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How To Avoid “Holier-Than-Thou” Syndrome

I saw a very interesting column in the New York Times today.

The column presents some evidence that a large chasm exists between what an individual will claim they would do in a given situation and what one would actually do in that given situation.

In other words our actions betray our feelings of righteousness. (How funny is it that the columnist’s named is Benedict? well, it made me smile…).

As I was reading the article, which I highly recommend I kept thinking: Why is this idea so natural to me? Where else have I seen this?

The answer was really obvious.

The article talks about the “holier-than-thou” effect. People overstimate how they would behave if they were in a specific situation. For example, most of us probably think that we never take steroids if we were athletes, or that if we were investment bankers we never would have inflated the market for personal gain, or any other time you have been morally horrified.

The truth is, that most of us would have made the same decisions. How do we know? By setting people up.

Like 83% of college student at Cornell believed they would buy a flower to benefit cancer research and that only 56% of their peers would buy a flower.

In reality only 43% actually bought flowers. That is very few.

The article then veers into murky waters.

One practice that can potentially temper feelings of moral superiority is religion. All major faiths emphasize the value of being humble and the perils of hubris. “In humility count others as better than yourself,” St. Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians.

The article concludes that those who are religious have an even higher percentage of individuals who think they will outperform their peers in moral challenges.

Maybe the element of humility is not the key to avoiding “holier-than-thou” effect.

In Judaism we have a basic precept to avoid this problem.

One who sees someone sin must concoct an excuse or rationale for the wrongful behavior they witnessed. We are not permitted to think that someone else did wrong. It is irrelevant and mostly harmful to ourselves. There is a couple of great books that train us how to do this. You learn how to judge others favorably.

Further, we also have the following rule. “Do not judge your friend until you stand in his place”. This is exactly how to avoid “holier-than-thou” syndrome. Don’t think about it. You are incapable of making a moral judgment as an outsider. Until you are in the exact same situation you cannot possibly assess whether the other person made a good or bad judgment. In truth, you will never stand in his place. You will never know what his state of mind or affairs was. Nor do any two people have the same challenges.“Do not judge your friend until you stand in his place”.

Finally, we have another rule to avoid the “holier-than-thou” effect. “Do not trust yourself to avoid sin until the day you die”. We must be vigilant until our final moments because we can always fall. When you are aware that you are susceptible to failure, you are more likely to stay off the high horse. It also shortens the gap between those who are good and those who they think may not yet be so good. You can fall at any time. Don’t get “holier-than-thou”.

Now it all makes sense. The columnist helped me review these rules by showing how without these rules society runs a huge risk. It makes me more thankful to have been taught these ideas and now I am sharing them with you.

Live by these rules and I guarantee you will find more things to smile about, more things to brighten your day and more way to bring happiness to others.

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May 2009

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