Forward Thinking About Pride

For the latest installment of our “Forward Thinking” series, our bloggers discuss the nature and ethical value of pride.

Philosophy student and feminist Olivia James (of Teen Skepchick fame) has begun her own new blog, Boredom Breeds Contempt. She is skeptical of the value of pride, wanting to distinguish most of the virtues that might be associated with it from the boastfulness that she considers most distinctive of pride itself:

In general, I wish we had more words for pride, to distinguish the emotions that it contains. There are very valuable elements to pride; recognizing oneself, giving oneself permission to rest or recuperate after an accomplishment, feeling good about oneself, respecting oneself, or recognizing a good thing another person has done. In general, I feel that all of these things can be subsumed under respect, because I don’t see what in addition to respect there is about “positive pride”. The prideful element that seems to be added is the boastful, bragging, or raising yourself over others. I’ve never understood the importance of tooting our own horns. Whenever I see patriotism touted as positive, or ethnic pride, I’m simply left wondering what for? Can’t we illustrate our goodness through our actions instead of obsessively patting ourselves on the back? There’s got to be a way to feel good about yourself without throwing a parade.

She examines the issue from more angles in the rest of her article. Here is her skepticism of the value of taking pride in one’s group:

Sometimes pride does serve a social purpose, like pride in someone else or your group. Generally, I believe being proud of ‘your team’ or ‘your country’ is a little silly, since you have no actual ownership of whatever they have done. Being proud of someone else usually means to me that you respect them for it, that you feel they’ve done well. It’s more of a congratulations than anything else, but on a deep level, a level that says you feel happy to be associated with them. I wish that there was a word for this other than pride, because it seems to have a distinctly different flavor to it than personal pride. Where personal pride is about feeling good about yourself or telling others about what you’ve done, pride for someone else is about recognition of what they have done.

There is also group pride, particularly for marginalized groups. I really can’t speak to racial or ethnic pride, because I am not part of a marginalized racial group, but as a woman and as someone with mental illness I can’t understand feeling pride over those identities. Again, pride to me holds an element of boastfulness. There is nothing to boast about with these things. I cannot understand being proud of anything you have not achieved yourself. I do feel compassion, respect, care, and community for the other people in these groups and for my role in these groups. I feel that for many of these people I’m proud of them for surviving. But I am not proud of my status as a member of these groups, because for me pride is reserved for actions, and it is to be earned. However where an emotion plays a positive role in helping someone to deal with their marginalization, I certainly can’t speak against it. For other marginalized individuals, pride might be very important, and I have absolutely no right to take that away from them.

Editor B identifies pride with self-respect and self-love and has a fascinating meditation on the continuum between “internal” and “external” sources of pride:

You might feel pride for things you’ve done, things you yourself have accomplished, especially if they were difficult. Pride derived from such internal sources might be called intrinsic pride.

People also feel pride for being part of a group, for things they possess, things they’ve inherited, things utterly beyond their control such as their race, ethnicity, nationality, even their hometown or their favorite sports team. Pride derived from such external sources might be called external pride.

Take a moment now. Recall some time when you felt especially proud. What was the source of that pride? How much did it have to do with you, personally? How much did it have to do with your place in the universe? How much work? How much luck?

The distinction between internal and external is not so sharp as it might first appear. We accomplish nothing in a vacuum. We exist in a web of interdependence. Even our most private, most personal accomplishments may be attributed in part to external factors. Yet at the same time, even the factors furthest outside our control impinge upon our identities.

It may be more helpful to think of a continuum from internal to external, from deep inside your self to the outer reaches of the cosmos. The source of any pride you feel can be located somewhere along this continuum. Meditating on this continuum may be beneficial.

Personal pride may become more problematic as a function of how extrinsic it is. Pride based on external factors can fuel nationalistic and fascistic arrogance and can be used to justify domination of other people.

Pride based on membership in an oppressed or marginalized group may be empowering, but pride based on membership in a privileged group can be pernicious. This is exacerbated because of the fact that people are often ignorant of their own privilege. It’s invisible to them.

Editor B’s whole piece is worth reading, as his his reply to my previous “Forward Thinking” prompt on punishment which I accidentally neglected to include last time. Check that post on punishment out too.

Rachel Marcy distinguishes healthy and unhealthy forms of pride:

Being proud of one’s hard work and achievements, and the achievements of family, friends, or colleagues, is a healthy source of pride. Being proud of something that is completely circumstantial, however, is not a reasonable source of pride. Believing that you are better than other people because of an accident of birth–wealth, race, nationality–is arrogant and chauvinistic. It’s possible to be affectionate toward a group to which you belong–hometown, country, culture–without thinking you’re superior to people outside that group. That’s pride as a vice.

She goes on before ending with a brief account of how pride and humility go together:

Dan also asks if pride is compatible with humility, and I think it is. It’s related to an accurate assessment of one’s abilities; I can be proud of some of my capabilities and humble about others. I think humility is also an antidote to chauvinism, as it requires that we value the perspectives of other people.

Her whole piece is at Ripening Reason.

Shira has a long and interesting analysis of pride from a Buddhist perspective. Below is just a bit of what she has to say. You have to read the whole thing to see all she has to offer here:

I will confine myself, at least initially, to arguing against the idea of taking pride in accomplishment.

To start with, let me say that it is natural and unproblematic to feel pleasure when we have set ourselves a worthy goal and, through sustained effort, without harming anyone, accomplished that goal. This pleasure is one of the gifts of human nature and, if we enjoy it in the proper way, it can spur us on to set ourselves new goals and put in the effort needed to accomplish them…The problems begin when we try to hang on to the pleasure of accomplishment, to re-stimulate its arising and to feed it energy to prevent it from fading away. This is a very common, even stereotypical, response to pleasant emotions of all kinds. (There is an opposite, but parallel, stereotypical response by which we suppress negative emotions.)

