The Myth of the Moral Highground

Is there such a thing as a moral highground?  I have heard people say that they can accept certain people’s behaviour, on the basis that they “are a better person”.  They have chosen their beliefs in themselves, their faith, whatever, and made a judgement call as to who is a better person.  But then, who is a better person above them? And above them? Isn’t it all about perspective anyway?

Believing that we are better than someone else is a falsity and a tragedy, in my opinion.  It can lead to all sorts of destructive behaviour, from bullying to arrogance to war.  Passing a homeless drug addict in the street – do you believe that you are better than that person? Finding out about someone’s infidelity – does that make you a better person? Working for charities, donating time and money – does that make you a better person?

Do you think Mother Theresa thought she was better than the rest of us by doing what she did? I hardly think so.

We all make mistakes. We all have moments of enlightenment, and moments of dark despair. Our lives have happiness and tragedy in them.  Yet claiming that we are better than someone else is simply to say that our circumstances are better than theirs – and circumstances can change on a dime.  As a noun, the dictionary defines circumstance as “a condition, detail, part, or attribute, with respect to time, place, manner, agent, etc., that accompanies, determines, or modifies a fact or event; a modifying or influencing factor: Do not judge his behaviour without considering every circumstance”.  We cannot even consider every circumstance, for we are in no way omniscient. We could become the homeless drug addict, and then where has the better person gone?

We are all on a level playing field.  The search for a moral highground is like looking for the Holy Grail.  All that each person can do is simply to do the best that they can at any given point in time. Sometimes their best may not be all that “good”, whether the person has had moments of enlightenment or not.  Yet to judge ourselves against others only separates us further from others, which leads to an Us and Them mentality, in which horrendous things can occur such as war.

Surely we need morals to follow, else anarchy would reign?  For the most part, most people naturally want to do “good”.  Morals are constantly changing as well, as are opinions – else women would still be the property of their husbands, African Americans would still be relegated to the back of the bus and Britain would be ruled by the Christian Church. Trying to gain the moral highground on a level playing field just doesn’t work – you’d simply be jumping up and down trying to get above everyone else, and yet gravity would bring you back down each time.

Realising that no one is better than anyone else is the key to living a happier life, for you and everyone around you.  People who think that they are better may fall into destructive patterns.  They may not realise that by blowing out someone else’s candle, it doesn’t make theirs burn all the brighter.

Yet there is nothing wrong with living a life of discipline, and of trying to better oneself – to be more aware of one’s own patterns of behaviour.  If we accept that we are only doing the best we can at this point in time, there’s nothing to say that we can’t do better in the future. But we shouldn’t strive to do or be better than other people.  The work should be done on ourselves, with the realisation that the thinking behind “I am better than her” does not make you better, and can, indeed, make you worse.  It is simply putting one’s self onto a pedestal to gain the moral highground, and anyone can fall off the pedestal easily.  I know that the next time I find myself thinking that, I am going to step off my pedestal and get back to the level playing field, where I can look everyone in the eye and see that we are only doing as we can, and just to do the best that I personally can, which is no better than anyone around me.

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8 thoughts on “The Myth of the Moral Highground

  1. We are all works in progress 🙂 I think the questions to ask are more like… what can I do that would be good? What would work better for me, for those around me, for the planet? As soon as you’re point scoring, it’s not about good, its about appearances and illusions, and that’s a total waste of time. Great post.

  2. I agree Joanna. I do not believe in a moral high ground. If one thinks that because one is doing “moral” things this makes one better than others, one has already lost any high ground they think they had ascended to. People do what they have to do. It was in Mother Teresa’s heart to do the things that she did. I am sure she never thought of herself as great. Most true servants of mankind do not. I would also point to Therese de Lisieux’s “little way.” In her book, “Story of a Soul”, a book she wrote as a punishment imposed by her mother superior, she explains that she was not very powerful, or very smart, or very talented, but still she could serve in some little way every day. But this must be in your heart. If you do it for accolades, then it is an act of selfishness not selflessness.

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