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:

Weekend Coffee: March 28
Four More Solutions to Twitter Harassment
Photo Sunday: Stone Wall, Winter
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

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

  • D

    Another great post! I’d never thought of pride as the sense of owning one’s intangibles, that’s a very interesting take on it. In that light, your hypothesis about pride’s origin is a fantastic one, and it would be fascinating to see what kind of research could come out of it. I’m really enjoying this catalogue of drawing board improvements, keep it up!

  • Karen

    The fundy anathema towards personal pride is really toxic personally, or at least it was for me. I still have friends who can’t/won’t take any credit for their accomplishments or let themselves recognize their own good efforts and achievements.

    I agree that excessive pride is a flaw all too often seen in human nature, but it’s a sad, destructive way to live when you must eschew any pride at all.

  • Kennypo65

    Pride does come in handy when asking for a raise. This I had to do just recently. I was talking with my boss and he said,”Do you really think you’re that good?” I responded, “Yes, I don’t like false modesty, It’s just another form of lying.” I got the raise.

  • L.Long

    I think Asimov said it well in his article on how to write. He said there are no shy modest great writers. You have to have a strong sense of your opinions worth, have pride in your work and really think its worth saying and that others will be interested or you would quit because it is hard lonely work.
    And I do think that a strong illogical sense of pride is a bad thing.
    I have great pride in my work and its quality, but I also have enough self-doubts to make me keep looking at my work to insure it will stay at a high level.
    Pride must be balanced with doubt or you will find most people wont agree about your worth.

  • Evan

    I think that there are two types of pride. The first is normal and healthy. The second is what the ancient Greeks called hubris, and that IS a major problem.

  • Richard P.

    One way of looking at this is to call it self-importance.

    Here is a great quote.

    Self-importance is mans greatest enemy. What weakens him is feeling offended by the deeds and miss deeds of his fellow men. Self-importance requires that one spend most of ones life offended by something or someone.
    - Carlos Castaneda

  • Zietlos

    Once, Lord Casca on the video game ultima online gave a speech on a virtue, it had been a running thing for people to give speeches on Sacrifice, Humility, Honor, the virtues and all. He spoke, at length, about Pride as a virtue. Though just a joke by a GM, some of the words really did ring quite true.

    We shall, for the benefit of Evan, use not pride but hubris in this. Hubris, as I define it, is “acting as if akin to a god, or treading upon the realm of the gods”. We all know poor Icarus, that was hubris. He tried to infringe on the gods, by flying. Well, he got knocked from the sky, and humans never flew again, the sky forever barred from them, forced to take yearlong camel journeys to cross countries, because flying is the archetype of hubris.

    And of course, controlling life, that’s definitely a godlike ability, isn’t it? Guess what an innoculation is: not killed virii, but ones that have been altered to remove sections of their cells to make them inert: We have altered the very building blocks of life. Overall, acting akin to a god has made the length of human life better, and I would say curing all those nasty poxes made the quality a bit better too.

    Forming limbs… Well, there’s a man who can use a prosthetic arm to pick up grapes without squishing them and use chopsticks with it. OF course, the whole “granting humans extra limbs” thing falls under the power of the gods, and I would say we are better for it.

    All of these, and more (animal husbandry, gene therapy, SPACE TRAVEL) fall under hubristic actions. And on top of that, they deserve to feel as if they’ve done something amazing. Go into outer space, zero gravity, see the earth as only the size of your palm, and say “you know what, this really isn’t all that great”… No, those who make the benchmarks of human progress, from germ theory to interplanetary travel, micro to macro, and everything in between, they DESERVE to be proud. Despite their hubris, they are prideful in their work. “See these living mothers? That was because of me, they’d be dead otherwise. I controlled LIFE ITSELF.”

    Pride can only be a positive evolutionary force. Pride forces humans to accomplish things. Daring to tread into hubris is what jumps forward human civilization. Yes, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”, but that same technology is used in the cobalt bomb which fights cancer. Even that has positive effects.

    When one feels high merit in their actions, it is pride. When one feels merit without actions, it is not pride, but bluffing, overconfidence, and foolishness. This is not begging the definition of Pride: If no work is done, there can be no pride over it. When work is done, there can be too much pride, but that causes little damage in general, and pointing out the lack causes the prideful to build greater things. Religion really gives “Accomplishing something and wanting to take credit for it instead of donating it gratis to the church” a bad name.

    Frankenstein’s monster had emotions. That technology would have helped so many were it not for the… hubris… of the villagers, the religious villagers, determining what is goodly and what isn’t.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The reason why pride is a sin, imo, is because it elevates the individual, which religion wishes to subjugate.

    It is the deadliest sin because a person with self-esteem is less likely to kneel, and more likely to stand up. That, to theism, is anathema.

  • TEP

    Also, pride makes a person more self-reliant; they’re far more likely to try to find solutions to the problems they encounter by themselves, rather than feel powerless to change things. As such, they will be less likely to feel an emotional need to seek gods as a means of coping with those things that they ‘cannot change’. The person without pride will feel that there is nothing that they can do to change those things in the world that are horrible and unfair, and as such, the notion of passing on their responsibility to another being, through prayer, becomes much more appealing. Contrast with the person who does feel pride in their actions, who is much more likely to feel that they can solve problems themselves and not need to rely on gods to do it for them.

