Benefits of righteousness

Costs of righteousness

For the purposes of this link, I will not examine the benefits of righteousness against oneself (self-blame). I'll focus only on righteousness towards others.

The costs of righteousness are huge. I cover those in several other links in AskDwightHow. But, in broad summary the costs include:

  • Severely limiting your ability and interest to assess the benefits, costs, possibilities, and risk of the actionable options that are available or might be available to you in a given circumstance.

  • Stimulating the person or people you are righteous with to withdraw, get defensive, and/or respond with their righteousness, any one of which is not likely to be in your favor.

  • A willingness to act without concern (and even awareness) of the collateral damage that is often created by your righteous behavior.

  • Although actions taken as an expression of your righteousness can make you feel momentarily good, you are likely to feel regret or remorse after you later assess the damage you have caused by your righteous actions, especially for the damage you caused for those that you care about.

Why do we indulge in righteousness, given all the costs?

Continuing and widespread costly behaviors would not persist if there were not benefits to cash in on. Feeling and acting on righteousness is no exception.

It feels good

Righteousness feels good, especially when first triggered. It gives us a sense of (usually false) power. It gives us energy. It also helps us to suppress feelings of hurt or fear. 

It protects us from self-blame

For those of us (which is almost everybody) who live inside the paradigm of the good-bad world (a world in which somebody has to be blamed for anything bad that happens), blaming others often occurs as more palatable than blaming ourselves. My mother, who continued to blame my father after she left him until she died almost 30 years later, in a moment of insight, once told me, "If I didn't blame him, I would have to blame myself for leaving such a needy man."

It connects us to others and elicits support

We can almost always find others who will agree with us that we are the victim. They will feel sorry for us and may even come to our support. It may be the quiet support of a friend agreeing that your ex-husband or ex-wife was a jerk. Or it may be more expressive support (and sense of shared victimhood) as in the case of rallies, riots, and wars.

It can (sometimes) be effective in getting a desired result

A righteous person is often willing to incur self-damage as long as they can inflict damage/pain on the offender. This can, in some circumstances, give them a power to get what they want much more than if they took into account their own self-care. Witness the suicide bomber.


I was asked to negotiate the divorce between my parents, given that paying lawyers was going to eat significantly into the estate in dispute. I would alternate talking with my father on the phone and then talking with my mother on the phone. In one conversation with my mother, she said to me, "I just want to make him hurt." I replied, "Well, Mama, we could probably design some actions specifically to hurt him more than he already is. But I think you're going to have to make a choice. Either we focus on hurting him or we focus on you getting the best possible division of the estate. Which do you want?" She was smart enough to realize that acting on her righteousness would be shooting herself in the foot.

Righteousness can seem necessary to take care of oneself

All righteousness is defensiveness and all defensiveness is righteousness. Perhaps there are rare cases where righteousness (or better yet, a pretense of righteousness) may be helpful in taking care of yourself. However, excluding these isolated exceptions, you will be taking care of yourself much better by listening, seeking to understand, being curious, showing respect, and/or creating and maintaining good boundaries for yourself.

Righteousness is like our sugar, salt, and oil addiction

Just as our cravings for sugar, salt, and oil kept us alive during our tribal, hunter-gather days, but are killing us off in our modern world, the same is true for righteousness. Most probably the individual survival benefits of righteousness were more than the costs prior to 10,000 years ago. Today the opposite is true. Will you be able to kick your addiction to righteousness? If you're interested, check out undoing shoulds.