is great too. It’s a tricky thing to manage, I know, but I recommend giving it a try.  One tip is to reflect that anybody who acknowledges how uniquely great I am cannot be all bad him or herself.


16 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Self-Righteousness

  1. Susan says:

    There is a closeness between pleasure and pride. Pleasure that is well defined can be a good thing. Ridding ourselves of Pride can enhance our Pleasure. – – – – – Romantic love? I’m told that costs extra.

  2. I remember a story you sent me on Facebook messanger a long time ago now, one about the man who was to judge other men, in a multi dimensional setting, and a concept within that story about the protagonist wondering if by showing those who he judged mercy, that his overlords would show mercy unto him; and also the concept that perhaps his overlords did not want him to show mercy, and that being merciful might actually backfire, and come back harshly upon him.

    I think I called the story absurd in a good way, but that idea in that story has stuck with me. The concept that if I show good upon others, that it will surely bring goodness onto me; or, maybe such mercy will bring about the most unmerciful end for me, come to think of it. Perhaps we shall not be treated in kind, and perhaps that’s not what others seek from us to begin with.

    I would not say that the pro immigration person enjoys the hedonistic enjoyment of watching others succeed, but rather lives in the idea that his great, noble sacrifice of bringing others as burdens into his own lands, that his incredible altruism and good nature, that his merciful attitude upon others not like him will certainly bring about peace with all men, and to be treated in kind by all others not like him, certainly? Or…..

    Perhaps his self righteous hedonism lies in the belief that it is his great, noble, wonderful, merciful, ect., self, and his own actions, that will bring nothing less to this world than total world peace and love among all mankind. Perhaps he enjoys his delusion that it is his own actions that will magically fix the world, that his positive actions and outlooks, his gloriuos intent, will be the greatest influence upon the greatest cause of mankind. He believes that his sacrifice is guaranteed to bring about greatness.

    I agree that the nationalist in your example has his hedonism and enjoyment cut short by the realization of negatives and possible negative outcomes, and that is why, in the end, perhaps he shows a bit of wisdom. He relents from his self glory and enjoyment long enough to realize that his actions are not magic cures, that his intents and actions do not garner guarantees, that his image of utopia is shattered, that he is brought from his glory and hedonism back to reality, and perhaps a little bit of sense. When he understands that his goodness and kindness may not bring about the world he wants, that his goodness may not be treated in kind, he has come to the realization that the character from the story has come to; perhaps mercy and goodness onto others will be punished, not rewarded. His illusion is broken, his image that he can change reality through his will and positivity vanish, and he is left with harsh realities, worse, ambiguity about the future, and certainly no utopia built in his image.

    I would argue that the immigration fellow fits self righteous hedonism perfectly, insomuch that many take all of their pride in their sacrifice, make great claims to altruism (wither or not this is the true feeling or attribute of the individual), and claims to perfection, and has a blindsided idealistic view of his actions and beliefs that is purely positive and reflects purely positive upon himself. The other fellow in this example, who acknowledges all of the possible bad and if forced to accept negatives, must live with the negatives of his stance and cause, and eventually must accept that he and his cause are not perfect, and neither will the outcomes. One man has a black and white, pure good and evil, hero vs. bad guy, and eventually sees himself as pure good, the hero, and perfect. The other has his ego undermined, must accept shades of grey, and cannot truly call himself a perfect man with perfect intent, and perhaps not even a real hero afterall.

    In the end, I tend to judge men’s intents on their own views of themselves and their causes, especially those who see their causes as perfect, and then themselves as perfect for believing in perfect causes. Are they fighting for a cause because they actually believe in it, or because it reflects well upon them? When a man accepts an imperfect position, knowing full well that it is imperfect, and cannot fully glorify himself with it, it tends to, at least, lend credibility to the notion that he is fighting for what he believes is actually good, or the best, and not so much for its imperfect reflection upon himself. But, then again, knowing a man’s intent is metaphysically impossible.

    In any case, I once again ramble long winded, I hope I do not waste your time writing too much, and rather like this post, and the whole concept that the greatest hedonism is often in ego, rather than in consumption.

  3. Self-righteousness has been on my mind a lot lately so this essay was just what I needed. I’m not so sure about the last paragraph, though, because it sounds like we’d all become pretty insufferable in the bedroom! I guess my hedonistic self wants romantic love to be a respite from all the self-righteous, smug crap I deal with out in the world, rather than the other way around.

  4. Susan says:

    Most socially unacceptable show and tells combine fear of rejection and shame. Isn’t it being selfish, and a bit self-righteous to express our secrets to another person within intimacy and ask them to accept us?
    We might feel relief for the moment but it conflicts the other person. That is being selfish. imo

  5. Thoughtfully and fairly argued. You touched on one issue that’s bothered me recently: utilitarianism says (in various ways) that we should act to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, but it doesn’t tell us “the greatest number of whom?” Acting for the good of all humanity is an ideal that’s wonderful on the very rare occasions when it applies, but it usually doesn’t. So we’re left with the question: Whose welfare counts in our utilitarian calculus? I don’t think there’s a provable answer; it’s more of an existential choice.

    Romantic love is simultaneously the best and the worst thing that can happen to a person. Ironically, that makes it even better.

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