January 30, 2024

OBASEKI | The Misguidance of Moral Supremacy

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“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”

― Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow

The height of humility is admitting that you, the reader, might be the very subject of these words. Despite how morally righteous your philosophy, ideology, or movement may be, it’s ultimately subject to the corruptive nature of human beings in our desire for righteous indignation. It is understandable that we all want to be good people, or at least strive to do good. But this impulse inevitably leads us to consider ourselves either better than those who embody such ‘evil,’ or do not strive for the same good that we do. Do all you can to work against this impulse for moral supremacy, and broaden your Cornell experience by engaging with opposing and challenging views. If not, you will compromise your own principles and movements.

This natural thought of moral supremacy is what underlines the “crusades” that Huxley identifies. History is full of moral crusades, and we needn’t look far to identify harmful movements of the past, such as pogroms of the 20th century. But there are honorable moral crusades, such as that of the Civil Rights Movement, that ushered in a much more moral society. 

Also consider that Cornell has been through its fair share of moral crusades. From the disarmament movement of years ago to protests relating to conflicts in the Middle East that occur now. We should consider that we are not immune to the impulses towards moral crusades, and understand that they can be malformed by this surest, most natural and easiest form of motivation in exaggerating your sense of self-righteousness in cruelty towards another.

You do not need to be a philosophy major to surmise that human beings have an inherent capacity for cruelty. What is interesting is our equal capacity to rationalize such cruelty as righteous, because we never want to compromise our moral sense of self. No war is fought by those who believe themselves an agent of evil, so they simply justify their actions in the perception of their political opposition as such an agent that deserves to be stopped by all means. As collective frustrations from a lack of social change increases, so does the demand for more impactful actions, which incentivises a heightened perception of one’s political opposition as evil in their obstructive nature: this is polarization.  

In this era of social media, we’re often confined to echo chambers that reinforce negative perceptions of opposing views, leading to acts of cruelty such as political violence, doxxing, and scandalizing. Even on our own campus, we can observe the effects of this corruptive nature of self-righteousness. The aforementioned moral crusades that occurred at Cornell have led to similar outcomes, as students have been doxxed, harassed and threatened for the positions and identities that they had. This mistreatment is the height of “psychological luxury,” particularly when individuals take it upon themselves to mete out vigilante-like punishment, believing they are creating positive change by harming such perceived evil. While not everyone engages in such cruelty, we are collectively guilty of permitting or ignoring it when those we believe deserving are targeted.

This trend is continuously highlighted in studies of political polarization, as polarized individuals increasingly see the other side as an existential threat. And I fear that, despite how morally righteous new social movements intend to be, they will all be undermined by this increasing sentiment that one’s very neighbor is his enemy and an existential threat to himself and his nation. But that simply is not the reality. What is real is that it is far too easy for these emotions to be exploited by political and social leaders for their own benefit. 

As future leaders, us Cornellians must be aware of the corrosive impact of moral self-righteousness in our understanding of others. It’s crucial to acknowledge our shortcomings and actively strive against them by seeking to understand perspectives different from our own. The solution is quite simple: actively seek to understand the other side. That doesn’t mean taking the descriptions of your political allies as absolute, but instead engaging with individuals you see as political opposites of yourself. Understand their background, why they hold their beliefs and you will be surprised by how much common ground there is to work with. There are plenty of opportunities on campus to understand the other, whether through classes on dissenting topics or participation in organizations like the Cornell Political Union. In my experience with them, I have discovered some of the kindest people that I know who disagree with me on almost every issue. When disconnected from the echo chambers of social media and our friend groups, forming such uncommon and beneficial relationships are made much more possible.

Let us not fall victim to blindly concluding our political opposition is essentially evil, because it is the thought that they are deserving of maltreatment that will always corrupt our own social movements. Regardless of where we stand politically, it is only through proper exposure to and understanding of the other side that we can work against this impulse towards cruelty, or the permittance thereof.

Daniel Obaseki is a fourth year student in the College of Arts and Sciences and the President of the Cornell Political Union. His fortnightly column Beyond Discourse focuses on politics, culture, and student life at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].

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