What’s so bad about smugness?

by Emrys Westacott

Elaine: “I hate smugness. Don’t you hate smugness?

Cabdriver, “Smugness is not a good quality.”

So goes a popular snippet from Seinfeld. In a 2014 article in The Guardian titled “Smug: The most toxic insult of them all?” Mark Hooper opined that “there can be few more damning labels in modern Britain than ‘smug.'” And CBS journalist Will Rahn declared, in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, that “modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing [is] its unbearable smugness.”

But what is smugness? What, exactly, do people find objectionable about it? And is it really such a terrible moral failing, worthy of being described as “unbearable”?

What is smugness?

For an immediate graphic example of smugness, just look at a picture of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson smirking in front of 10 Downing Street. For a less stomach-churning way of getting an initial handle on the concept, consider a few concrete instances. Here are four:

  • Someone on a very high income says, “Yes, I am well compensated, but I like to think I’ve earned it, and that I’m worth it. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to assume that pay reflects merit.”
  • A parent whose children have been admitted to prestigious universities, talking to one whose child is at a less selective college, says, “It’s nice to know that one’s kids will be taught by real experts in the field, and that their classmates will be at their intellectual level.”
  • A punter who has won $500 at the race track backing a rank outside can’t help smirking at the crestfallen faces of his friends who all backed the favorite.
  • A couple regularly preen themselves on their healthy and ecologically responsible eating habits.

Smugness is not arrogance. Arrogant people typically display a sense of their own importance and superiority with little subtlety: they strut; they are dogmatic; they are dismissive of others. Smugness shares with arrogance a high degree of self-satisfaction and a sense of some kind of superiority over others, but it typically manifests itself quietly and indirectly, without brashness. Muhammad Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” was undeniably sure about his own superiority as a boxer, and he was called many things–arrogant, loud-mouthed, lippy–but I don’t recall anyone describing him as smug.

Nor need smugness involve contempt for others. When Will Rahn sets about describing the “unbearable smugness” of the liberal media, he does not, in fact, really describe smugness. What he describes, and what he finds objectionable, isn’t the self-satisfaction of liberals who are convinced they are right on issues like climate change, or gay rights. Rather, it’s the contempt they show toward Trump supporters whom they dismiss as racist, sexist, ignorant, and backward. It is possible, of course, to be smug and arrogant, or smug and contemptuous. But it’s a mistake to assume that smugness necessarily entails these attitudes. The successful punter described above is smug, but he needn’t display arrogance or feel contempt for those less fortunate.

Why do people find smugness objectionable?

Self-satisfaction and feeling superior to others in some respect are not in themselves objectionable. In fact, for most of us they are often unavoidable. Presumably Einstein felt pretty pleased with himself when he learned that observations made during an eclipse in 1919 had vindicated his general theory of relativity. And ordinary mortals typically feel self-satisfied and superior when they win a game of scrabble, earn a promotion, receive an award, or are proved right about some disputed piece of trivia. It would be a stern moralist who would send us to hell for harboring such feelings.

Yet “smugness” is clearly a pejorative term. So just what is it about smugness that people find objectionable? This is surprisingly hard to pin down.

One might think that smugness is especially unbearable when it is unjustified. The proverbial case of the privileged scion born on third base and thinking he’s hit a triple comes to mind. But is it really the lack of warrant that galls us here? Consider the smug crank who smiles sadly at our blindness to the fact that the end of the world is nigh. He, too, is deluded; but we are more likely to return his pity than view him with moral disfavor. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, justified smugness may be harder to take than the kind that rests on self-deception and illusion. For in the latter case, we have the consolation, or at least the hope, that history or reality will eventually vindicate us and pop the smugster’s bubble.

Smugness is perhaps most objectionable when it is epistemologically justified but morally inappropriate–in less technical language, when it involves an “I was right and you were wrong and now you’re screwed!” situation. Trivial examples of such situations punctuate the interactions of every normal household (“I did tell you that you were too old for that kind of dancing.”) But it becomes distasteful if the misfortune suffered is severe (“I gave up smoking, he didn’t; now he’s got lung cancer and I’m running half-marathons.”) I would say, though, that in such cases it is not so much the smugness that is reprehensible as the lack of that sympathetic concern which ought, in a morally healthy individual, to check any inclination to be smug.