When we re-stimulate and re-energize the feeling of pleasure in accomplishment, I would call that the first stage of pride. It is problematic in that it fixes our attention on a past state of events, and therefore distracts us from the present moment with its various opportunities and requirements for active response.

Being distracted is bad enough, of course: we not only miss out, we can make mistakes when we are distracted. But there is another level of misuse of pleasure-in-accomplishment: we can use it to prop up our sense of self.

Usually this comes about because of wounding, often social wounding. We generally imagine that each of us is a self navigating a sometimes-hostile world. We reinforce our self with various kinds of armor as a defense against wounding, and pride at least seems to offer a particularly strong kind of armor. We transform our quite natural and organic pleasure in accomplishment into something rigid or tool-like — a way of defending ourselves (“I did something worthwhile, and no one can take that away!”) or even of attacking others (“Yeah, talk to me when YOU have done something worth talking about!”)

From her Buddhist perspective, she goes on to criticize analyses of people’s problems (in particular abuse victims) that put things in terms of “self-esteem” problems rather than agency problems.

Here is my own take on pride:

Pride is essentially the personal identification with something admirable. When I am rightly proud of my traits, I rightly take the traits themselves each to be admirable in one way or another and rightly take myself to be admirable insofar as they are part of me and expressions of me. When I am rightly proud of my various virtues, I rightly recognize in each of them both an intrinsically good power and a reliable tendency to use that good power to achieve actual good ends.

When I am rightly proud of the members of a group of people to which I belong, this often takes the form of recognizing my direct and indirect contributions to the excellent powers and excellent effects in the world which are attributable to the group as a whole or to its individual members. In pride, I recognize my contributions to the group’s admirable features and accomplishments or to its individual’s features and accomplishments. If my child has an admirable trait, I might take pride in my genes which were responsible for that trait and/or my contributions to her upbringing that helped create or shape or enhance that trait. If my child or friend or colleague or student or brother or government or company or charity or parent, etc. has an admirable virtue, I may rightfully take pride in that virtue insofar as I contributed to its creation, development, or reinforcement through my own positive influence.

When I admire a person or group’s excellence that I had a part in creating, I admire the person or group itself for being the sort of person or group to manifest such an excellence. And, additionally, I should admire my own successful power to create excellence when I recognize my positive contribution to creating this admirable trait in a particular person or group. I should see that person or group’s resultant excellence as an extension of my own excellence, that person or group’s power as a function of my own power, and the positive results of that person or group’s excellence or power as my own positive results to whatever extent I made them possible. It is only proper to feel affection to the cause of a good effect and therefore only proper to feel affection for oneself wherever, and to whatever extent, one is the cause of a good effect through one’s excellent powers.

In the context of this broad account of pride, I think I can provide an answer to a couple of our bloggers’ suggestions that it is irrational to take pride in being members of groups to which we belong:

This helps us understand another sense in which we might be proud of a group to which we belong, which is a unique form of group pride that I will call “class pride”. Earlier I discussed how we should be proud of our fellow group members to the extent that we know that our own flourishing in our own powers contributed to theirs, such that their successes become partially our own too.

But we can also take pride in those with little or no direct or indirect relationship to us but who are nonetheless significantly like us in a power or set of powers. When they do great things with our type of power or set of powers it is as though we did it ourselves on one level, for the the excellence we are admiring in them is the same one in ourselves capable of comparable functionalities. And, vice versa, we can be ashamed when those with our own weaknesses do awful things with our type of weaknesses.

To the extent that we recognize our powers as interchangeable with others for being of the same essential kind, we can take pride or shame in those other people’s successes or failures which are attributable to the functioning of those excellences and weaknesses comparable to our own. So, were I an engineer, I would be able to look at many of the achievements of engineering to which I was not at all party and still feel proud that the kinds of powers I have are the kinds that made for those achievements. When I admire a given project I was not a part of, I can realize that were I swapped with the engineers who were a part of it that I too could have produced a comparable outcome. I am the sort of being who creates that sort of good and so even if I did not create that particular good instance of the thing I create, I can identify with it and feel pride if I know that I could have and that someone like me actually did.

So I love the possibilities of my own power when I admire other people’s actual realizations of that power and, so, take a degree of pride in my fellows’ accomplishments. This can even extend to the entire human race. While I should be more proud of those with whom I have more in common in terms of developed powers, I can still recognize that I have anywhere from rudimentary to somewhat impressive forms of the same powers that great human beings have and take pride in them as members of their same species. And, of course, this door swings both ways too. I can recognize in the basest human beings extreme manifestations of my own detestable traits.

And it is the same for some forms of national pride, cultural pride, religious pride, gay pride, professional pride, familial pride, etc. (and all their correlate shames). Any class of people defined by characteristically common values or excellences/virtues/powers, can have members who morally rightfully admire themselves and their own admirable traits in those like them who express the very powers they have within themselves from outside themselves.
In general, when I find that others share an excellence that I rightly love in myself, I should rightly love it in them too in a special way.

For the next two weeks, your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to address the very topical question of the purpose of marriage and send your blog posts to lovejoyfeminism at gmail dot com.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Ach! I’ve fallen behind in my Forward Thinking! These are all wonderful works by better bloggers than I. I blame procrastination… ;)

  • Sammy T

    I think that many people have the definition of pride a bit confused. There is a difference between what the world says is pride and what God says is pride, and this article has been the best thing I’ve ever read on clearing up the difference:

    http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1989/04/beware-of-pride?lang=eng
    Enjoy!


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