On Pride

People often say they are “proud” to be a certain type of individual, to identify with a certain group, or to have accomplished a certain deed. Homosexual activists, for example, have co-opted the words “pride” and “proud” (and the word “gay”, too) and often use the words when talking about such things as “gay pride” marches. Similarly, other people refer to themselves as a “proud atheist”, “proud Christian”, “proud liberal”, “proud conservative”, “proud Mexican”, “proud Asian”, etc. Still others use the word to express admiration of accomplishments (either their own or others’). The only justified use of the words “pride” and “proud”, however, is when referring to personal accomplishments (e.g. “I am proud of myself for completing college” or “I am proud of helping you earn your promotion”). Use of these words when referring to innate characteristics (e.g. race or ethnicity) or decisions (e.g. choosing a political viewpoint), on the other hand, is unjustified and especially dangerous.

For clarity, it is necessary to define the word pride:

1. a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.

2. the state or feeling of being proud.

3. a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.

A proud person therefore believes that he deserves above average dignity or importance, or has above average merit or superiority. Accomplishments demonstrate merit or superiority, so it is just for a person to have pride in his or her accomplishments by definition. Accomplishments may also afford greater dignity or importance. A person who has earned a promotion, for example, may justly feel pride for obtaining the greater dignity, merit, importance, and superiority of the new position.

Pride as a result of an innate characteristic, on the other hand, is unjustified and inordinate since such characteristics are by their nature unearned. If all men and women are created equal, then innate characteristics cannot give some individuals superiority over others. One should not hold a higher opinion of oneself based on an innate characteristic like one’s race, for example. That is racism. Pride as a result of other innate characteristics like sex or age is simply sexism and ageism, respectively. Thus, such pride is unjustified and inordinate. Curiously, it is only discouraged when actually labeled as racism, sexism, etc., rather than simply expressed in a statement like “proud to be [white/black/male/female/young/old/etc.]”. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize such unjustified pride and discourage it just like racism, sexism, etc.

It is also curious that homosexual activists have co-opted the words “pride” and “proud” in light of the fact that many also claim that they were “born this way” (i.e. that homosexuality is an innate characteristic). Such individuals who claim to have “gay pride” and also claim that homosexuality is an innate characteristic are therefore guilty of homosexism. Whether or not homosexuality is actually an innate characteristic is outside the scope of this topic and is irrelevant — the fact that such individuals believe or claim that homosexuality is innate is sufficient to render them guilty of homosexism if they claim to be proud of their homosexuality. A white supremacist’s race does not make him innately superior to individuals of other races, but the fact that he believes or claims that his race makes him innately superior renders him a racist.

A person may also feel pride as a result of a decision, such as the decision to support a political party or religion. In this case, the person is proud that he is, in his mind, wise enough to make the correct decision and avoid the folly of  those people who make the wrong decision. This is unjustifiable pride as well, since there is no merit in simply making a decision. There is merit in making a wise decision, but it is often impossible to determine the objectively wise decision — the proud decision maker has simply made the choice he perceives to be wise. Moreover, wisdom is not necessary in order to make a wise decision — forced to make a choice, even a fool may make a wise decision.

One can only be justifiably proud of a decision once that decision has resulted in a more favorable outcome than all other possible choices. For example, one may be justifiably proud of a decision to invest a sum of money in a stock market (rather than spend it on something else) if the investment results in a significant financial gain. However, it can be difficult or impossible to know that the decision resulted in the most favorable outcome — in the investment example, how can one know whether a different and better investment (a “wiser” decision) could have been made instead? Furthermore, it is not necessarily the decision itself for which one should be proud of but rather the outcome(s) of the decision. A (probably wise) decision to obtain a college degree (rather than find a job with fewer skill requirements and lower pay) is, by itself, nothing to be proud of — the accomplishment of completing the necessary courses to obtain the degree is the source of one’s pride.

