Reengineering Human Nature: Pride

The Problem: According to Christianity and other monotheistic religions, pride is the deadliest sin. Taking excessive pleasure in yourself and your own talents and accomplishments is the surest way to end up condemned. I personally don’t agree with the extreme view that pride is the worst possible character flaw – when properly harnessed, it’s an important driver of individual effort and achievement – but I do agree that excessive pride is a problem common to human nature.

Most dictators and other evil rulers partake of an unhealthy amount of pride, believing themselves to be infallible and deserving of unlimited power. The same is true of fundamentalist religious leaders who fantasize that they’ve been personally chosen to deliver the will of God and force others to conform to it. When it goes unchecked, pride promotes the destructive view that society’s elite aren’t just more successful but morally superior, and that others are lesser beings whose needs are unworthy of consideration. Excessive pride promotes the dangerous delusion that the wealthy and powerful succeed solely because of their own inherent greatness, when the truth is that luck and circumstance play a much greater role in individual success than most people acknowledge.

The Solution: Christian authors often speak as if pride was a character flaw inherent to free will, one that not even God could get rid of. But the truth is that it’s an entirely contingent fact of human nature. There’s no reason why we have to have that tendency at all, and a truly omnipotent creator could simply have designed us so that we don’t feel it.

Even Christian authors recognize that this is possible. Consider this passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:

“It is up there in the mountains,” said the Spirit. “Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.”

The only problem with this scene is that Lewis thought this magical fountain was in Heaven. Why isn’t it on Earth? Why doesn’t all water in the world have the same effect? Or does God not want to eliminate pride from the world?

If you want a more concrete way of implementing this, here’s my suggestion: design the human mind so that we don’t feel a sense of ownership toward intangible qualities. The root cause of pride is that people feel possessive toward their own character traits, their own deeds and actions, in the same way that we feel possessive toward physical objects. They want to mark those things as belonging to me, not to the rest of the world, and praise themselves for possessing more of them than other people. But it’s completely plausible to imagine a different psychology which would instinctively think it ridiculous that anyone could own something that can’t be seen, touched, or held. People with this type of mind would still value intangible qualities like justice, compassion, or happiness, and want to see more of them in the world – they just wouldn’t boast about how much of these abstract goods they’d acquired for themselves, and would value the existence of these qualities in others just as much as in their own lives.

The Real Explanation: The evolutionary roots of pride are murkier than more basic instincts like lust or selfishness, but I’d hypothesize that they have to do with sexual selection. Humans, like many species, compete with each other for mates. And when you want to convince a potential mate that you’re a better choice than your rivals, the best way to do it is to boast (verbally or non-verbally) about all your positive qualities: how healthy you are, how strong you are, how high your standing is in the tribe, how faithful and true you’ll be. The selective advantages to bragging about your virtues go hand-in-hand with the kind of brain that thinks of them as something belonging to me and not to anyone else.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand on Mike Wallace
SF/F Sunday: Goodnight Stars
Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
Marital Rape in the Bible
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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