The One Thing Needful

Our favorite emotion


In his latest HBO special, the comedian Louis CK tells the following story. He is sitting in the courtyard of the luxury apartment building to which he has recently moved, looking like his usual disreputable self. A fellow resident, one of those uptight businessman types, approaches him suspiciously. He’s never seen the comedian before, and he wants to know what he’s doing there. Louis plays him for a bit, pretending to be a bum who has wandered in off the street. The guy retreats, accosts the doorman, and demands that the offending presence be removed. The scene concludes with Louis watching from the courtyard, savoring the pain and confusion that cross the businessman’s face as the doorman explains that the vagrant in question is actually a neighbor.

It’s a funny bit, and it works because Louis can assume with perfect confidence that we’re going to respond to his antagonist—the stiff white dude who makes himself the butt of the joke—exactly as he wants us to: with feelings of moral superiority. Never mind that nine out of 10 of us, in that situation, would behave exactly the same. Never mind that Louis rigs the game by lying when the guy inquires who he is. Louis knows (it is the implicit premise of much of his superlatively artful comedy) that there is nothing we’re more ready to believe in than our own membership in the elect.

Ah, the sweet, sweet taste of moral superiority. How deeply it addicts us. Who can live without it, even for a day? It is the secret mainspring of our politics, our public discourse, half the things we read or write on the Web, a giant swath of our culture, most of celebrity journalism, and a major chunk of the academic humanities. It is the psychological purpose of political correctness. The mommy wars, the culture wars, the wars we wage around the Thanksgiving table: all possess it as their subtext. The partisan media is largely a parade of superiority pushers, superiority pimps. Those conservatives, those racists, those Bible-thumpers—or conversely, those liberals, those elitists, those traitors. The Trayvon Martin case was a cause for genuine anger and action. The case of Paula Deen? That was pure superiority-mongering. Rooting for the underdog, or chronic losers like the Mets or Browns, does not make you morally superior. Neither does being from Chicago as opposed to New York, or Europe as opposed to America, or the present as opposed to the past. Nor does belonging to a historically disadvantaged group—blacks, Jews, women, gays, whatever else you can think of to put yourself on the right side of the ledger. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that this post is itself an example of what I am talking about.)

What is it with moral superiority? Why does the need for it consume us? Is it a universal phenomenon, the kind of thing that evolutionary psychologists would concoct an explanation for, or is it specific to a particular time and place—perhaps modernity, the post-Reformation West? Maybe the explanation is as simple as this: it is the only form of superiority that we can all reliably feel, and pretty much whenever we want to. Which begs the question: why must we feel superior at all?

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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