Most of us don’t like to be wrong, or to be confronted with the fact that we might have a skewed view of things. But sometimes being too sure of ourselves and of our own motives can be very dangerous. That’s especially true if we think we have moral right on our side. Self-righteousness can blind us to what’s really going on in a situation and can lead to disaster. If you don’t already know what I mean, a quick look at crime fiction should suffice to make my point clear.
Agatha Christie explores this whole sense of self-righteousness in more than one of her works. Just as an example, we can look at Christie’s short story The Edge. In that story, we meet thirty-two-year-old Clare Halliwell. She’s well-liked in the village of Daymer’s End, is an efficient parish worker and is generally thought of as a good sort. For years, she and Gerald Lee have been friends and in fact, Clare thought they would marry. But then Gerald suddenly married Vivien Harper, a woman few in the village like very much. Clare certainly doesn’t like her. One day by accident, Clare finds out that Vivien has been having an affair. Now she’s faced with a dilemma: should she tell Gerald what she knows since they’re friends, or should she say nothing? As she debates about what the right thing to do is, she fails to really accept her own very personal interest in breaking up the Lees’ marriage. Vivien begs her to say nothing and Clare agrees, at least for the present. But very slowly their relationship changes. Vivien becomes afraid of Clare and in this story, the tension mounts as Clare moralises about what to do while Vivien becomes more and more afraid. In the end, Clare’s unwillingness to look at her own motives and her own behaviour leads to disaster.
Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is in part the story of the McKell family. Successful entrepreneur Ashton McKell seems to be having an affair with fashion designer Sheila Grey. When McKell’s son Dane discovers what his father’s been doing, he’s determined to confront his father’s mistress and stop the affair, mostly for the sake of his mother Lutetia. When he meets Sheila Grey he decides to make her fall in love with him so as to ruin her relationship with his father, or so he tells himself. But instead Dane McKell finds himself falling in love with Grey, and the two begin an affair. Then one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned the case and he and his son Ellery begin to investigate. All three of the McKells fall under suspicion at one point or another, but each has a solid alibi. In the end, it takes a cryptic clue that the victim left behind for Queen to figure out who really killed Sheila Grey. Throughout this novel we see how Dane McKell is not honest with himself about his motives. He tells himself that he wants to help his parents keep their marriage together. He also tells himself that his motive for continuing to see Sheila Grey is that he genuinely loves her. And it’s not clear if either of those things is really true.
In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the White House, Ron Fairbanks is tapped to be special counsel to US President Robert Webster. He doesn’t agree with Webster politically, but Webster doesn’t mind that; he claims that he wants Fairbanks’ unvarnished opinions. So with some misgivings Fairbanks accepts the job. Then disaster strikes. Secretary of State Lansard Blaine is murdered one night in a part of the White House without public access. Webster gives Fairbanks carte blanche to investigate so that it will be clear that the administration has nothing to hide. Fairbanks takes his boss at his word and begins his search for the truth. In doing so he uncovers some secrets in Blaine’s life as well as the lives of the Websters. In the end it turns out that the person who shot Blaine was convinced that the murder had what you could call an altruistic motive. That belief in the rightness of the murderer’s thinking turns out to have disastrous consequences.
We also see that kind of self-righteousness in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma. Precious Ramotswe has recently opened the first female-owned detective agency in Botswana and is of course interested in getting new clients. So when wealthy Mr. Paliwalar Patel expresses interest in hiring Mma. Ramotswe, she is eager to find out what the case will be. When she hears what Patel wants though, she is less sure that she really wants to take it. Patel is convinced that his sixteen-year-old daughter Nandira is seeing a boy and he wants Mma. Ramotswe to shadow Nandira and find out who the boy is. Mma. Ramostwe doesn’t think that Patel is right to have his own daughter followed, nor does she see anything wrong with Nandira finding a boyfriend at the age of sixteen. She tries to reason with Patel, but he refuses to listen, insisting that letting children live their own lives is “modern nonsense.” Mma. Ramotswe finally agrees to at least find out what she can. When she discovers the truth behind Nandira’s behaviour, we see even more clearly how Patel’s self-righteousness has affected his thinking and his relationship with his daughter.
And then there’s Thea Farmer, whom we meet in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Farmer is a retired school principal who had a beautiful home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. After making a disastrous financial decision, Farmer lost her money and her beautiful home and has had to settle for a house she calls “the hovel” next door to her dream home. Farmer resents it greatly when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington purchase the home that was once hers and move in. Not only does she mourn the loss of her home but she doesn’t want to live near anyone. So she feels nothing but hostility toward her new neighbours whom she refers to as “the invaders.” She doesn’t like it any better when Frank’s niece, twelve-year-old Kim, moves in with Frank and Ellice. Bit by bit though, Farmer gets to know Kim and gradually develops a friendship with her. In the meantime she’s also met Frank and Ellice a few times and finds herself thawing towards especially Frank. The better she gets to know Kim the more suspicious Farmer becomes about what may be going on in the house she thought of as hers. Those suspicions may be completely groundless – or not. But Farmer is thoroughly convinced of the rightness of her own views on the matter and is unwilling to see clearly how her own past affects her judgement in this particular matter. She’s also unwilling to question her own behaviour in the matter. That self-righteousness turns out to have devastating consequences.
And that’s the thing about self-righteousness when it goes too far. When one’s convinced one’s on the moral high ground it’s hard to look closely at one’s own motivations and behaviour. Not doing that though can lead to tragedy.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shades of Gray.