Two Bad Ideas of the Morally (Self) Righteous
by Daniel A. Kaufman
The spectacle of moralizers being exposed as moral cretins themselves is something that everyone who remembers the televangelist scandals of the last several decades will be familiar with. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard…, in each case it was discovered that a prominent person, who had spent a good portion of his career engaged in the aggressive moral condemnation of others, had been engaged all the while in terrible behavior himself. Today, this cadre of unpleasant, right-wing moral scolds has been joined by left-wing intellectuals from the Academy and particularly, self-styling progressive philosophers, most recently, Mark Alfano, a philosopher at the Delft University of Technology. Not only has Alfano started a petition to get a graduate student’s published paper on race and IQ retroactively removed from the journal, Philosophical Psychology, he has said that he is doing it in order to “ruin his reputation permanently and deservedly.”  One thing about Alfano that makes him eerily reminiscent of the Swaggarts and Haggards of the world is that morality and virtue are his big game, his primary areas of expertise and research, not to mention – and you really can’t make this sort of thing up – “epistemic humility,” research on which has landed him hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grant money. 
What this suggests is that the tendency of moral (self) righteousness to coincide with some pretty awful personalities is deeply human, rather than something distinctive of a particular ideological viewpoint, and I wonder whether this in part explains the uncanny similarity between religious fundamentalists and woke progressives who on paper would seem to have nothing in common. But this comparison, interesting as it may be, is not my main focus. Rather, I want to explore two ideas that are ubiquitous among the morally (self) righteous, of whatever stripe, and which may somewhat explain why they behave so awfully so often.
The first is that the rightness of one’s cause justifies and even ennobles terrible behavior on one’s own part. Dr. Alfano surely knows that trying to ruin peoples’ reputations is a rotten thing to do, but because he purports to be doing so on behalf of anti-racism, it’s ok, even admirable. Rachel McKinnon cannot be unaware that cheering someone’s untimely, painful death is appalling behavior, but because she is doing it as part of a righteous struggle for trans rights – which is what McKinnon claimed she was doing after taking to social media to whoop it up over the death by brain cancer of a young, lesbian activist (Magdalen Berns), who was a vocal opponent of trans-activist politics and policy – it is not only acceptable, but a noble thing to do. After her initial Tweet that “It’s okay to celebrate, even to be happy, when bad people die” received considerable pushback even from those on her side of the issue, she went on to double down, writing “Don’t be the sort of person who people you’ve harmed are happy you’re dying of brain cancer.” 
The second – and it is intimately related to and entwined with the first – is that those whom the (self) righteous believe are Bad People deserve neither quarter nor pity. The idea isn’t just that The Bad deserve what they get, a kind of melancholic observation of what comes of bad Karma, but that we should put the boot in (especially when they are down) and should be brutal in doing it…and pitiless afterwards.
In adolescents, these dispositions are common and for the most part normal, though certainly something to be outgrown, as they represent some of humanity’s worst instincts. My seventeen year old daughter can be quite harsh in her judgments of those whom she dislikes or of whom she disapproves and rather coldblooded in her reactions when contemplating or confronted with their suffering, and while I know that this is normal at her stage of emotional development, I still find it sufficiently shocking to push back quite vigorously. I somewhat ashamedly remember being that way myself, as an adolescent and young adult, but with every year that passes, I become increasingly aware of my own myriad failures and shortcomings and find myself inclined to pity those whose misfortunes are the result of their own misdeeds, rather than wish ill upon them or revel when they get their comeuppance. There but for the grace of God go I. I’ve thought that. More than once.
The televangelists were a bunch of sleazy, churlish rubes, so their disgraces neither surprised nor shocked. To see philosophy professors – and especially, those whose main areas of research are in ethics and social justice – exhibit such cruel inclinations with so much glee and gusto, however, is shocking…and ugly. The proffered explanation – that some graduate student publishing a paper on race and IQ or a punk lesbian YouTuber expressing her opposition to unisex changing rooms somehow, indirectly, by way of fifteen layers of alleged causation, effects such enormous harm upon marginalized groups that the person in question must be crushed, eviscerated, destroyed at all cost – is so preposterous on its face that it comes off as little more than a cheap rationalization. And it is as clear an expression of the two (bad) ideas that we’ve been discussing that one could have.
It is one thing to condemn a person’s actions and even the person him or herself, but it is another to set oneself up as an unofficial criminal justice system and quite another to dispense one’s justice in the sadistic manner on display here. I think McKinnon and Alfano and the rest of the philosophy woke brigade are terrible actors within our discipline, and I express that point of view by writing about it.  But I don’t want them to be driven out of their jobs in disgrace. I don’t want them to lose all of their friends. I don’t want their already distraught intimates to see me dancing on their loved one’s grave online. I don’t want to make their kids cry.
They and the whole business just make me sad and hopeless and desperate for academic philosophy, which already was in terrible shape before these characters came along and made things even worse. My overwhelming feeling is that it’s just such a damned pity, and I use that word deliberately.
 See, for example:
I also issued a general call for philosophers to stop doing this sort of thing.