The only source of justifiable pride, therefore, is a personal accomplishment. Note that one may be justifiably proud of another person who has accomplished something with one’s help. For example, a parent may be justifiably proud of a daughter who has been an elected to an important position if the parent helped raise the daughter and provided support (financial, emotional, etc.) as the daughter pursued the position. On the other hand, one does not obtain justifiable pride simply for being related (e.g. ethnically) to someone with great accomplishments since the state of being related to the accomplished person is an innate characteristic rather than a personal accomplishment.

Although personal accomplishments may be a source of justifiable pride, one must still be careful. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins and is often considered the most serious of them (in Dante’s Purgatorio the proud must purge their souls of sin on the first terrace, which is the farthest from heaven). Even if one does not believe in the concept of sin, it is instructive to contemplate the danger of pride. Pride is often considered the most serious of the deadly sins because it often leads to the other deadly sins. With pride, one may reason that he deserves what someone else has (envy), has the right to attack others (wrath), has the right to to be lazy (sloth), has the right to accumulate excessive wealth (greed) or indulge in excessive consumption (gluttony), or has the right to use another for personal pleasure (lust). While the other deadly sins are certainly very serious, they do not tend to lead to other deadly sins as easily (a gluttonous person, for example, probably will not feel envy or pride as a consequence of his gluttony). The problem with pride is that we as humans naturally desire to promote our own interests, and pride often fuels this desire to make us believe that we deserve more than we actually do. Pride’s opposing virtue, humility, counteracts this desire and helps prevent us from becoming too selfish.

Pride is therefore a dangerous feeling. The next time you want to express that you are “proud” of belonging to a certain group, remember that it is unjustified pride. And even when your pride is justified (you have accomplished something) consider the danger of expressing this pride, and remember that others tend to respect a humble person more than a proud one.

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6 thoughts on “On Pride

  1. If a person has spent his or her life with low self-esteem, depression, abuse, or other issues, and manages through sheer will to overcome it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will jump to exploiting others. I think a small amount of pride in a personal accomplishment is a beneficial human trait, and as you say, is justified. Pride also has less negative definitions than you noted, such as a feeling of satisfaction derived from one’s achievements. But you’re right that even when justifiable, personal pride exhibited by smugness (let me tell you about my grandchildren) is repelling.

    I never thought about those claiming to be proud atheists, Muslims, Mexicans, gays, etc., implies they think they are better than those that aren’t. But it’s true, acceptable, and encouraged! (There are very few individuals who say they are proud to be white, at least publicly, which seems to be taboo in our culture.)

    Thanks for a good read.

    PS Sometimes I have to clean disgusting toilets, and I think to myself, do these people have no pride? I guess that’s a different case entirely.

    • @Debra,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      You have a good point about pride’s benefits. I agree — pride can be beneficial especially for someone who has low self-esteem or has been abused, and such a person is unlikely to start exploiting others as a result of this pride. And, yes, pride is a good thing if it drives us to do a better job cleaning up after ourselves!

      It is true that few individuals are willing to publicly say that they are proud to be white, and that’s because we as a society quickly recognize that such a statement is probably racist. I find it interesting that we have a harder time recognizing similar statements from other races as potentially racist as well.

  2. I think there is another sense of “proud,” that being a lack of shame, and I believe it is this sense that people use when they say they are proud to be gay, Italian, a woman, etc. — or rather, it is this sense which reasonable people mean, as opposed to unreasonable people who are expressing the sense of unjustified pride that you address here. Gay Pride, properly addressed, isn’t about a feeling of priviledge or superiority due to the quality of one’s sexual attractions, but rather a lack of shame in those attractions (and presumably the actions that follow from them), expressed as a rebuttal against a culture that has or would have just attractions (and actions) be held as shameful.

    • You are probably correct that “proud” is being used to mean “lack of shame”, but that is not correct use of the word. “Lack of shame” does not necessarily imply pride — simply an absence of shame. “Proud” implies not only the absence of shame but presence of pride. It would be correct to instead say “unashamed”.

      This is the same mistake that atheists make when they say they merely have a “lack of belief [in god(s)]”. Someone who has a “lack of belief” may be more accurately called an agnostic, but an atheist actively asserts that no god exists.

  3. “a culture that has or would have such attractions”, that is. The original, incorrect wording had a very different sense than I meant.

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