Smugness, as we have said, involves self-satisfaction and some sense of superiority. This may well be accompanied by, and can certainly foster, other failings: most obviously, a lack of humility, and an unwillingness to be self-critical. Here we approach familiar moral ground. Thomas Aquinas argued that pride is the original sin, the worst sin, and the source of all other sins, and numerous theologians have taken the same line. Yet smugness, while it is at odds with humility, surely falls far short of overweening pride. (And we might observe, in passing, that it is hard to imagine a form of smugness more extreme than that of religious believers who are utterly convinced that they number among the blessed while everyone else is damned.[1])

Another reason we might object to smugness is that we just plain don’t like someone else either being or feeling superior to us. This is understandable. It probably has an evolutionary basis. But notice, it isn’t a moral argument against smugness; it’s just an explanation of a psychological fact. The accompanying moral argument would be that smugness is objectionable because it causes others to feel inferior, and feeling inferior is an unpleasant experience. This is essentially a utilitarian argument (utilitarians assign a negative value to displeasure) and it can perhaps be given some weight–although I suspect most people will actually deny that encountering smugness excites feelings of inferiority in them.

One could also argue that the smug individual simply presents us with a displeasing spectacle. I’m inclined to think that this is closest to what most of us find objectionable about smugness. We just don’t like that self-satisfied smirk, that self-congratulatory inflection in the voice, that self-assured complacency in the body language. Note, though, that this is closer to an aesthetic objection than to a moral criticism, more like a complaint about the dorkiness and bad connotations of plus fours and tweeds rather than an ethical critique of grouse shooting.

Note, further, just how weak all the above objections to smugness are. Even if the smugness is unjustified, is accompanied by a dose of sinful pride, triggers a few feelings of inadequacy, and offends our taste, it still seems to be a vice without teeth, doing no-one any great harm. Indeed, one could go further. What does it say about me that I am displeased, even angered, by the mere spectacle of someone enjoying the relatively harmless pleasure known as smugness? Wouldn’t I be a better person if this didn’t upset me, just as I’d be more admirable and happier if I was free from envy? Better, surely, to be the kind of person who takes pleasure in the happiness of others so long as it doesn’t come at another’s expense.

Is smugness really so bad?

These reflections lead naturally to the question: Is smugness ever really so awful as to be “unbearable” (the adjective to which it is commonly yoked)? After all, it doesn’t usually do those who encounter it any actual harm. Nor are smug people prevented by their smugness from achieving happiness. On the contrary, happiness surely requires a certain degree of self-satisfaction. A Woody Allen type, whose only regret in life is that he isn’t somebody else, will always be discontented.

Imagine this. At your beautiful daughter’s first birthday party there are many guests, including twelve good fairies who arrive bearing wonderful gifts. Suddenly a thirteenth fairy shows up, angry that she was not invited, and curses your daughter. “She may be beautiful,” she cries, “but when she is fifteen she will prick her finger on a spindle and become thoroughly evil!” You are horrified. For one’s child to turn out evil is the worst fate imaginable, worse even than their death. But the twelfth fairy, who has not yet bestowed her gift, steps forward and says, “I cannot negate the curse entirely, but I can modify it. Your daughter will not become evil; but she will acquire one moral failing that she will have her whole life long. You must choose which it is to be from the following list: cruelty, callousness, dishonesty, insincerity, cowardice, ungenerosity, unkindness, bigotry, greed, avarice, sloth, lecherousness, gluttony, or smugness.”

Who wouldn’t choose smugness as the least toxic and the most bearable of all these evils?

I am not defending smugness. It may be a minor failing, but it is, admittedly, often an undesirable trait. We should distinguish, though between actions and feelings. We can work at not exhibiting smugness in our words and deeds; it is much harder to avoid feeling smug in some situations, just as it can be hard not to feel envy or jealousy. Still, over time even our feelings can to some extent be trained. And those of us who do succeed in avoiding smugness are surely entitled to feel quite pleased with ourselves.[2]

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[1]Aquinas in fact held that “in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God or it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. (Summa Theologiae, Question 94, Article 1)

[2]An earlier version of this essay appeared in Philosophy Now, Issue 123 (Dec. 2017)