One of these days, I intend to write an essay on the origin and nature of morality. It is a topic that has fascinated people throughout history, and arguably one that underpins some of the most remarkable accomplishments of this species. Anything with such a lengthy history that has already been tackled by so many other people is full of risk – what peculiar hubris is it to think that I have anything original to contribute to such a supersaturated field? – so for now I continue to think and ponder, without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard on the broader topic. Yet that does not stop me from occasionally exploring a subset of that larger framework, as I intend to do here.
If you’ve been following along with my posts for awhile, you know that I am a strong proponent of skepticism, advocating that we all question everything we encounter, up to and including whether or not we ought to question everything (that is to say, I am skeptical even of skepticism itself). Despite my best efforts, though, I still have blind spots, places where my assumptions about the universe are so ingrained that I do not always think to question and reflect upon them without some inciting incident. One of those blind spots is the positive and negative connotations given to certain personality traits.
Reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged was what prompted me to reconsider how personality traits are considered. Her philosophy of objectivism posits what I call radical selfishness as a positive trait. In other words, all actions we take have a selfish motivation, but that isn’t a bad thing – behaving selfishly will actually bring benefit to more people. It’s a social/cultural application of Adam Smith’s famous quote about how we gain our dinner not from the benevolence of the butcher, the baker, and the brewer, but from their own self-interest. I could dig further into objectivism and radical selfishness, but I think that’s another post. The point is that thinking about selfishness, which we are taught from a young age is a negative personality trait, in this different light prompted me to wonder if the same might be true of other traits.
Which finally brings us to the titular topic, pride. According to the upbringing most of us receive, at least from what I’ve observed, pride is construed as a negative trait. “Pride goeth before the fall,” as they say, and all that. Yet we are also told to take pride in our work. This example is a little more nuanced than that of selfishness, but in general we are taught that modesty and humility are virtues, while pride is a vice.
I use these terms intentionally, because what we’re starting to get towards is Aristotle’s definition of morality: a virtue is the mean between two vices. Now, mathematically I suspect that he actually meant median, rather than mean, but that’s a little off topic. The point is that anything in excess becomes a vice, while anything in moderation becomes a virtue (there was a bit more to his teachings, including certain instances in which things were just unilaterally wrong, but this isn’t a post on the finer points of Aristotelian morality). Just as an excess of pride can be a vice, so too can an inadequate amount of it. If this seems unintuitive, perhaps some examples will help.
For our first example, we will look at what prompted me to write a post on this topic in the first place: company credit cards. If you’ve traveled or otherwise used a company credit card or account before, you’re probably familiar with the massive reams of paperwork and agonizing complexities involved in determining what can be expensed, when to use the card, what you can be reimbursed for, when it’s appropriate to use the card, and so forth. I was sitting through a discussion on this very topic, and overheard some others discussing how to take best advantage of these systems. In that situation, I thought “Why all this complexity? Why is this not simply a matter of trust, issuing cards/accounts to people, and trusting that they will use them in an appropriate and restrained fashion in the best interests of the organization?
This might seem like a naïve thought process, an unrealistic idealization, but I think it comes down to pride. Large organizations that issue such funding sources have to put together these complex processes and regulations because their employees don’t have enough pride to use such resources appropriately. Someone who has pride in their role and in the organization of which they are a part is not likely to take advantage of a system (financial or otherwise).
I’m not asserting that pride is universally a good thing. As Aristotelian Ethics suggests, an excess of pride is no better than a dearth of it. Instead, I suggest that a middle ground is better than attempting to excise all pride. Taking pride in yourself, in your work, in your life, in your relationships, will make you more likely to take good care of those things, to be diligent towards them, and to put your best effort into them. When I stop taking pride in what I do, the quality of my work goes down, and I wonder why I even bother doing the work in the first place. Of course, if I take too much pride in it, then the work becomes too large, too dominating a force in my life, and I allow the pride to control me instead of using my pride.
We might talk more in the future about this idea of a virtue being the mean (or median) between two vices – there are situations where it might not be as relevant as others, and the philosophical underpinnings of it are fascinating – but without going into the metaphysics of the thing, it has been my experience that moderation is almost always a better policy than zealotry. Taking almost anything to extremes, whether to nothing or to excess, is liable to cause more problems than it solves, and pride is no exception.