Most people, including hardcore convicts, rate themselves as morally superior to others
If there is a heaven, do you think US President Donald Trump will get there?
How about Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie?
And what about you?
In 1997, an American newspaper conducted a survey in which 1,000 people were asked whether they and various celebrities were likely to get to heaven.
Topping the list was Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun and missionary who was widely admired for her charitable work among the poor in Calcutta. Seventy-nine per cent of those surveyed said she would make it through the Pearly Gates.
Other top-scoring celebrities were Oprah Winfrey (66 per cent) and Princess Diana (60 per cent).
But only 19 per cent of the respondents considered American footballer O. J. Simpson, who was tried on two counts of murder in 1994, heaven-worthy.
However, even though Mother Teresa topped the list of celebrities, she was not an outright winner.
Those surveyed gave an even bigger thumbs up (87 per cent) to someone else. Someone whom they considered even more virtuous and heaven-worthy - themselves.
Why do so many people view themselves as prime candidates for heaven?
The simple answer is that most people consider themselves morally superior to others.
Research has shown that almost everyone sees himself as more moral, more trustworthy, more honest, more dependable, more compassionate, more generous, more law-abiding, more self-controlled and kinder than the average person.
And since they rate themselves so highly on these virtuous traits, why wouldn't they expect to get to heaven?
When we judge other people's actions, we tend to attribute them to character rather than circumstances. But when we judge our own actions, we place much more emphasis on circumstances.
This remarkable tendency for people to rate their own qualities and abilities higher than those of others is well established in the field of social psychology.
It is often labelled illusory superiority, or the above-average effect.
It applies to almost everyone, even those who would seem to have little reason to think of themselves as especially good.
In 2014, researchers from some British and American universities interviewed inmates of a prison in the United Kingdom and asked them to rate themselves on various personality traits relative to their fellow inmates, and relative to the general population.
Most of those interviewed had been convicted of violent crimes or robbery.
As you might expect, the prisoners rated themselves as kinder, more trustworthy, more generous, more compassionate and more honest than their fellow prisoners.
But, more surprisingly, given the nature of their offences, they also considered themselves kinder, more trustworthy, more generous, more compassionate and more honest than the general (non-prison) population.
And, despite the fact that many of them had been convicted of serious crimes, they rated themselves as law-abiding as the non-prison population.
When it comes to being an upright and decent human being, most of us believe we are doing a terrific job.
But why are we so generous in our moral judgment of ourselves, compared with others?
Well, in general, the way people behave depends partly on their character and partly on their circumstances.
So, if we wish to judge people fairly, we should try to take both factors into account.
But that is not how we operate.
When we judge other people's actions, we tend to attribute them to character rather than circumstances.
But when we judge our own actions, we place much more emphasis on circumstances.
For example, if someone doesn't return our call, we consider him rude and inconsiderate. Whereas when we don't return a call, we excuse ourselves on the grounds that we are stressed, tired or overworked.
We make personal attributions for other people's behaviour, while making situational attributions for our own.
In other words, we are more sympathetic to our own faults and failures than we are to those of others.
•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Some more heaven-worthy than others?'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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