A wise minister once told me, “Self-righteousness is at the root of all bad behavior”.

A recent conversation with a conservative ideologue found me defending social services and the sitting president against the following claims:

“People abuse social services”
“The country hasn’t been moral since Reagan”
“The president acts like a celebrity, it’s a popularity contest”
“Businesses made this country great”

These vague claims aren’t truly verifiable; even metrics that can be measured, like social service abuse, can be meaningless when used as booleans — if there’s abuse, it can’t be supported.

At their heart, these are coded arguments about “they way things SHOULD be”. Should is a loaded idea. Should means the righteousness of ‘my perception is the correct perception, my beliefs are the right beliefs’.

Everyone has “should” beliefs. Many liberals believe education should be provided universally. Many conservatives believe social services should be provided by individuals and religious organizations. Liberal extremists believe environmental destruction should be met with violence. Conservative extremists believe abortion doctors should be jailed or murdered. I believe Justin Beiber should stop making music. There are a wide variety of ‘should’ beliefs.

Complications arise when an individual or group’s ‘should’ belief imposes or results in material harm or destruction. Three examples:

“Polluting companies should forfeit profits”
“Welfare recipients should receive less money.”
“Jim, you shouldn’t watch football all Sunday.”

These are ‘should beliefs’ that materially impact an affected party; they’re often in conflict with that party’s ‘should beliefs’. In many cases, we keep these to ourselves. The connection between these examples is that both parties have material stake in the outcome.

profits vs. environment
welfare benefits vs. tax dollars
ability to get your partner to do the dishes vs. your partner’s desire to watch the ‘Boys play.

Obviously, some of these conflicts are more lopsided or serious than others, such as the value of those tax dollars to the payor versus the value to the recipient. For the purpose of this argument, I will call those beliefs “asymmetric shoulds”. But there’s much more room to debate in these cases than in the cases I’m about to discuss.

The most pernicious ‘asymmetric shoulds’ are beliefs that are based on an existential harm to the holder. To illustrate, I’ll change the wording on a previous example:

“Welfare recipients should receive less money.”

“Welfare recipients should work for their money.”

Do you see the difference? A value judgement has come into play. The first statement equates to “You should do this because I want to keep more tax dollars”. The second statement?

“You should do this because people should work for their money.” Huh. Where is the harm to the holder of this belief?

One could argue a chain of causation that benefits the holder materially: ‘if they work for the money they’ll be off welfare sooner and I’ll have more tax dollars’. But I argue that the perceived harm isn’t rational in most cases. It’s an existential harm, a harm to belief.

Here are a few examples:

“Women should wear more modest clothing”
“Apostates of Islam should be killed”
“Abortion should be illegal in every circumstance”
“Justin Beiber should stop making music”

In these cases, the holder of the belief has no material or tangible claim of harm, jokes about your ears bleeding aside. However, the material harm to the subject of the belief can be as significant as death. Religious terrorism and moral codes are simple examples of imposed asymmetric shoulds. I’d like to discuss more nuanced examples, which brings us back to the political discussion I had yesterday.

One woman I spoke with confided in me:

“I just want to say, I’ve been on the government benefits, and they’ve helped a lot. I’m on the Obamacare, and it helps, I’m thankful for it. But I’m just a Republican through and through. It’s just the way I am. I can’t bring myself to vote for liberals. But I understand where you’re coming from and am glad you care.”

She’d been verbally abused by her husband, and moved out eight weeks ago with her child. She was filing for divorce, and had gotten help from friends and from the state to keep her and her child fed and safe.

She’s fallen victim to cognitive dissonance caused by reality, exacerbated by ‘shoulds’.

“Middle class people shouldn’t need welfare”
“People should get what they deserve if they work hard”
“Families should stay together”

Here’s a statement I’ll end with, which is how someone explained cognitive dissonance to me once, and it stuck. And it’s mournful.

I’m in violation of my beliefs. I must change, because changing my beliefs is too painful.”