A Moral Superiority Diet

Forget Ben and Jerry's ice cream or Godiva chocolate, there's no sinful pleasure like that delightful sense that "we" are so much "better" (more developed, more moral, more spiritually advanced) than "them."

At least two recent items in the news gave me that seductive pleasure, big time.

First, there is the report that a new biography of Gandhi has been interpreted by some people as suggesting that the Mahatma had a homosexual relationship with a long-time German follower. Even though the author denied that he was claiming this, the Indian state of Maharashtra banned the book, and many have called on the Indian government to make the banning national.

Could anything be more ironic? Gandhi's whole life was dedicated to the idea of truth. He used the word "satyagraha"—literally "truth force"—to define his non-violent approach to politics. He subtitled his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. So to honor this man, we ban a book because we don't like what it says. We don't seek to disprove it; we just try to wipe it out our minds.

The second example is much more serious, one to be greeted with horror rather than irony. In Afghanistan, enraged by the burning of a Qur'an by a Florida pastor, whipped up into a frenzy by local clerics, people went on a murderous rampage that left (at this count) around twenty dead.

However disrespectful, downright nasty, and unChristian the burning of the Qur'an, it is, after all, only a book. Even if God wrote the book, there are millions of other copies. But each person, we are told, and even told by the very book whose burning seems to have led some Muslims to a murderous rage, is made in the image of God and has the capacity to realize divine truth on earth. Surely there is no place in the Qur'an where it says that people are less important than copies of books, even books with divine authors.

And so the delightful sense of superiority: we would never ban a book because we didn't like what it said; and we would certainly not kill people for burning a Bible or even spitting in the Holy Water. Our spirituality, our religious sensitivities, are just better.

However, just like too much ice cream or chocolate leads to the inevitable expanded waistline and rising cholesterol levels, so a bout of moral superiority can lead to a nagging sense that things are a little more complicated.

Take the Gandhi book. Yes, its banning is a patent case of spiritual self-contradiction. But, if I look at myself (and, as Thoreau observed, there is no one else I know so well), am I really spiritually consistent, pure, and without fault? Do I not promise myself that I will practice spiritual virtues of compassion, peacefulness, and humility—and then find myself making fun of other people and patting myself on the back for my spiritual superiority? Haven't I written books on ecological responsibility and still found myself eating meat, not recycling, and buying stuff I don't need? Haven't I said, "To be more calm and accepting I ought to meditate more," and then watched some dumb TV or played a computer game instead?

My personal spiritual house is made of glass, and I am hardly the person to throw stones. That doesn't mean I can't gently explain why I think Gandhi himself would reject censoring a biography of him whatever it said. But I had better do it—as Gandhi taught—as one weak-willed sinner to another, not from a falsely assumed position of moral advantage.

As for the "religious" mob violence in Afghanistan. Well, I've certainly never done anything like that, and can hardly understand the mindset of people who do. But, as Thomas Merton observed, that may just be because much of the violence of developed countries is cool, controlled, detached, and distant. It was my—our—country that invaded Iraq, causing God knows how many civilian deaths (10,000? 50,000? more?), that has supported countless repressive dictators and right-wing regimes (El Salvador, Guatemala, Shah of Iran, etc.). It is our energy use that in vastly disproportionate way contributes to global warming, leading to increasingly lethal storms in Bangladesh, droughts in Latin America, and the need to abandon island nations in the Pacific.

The Muslim fanatic murders in Afghanistan are terrible. But so is a great deal of what we do. That we do not do it for religious reasons, but for comfort, "national interest," or power doesn't make it better. Different, certainly; but not better.

And so I'll try to go on a diet from moral superiority. I'll certainly miss feeling better than other people, but if my ego slims down I'm sure to feel better in the long run.

4/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Spirituality in an Age of Ecocide
  • Violence
  • Gandhi
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • Morality
  • Quran
  • Roger Gottlieb
    About Roger Gottlieb
    Roger S. Gottlieb (gottlieb@wpi.edu) is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters.