8 Feb 2024

Self-Righteous Behaviour

We live in a world of moral absolutes – the healthy eater, the perfect parent, the ultra-marathon runner – all of whom lay claim to the moral high ground. For those of us stuck in the middle, it can be hard to hear anything other than the chorus of the righteous.

There are many ways to be self-righteous – about diet, about drinking or smoking, about composting or carbon footprints. At worst, self-congratulatory representations of exemplary lifestyle choices are broadcast to all and sundry, often on social media, as the epitome of virtue.

Self-righteousness manages to be both boring and enraging. It is boring because it comes from a smug cocoon of certainty, a place where intolerance and judgement thrive. There is no penetrating this complacency, because self-righteous people are blinkered and disengaged; they do not want to hear about other people’s points of views or opinions, because it will rock their boar. There is no communicating with them, no interchange of ideas, no point of connection.

Self-righteousness is also enraging because, by setting yourself up as judge and jury, you are in danger of branding yourself as a hypocrite, someone who preaches “my way or the highway”, and all too often falls at the first fence. Who hasn’t encountered the sanctimonious eco-activist, who still hops on a long-haul flight from time to time to enjoy a week in the sun? Or the self-satisfied health food fanatic, who can occasionally be seen grabbing a surreptitious burger? While, in most cases, we would find these lapses only human and feel a sense of affinity and sympathy towards the transgressor, in the case of the self-righteous offender we feel understandably resentful that we have had to submit to their boring blandishments, only to see them breaking their own rules.

Ultimately, it comes down to conviction. If you have feelings of conviction about something, are prepared to speak up about it, defend your point of view, listen to counter-arguments, offer persuasive ripostes, you will simply be seen as a person who is passionate about their beliefs and feels strongly about certain things. Provided that you are prepared to listen to other people and are not liable to dismiss them out of hand, pour scorn on their point of view, or deride them for their beliefs, you will not have fallen into the trap of self-righteousness. Indeed, if you really do listen to other people, you may find your conviction begins to erode, and you might be capable of changing your mind, watering down your stance, making concessions. Other people will feel that you are truly engaging with them and respecting them and will not feel stirrings of resentment.

But if you are not interested in hearing what other people say, if you dismiss their point of view as being quite simply ‘wrong’, then you are crossing over into self-righteous territory. This will be compounded if you associate your own views with virtue and moral superiority. It is so much easier to persuade people if you admit your own uncertainty and fallibility.

Why, even when it’s hard to find fault with its cause, is self-righteousness so unattractive – and usually so ineffective? Real conviction tends to have a softer, more persuasive voice than the shrill cry of righteousness.

If you’re tempted to be self-righteous, ask yourself whether joyless sanctimony ever charmed anyone into changing their mind.

More often, it will drive its targets into contrary wilfulness. Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of being set a good example: your ex-smoker friend pointedly waving away your smoke just makes you want to blow smoke rings in his face; the healthy diet bore who monologues relentlessly about chia seeds and gut biomes makes you want to order, and salivate over, saturated fats and carbs.

If you are intent on saving the world and everyone in it, remember that self-righteousness will get you nowhere – don’t wear your cause on your sleeve but tucked firmly away in an inside pocket. If you want to be liked and respected, climb down from your soapbox and take the time to really listen to the people around you and occasionally admit you're wrong.


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Get In Touch
Subscription Enquiries
+44 (0)330 3339699
General Enquiries
+44 (0)20 3950 5240
Join our weekly newsletter
Subscription Form
MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Designed by Anna Ocipinska. Developed by BuiltByGo. © 2022 Debrett’s. All Rights Reserved
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.