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The Practice of Pride*

  • Tara Smith (a1)


Pride has been denounced as one of the seven deadly sins and praised as the crown of the virtues. Perhaps because of the difficulty of navigating between these appraisals, pride has not been paid very much attention by ethicists. Moreover, pride is so familiar as a feeling that the suggestion that it could be a virtue may seem misplaced.



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1 Aquinas's discussion of the deadly sins is probably the best known, though the classification goes at least as far back as St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1975), p. 232. On pride as the crown of the virtues, see Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Ross, W. D., in Introduction to Aristotle, ed. McKeon, Richard (New York: The Modern Library, 1947), 1124al, p. 384.

2 For this characterization of virtue, see, for instance, Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 9.

3 Graham, William F., “Learn the Lesson of the Worm,” A Treasury of Great American Speeches, selected by Charles Hurd, ed. Bauer, Andrew (New York: Hawthorn, 1970), p. 339.

4 Statman, Daniel, “Modesty, Pride, and Realistic Self-Assessment,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 169 (10 1992), p. 432. Aaron Ben Zeev reports that the Greeks had no word for the concept of modesty; see Zeev, Aaron Ben, “The Virtue of Modesty,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 30 (07 1993), p. 239.

5 Proverbs 16:18; Luke 18:9–14; Augustine, , City of God (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 308–10; Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burn Dates and Washbourne Ltd., 1932), p. 226.

6 For some elaboration of flourishing's character, see my Moral Rights and Political Freedom (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), chs. 2 and 3. I am working on an extended defense of this teleological conception of morality in a book on the foundation of values.

7 Since we cannot completely sever the nature of pride from the practice of pride and its attendant benefits, elements of the discussion in Section II will sometimes bleed into the subject of Section III, and vice versa.

8 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1123b1, 1123b30, 1125a13, pp. 383, 384, 387. (My pronouns will vary in gender with different examples and for consistency with different authors.)

9 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 277, 297, 292, 596–97. See also ibid., pp. 315–16, 323, 598–600.

10 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 247–61.

11 Spinoza, Baruch, The Ethics and Selected Letters, ed. Feldman, Seymour (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982), p. 186.

12 Since my focus is on the virtue of pride, I shall not take up various possible questions about the perimeters of the feeling of pride, such as whether the source of pride must cross some threshold of significance or difficulty, or whether one can be proud of things for which one is not responsible (e.g., inherited physical features or ethnic ancestry).

13 The playwright was Howard Sackler, and the story was based on the life of Jack Johnson (renamed Jack Jefferson in the play). James Earl Jones won acclaim for his portrait of Jefferson in both the Broadway production and the film.

14 Nonetheless, like Aristotle, Taylor describes certain marks of pride that seem overly particular, claiming, for example, that a proud person will not be garrulous and does not discuss the weather; see Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), pp. 99105.

15 Rand, Ayn, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 27. See also Peikoff, Leonard, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 303–10.

16 Robert Mayhew first called this contrast to my attention.

17 I thank Michael Slote and L. W. Sumner for pressing me to make these clarifications.

18 Benjamin Franklin contemplated this scenario: “[P]erhaps no one of our natural passions is so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. … [E]ven if I could conceive I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.” The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 90. Thanks to David Solomon for suggesting that I consider this possibility.

19 Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

20 Rostand, Edmond, Cyrano de Zergerac, trans. Hooker, Brian (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), p. 176.

21 Rand, , “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 27.

22 Rosa Parks is often cited for her courage, which I consider to be a type of integrity.

23 Standards are pushed in the sense that, over time, a person may gradually recognize more of the sorts of actions that are appropriately governed by a particular moral principle, thus expanding her appreciation of the scope of that principle's demands. Conversation with John Paulus helped me to clarify aspects of this difference.

24 Pall S. Ardal claims that the Christian idea of humility prevents us from seeing the propriety of pride; see Ardal, , “Hume and Davidson on Pride,” Hume Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (11 1989), pp. 390–91. Aquinas saw pride and humility as definite antagonists.

25 Richards, Norvin, Humility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), p. 8; Snow, Nancy E., “Humility,” Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 29 (1995), pp. 210, 206; Aquinas, , Summa Theologica, pp. 217, 228–31.