    Pride, in short, makes a person much more likely to want to take responsibility for their actions and circumstances, while much of the appeal of religion, especially in the case of prayer, is that it allows people to evade responsibility.

  • Tom

    Zeitlos, the aspect of being like a god that you have addressed in defining hubris is simply extreme potency, and you have well demonstrated that it’s not inherently a bad thing. But think back to the old unix/linux mantra, “with great power comes great responsibility” – to be like a god, i.e. to experience hubris, is not simply to have extreme potency, but to be accountable to no one and a law unto oneself; in short, to have and use power without taking responsibility for its effects on others. It is not exactly pride we are talking about here, but egocentrism. Since pride often masks egocentrism, and because the egocentric do tend more towards pride than others, the two are often conflated.

  • keddaw

    You are talking about pride in oneself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Pride in other’s achievements is wrong though. I am Scottish and people say “you must be so proud, Scots invented TV, steam power, economics, penicillin etc.” to which O reply, “I had no part in any of those things so I feel no pride in them.” Then people think I am mad.

    The idea that USA is number 1 when it so obviously isn’t in most metrics, and the people who say it are clearly not number one in anything, boils down to pride by proxy. I feel better by trying to attach myself to someone/something else that is great, or we all consider great.

    I have no idea about the evolutionary origin, or selective advantage of pride though and was interested in your take on it. Thanks.

  • Kennypo65

    There is something about the fundies that really irks me(There is a lot that irks me but that’s for another post). They claim that six days is six days, and they try to put the “creator” into a little box to comply with their literal interpretation of genesis. What incredible HUBRIS on their part. Their god should be pissed off to no end at these people. Funny thing is they don’t even see it. Biblical literalism is a form of idolatry, making the book more important than the “author”. Try this on a fundie when he says that you are going to hell. You can tell him,”See you there.”

  • Zietlos

    Kenny, I hear some of them worship basic shapes, like six pointed stars or crosses. Graven images, terrifying. But anyways, on to pride:

    Keddaw: “Communal Pride”, as I guess we can call it, pride for your nation(‘s accomplishments) or some other group, does as well serve some uses. Most music-playing families have music-playing children, most university-educated families have university-educated children. Whether or not they realize it, what they are doing is trying to live up to their group’s (in this case, family unit’s) reputation: One can be proud of their parents’ professions (in the classical “my dad can beat up your dad” or otherwise). Communal pride places a pressure upon the individuals in the community to live up to their reputation, just as any self-fulfilling prophecy will. If you are not proud of your community’s accomplishments, you are less likely to accomplish something similar, as you do not (don’t get pedantic on my word choice here) value those accomplishments as much as others do. Put in a simple perspective, if everyone in a city is proud of their firefighters, more people would be inclined to join them, whereas if everyone thought the firefighters were just “meh” to the humblest degree, taken 100% for granted as humility encourages, no one would really be inclined to join them. Communal pride puts pressure on the individual to rise just as the individual forces themselves to rise when they feel prideful otherwise. Sometimes this is put into bad things, like being proud of a military or a gang or some other violent outcropping, insurgencies and whatnot, but even that served purposes in the past, the great militaries of antiquity wanting to improve their combat prowess, to contain raiders and allow their own people to flourish.

    Now, egocentricity, there’s a new can of worms Tom. Vainglory and egocentricity are the tails side of the Pride coin. Now, you bring up two specific examples. The first is power without accountability. Of course, there is always accountability in the form of a smart bomb, but limited accountability at least. As one rises in power, they should have less restrictions, in their field at least. No original research is allowed except for the professionals, after all. Those who believe themselves beyond mortal issues tend to be undone by them, though, so in the long run this is not too worrysome. Fidel Castro is a bedridden old man who sometimes waves weakly at the public, all of whom are armed with guns. Yet he is a dictator. His accountability comes from the fact that people really aren’t too pissed at him. It is in his best interests, and of all dictators, to be both feared and loved, quothe Machiavelli, otherwise you tend to die in the end.

    The more down-to-earth example would be a murderer on the street. He uses his power, a handgun, without remorse for those whom he effects. Yet no one would describe this person as “proud”, but rather as a psycho/sociopath. He would not be hubristic, by lay-man definitions, either. Yes, he is egocentric, but I would not consider Pride to be his number one issue. In modern cultures, pride without accountability is considered insanity, and those who attempt it are removed from the system, either through insane asylums, or by force. If these people could be kept from breeding, and others prevented to mimic their actions, this mutated meme from pride could be eliminated, and yes, I won’t argue on that one that it shouldn’t be, for it creates more harm than good.

    There is one exception to this, of course, which is religion. All religious tyrants tend to live out their days fully, from Kim Jong to Ratzinger, because they control with that very powerful tool and truly become unaccountable for their actions by their populace. It is good, as it is said, to be king. It is somewhat fitting that those who suffer from acting as if a god are those closest to them.