26 Hume, , Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 292, 315–16, 323; Roberts, Robert C., “What Is Wrong with Wicked Feelings?American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 28 (01 1991), pp. 1516; Zeev, Ben, “The Virtue of Modesty,” p. 244.

for good discussions of Hume's view of pride, see Chazan, Pauline, “Pride, Virtue, and Self-Hood: A Reconstruction of Hume,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 22, no. 1 (03 1992), pp. 4564; and Rorty, Amelie O., “‘Pride Produces the Idea of Self’: Hume on Moral Agency,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 68 (09 1990), pp. 255–69.

27 One might suspect that I am too quickly dismissing the relevance of comparisons. Can't I feel proud if I beat the tennis opponent who usually beats me?

Maybe. If I won because I played unusually well, I can be proud, but in that case the pride stems from my own better-than-usual performance. If, however, I won because of my opponent's uncharacteristic bevy of double faults and unforced errors or his slack coordination due to the flu, pride in my victory would be unfounded. It is no accomplishment (and no ground for pride) to consistently beat inferior players. Even losing efforts in which one plays unusually well, however, can be grounds for pride. So again, pride is not a function of one's position vis-à-vis others, but vis-à-vis one's own capacities and standards. (Thanks to George Sher for prodding me to consider this sort of case.)

28 Thus, we can see the answers to some of the questions raised in note 12. There is no independent level of difficulty or significance that an action must pass in order to serve as a legitimate source of pride. To determine whether one possesses the virtue of pride, the salient question is whether a person is ambitiously pursuing moral excellence. As for inherited traits that are often the source of “ethnic pride”: these are not based on a person's acting in any particular way. The fact that a person might take some pleasure in the accomplishments of her ancestors says nothing about the strengths of her character. Any attempt to reap self-esteem from others' accomplishments is obviously ill-fated.

29 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1124a1–3, p. 384.

30 Ardal, , “Hume and Davidson on Pride,” p. 393.

31 See Rand, , “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 2729, and Peikoff, , Objectivism, for good discussions of this.

32 I am treating self-esteem as an appraisal and the practice of the virtue of pride as the means of earning that appraisal. For a psychological analysis of the role of competence and efficacy in boosting self-esteem, see White, Robert W., “The Urge Towards Competence,” American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol. 25 (1971), pp. 271–74.

33 John Kekes prompted me to consider reservations along these lines.

34 Julia Annas is among recent authors who have recognized this broader scope for moral concern. See her discussion of the Greek view of ethics as concerned with one's life as a whole, in Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 3945.

No doubt, the nature of the moral code that one is practicing will also influence its impact on one's life. And note the irony in shifting from common complaints that pride is base to protests that it is too demanding.

35 Thanks to John Cooper and John Kekes for prompting this clarification.

36 Williams, Bernard, “Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence,” in his Moral Luck (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 40, 49. Williams considers this to be a particular pitfall of utilitarianism.

37 Ibid., p. 46.

38 Aquinas, , Summa Theologica, pp. 220, 224, 226; Snow, , “Humility,” pp. 210–11; Richards, , Humility, pp. 1517, 3943. I shall leave aside Aquinas's projections of the effects of pride, since they stem from such a fundamentally different metaphysics.

39 Didion, Joan, “On Self-Respect,” in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, ed. Sommers, Christina and Sommers, Fred (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 655.

40 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1125a16–28, p. 387; Statman, , “Modesty, Pride, and Realistic Self-Assessment,” p. 424.

41 Consider the Latin root, “humilis,” meaning low. To be humbled is to be brought low in some respect; to humiliate is to debase a person's stature.

42 For clarification of when forgiveness is and is not justified, see my “Tolerance and Forgiveness: Virtues or Vices?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 14, no. 1 (1997). Jeffrie Murphy has challenged popular assumptions about forgiveness in Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Hampton, Jean, Forgiveness and Mercy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

* Thanks to the editor and all the contributors for useful questions and comments on an earlier draft; to John Paulus, Steve Rogers, and Ann Ciccolella for thoughtful discussions of these issues; to Cooper Henson for his research assistance; and to the University of Texas Research Institute for a grant funding that assistance.


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