The Table Video

Robert C. Roberts

The Virtues of Pride and Humility: A Survey - Robert C. Roberts

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
July 13, 2017

Pride and humility are often presented as opposing traits, with one in the role of virtue, the other in that of vice. Authors differ in assigning the two roles. With the help of a more precise vocabulary, Robert C. Roberts tries here to sketch both the virtues and the vices that can be called pride and the virtues and vices that can be called humility. Among the vices of pride, the absence of which is virtuous humility, we have arrogance, vanity, snobbery, envy, haughtiness, presumption, domination, hyper-autonomy, conceit, self-righteousness, and pretentiousness. Among the vices of humility, the opposites of which are virtuous pride, we have self-contempt, self-diffidence, contempt for one’s associates and associations, and careless¬ness about one’s work. Among the virtues of pride we have self-respect, self-confidence, vigorous agency, appreciation of associates, and high standards. Among the virtues of humility we have lack of arrogance, lack of vanity, lack of snobbery, and so on. The virtues of pride and humility, far from excluding one another, actually stand in more positive relations to one another, the virtues of humility supporting or enhancing the virtues of pride, and vice-versa.


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I want to join the rest of the speakers in thanking them for this wonderful conference, for the inspiring talks and informing talks. So I want to thank Tom and Gregg and Steve and Evan and Laura for their good work in organizing this. This paper is a very much of work in progress and you got a handout I think, in which you have a sort of a chart of 48 virtues and vices. And I’m proposing that we think of pride and humility in more fine-grained terms than simply two terms, pride and humility. So on questions about ethics and epistemology of humility and pride, philosophers have sometimes divided into pro-pride and pro-humility factions both sides regarding pride and humility as incompatible. For example, Tara Smith, of the pride faction, comments, “If humility were a virtue it would instruct a person “to root out any stirrings of pride. “Thus to the extent that a person was proud, “he would not be humble, “the two traits cannot peacefully coexist as virtues.” Or this from David Hume. “It’s impossible a man can at the same time be “both proud and humble.”

Or this from Richard Taylor, “Pride is quite correctly perceived to be incompatible “with the supposed virtue of humility “that is so congenial to the devout mind “and so foreign to the pagan temperament.” And then we have the devout mind of Gregory the Great, who says, “Pride is the commander of the army of the devil, “the queen of the site of the vices, “the root of all evil.” Jonathan Edwards says, “There will be no pride in heaven “though all are perfectly free from pride, “yet as some will have greater degrees “of divine knowledge than others “and larger capacities to see more “of the divine perfections, “so they will also see more “of their own comparative littleness and nothingness “and therefore will be lowest and most abased in humility.” The result of such an attitude of sort of growing these traits as being opposed, is that the traditions and the thinkers who think in these terms. talk past one another and they kind of distort the vocabulary. They also deprive themselves of the opportunity of a more fine-grained deeper understanding of the virtue that they advocate by not putting it in juxtaposition with the trait that they, the counterpart virtue that they reject. Note that in Jesus’ teaching about humility, the language of paradox works both ways. “He who exalts himself is humbled “and he who humbles himself is exalted.”

Thus Jesus seems to endorse both humility and a certain kind of exaltation. There are many passages in the New Testament in which this theme occurs. And so happy awareness of being exalted would seem to be in the neighborhood of pride and presumably a person who is exalted by God knows it and appreciates that fact. I think we can make some headway in reconciling the factions by letting a more specific vocabulary guide our investigations. In past papers I’ve tried to find a way between two orientations by speaking of humility as contrary not to pride as such but to the vices of pride, thus leaving room for a kind of pride that is not vicious and possibly even virtuous. But I haven’t offered an extended account of the excellences of pride. In English, we have a rich vocabulary for the vicious traits and attitudes that are plausibly lumped together as pride and a less developed vocabulary for the virtues that may be called pride. Although we do have, I mean, it’s fairly rich as you’ll see on the handout. We also have a somewhat less rich vocabulary for the vicious or dysfunctional traits and attitudes that might fall under humility. Lest we might speak of both the vices of pride and the virtues of pride and the vices of humility and the vices of humility and virtue. You’ll see, what did I say? [laughs] You’ve got both kinds, right, both. [audience laughing] I doubt whether such conceptual finesse will resolve all differences between say, Aristotle and the New Testament, because I think the metaphysical commitments of these two frameworks would retain some degree of disagreement about private humility.

But I’m hoping that we can get more agreement than we have at present. I tried, probably with incomplete success, to give the rose of this handout modal consistency, so that, for example, domination, timidity and personal authority all seem to be traced, related to one another as belonging to interpersonal styles of dominance, submission, interaction. My lexical division of the conceptual territory here is no doubt disputable and its details, and I’d be happy to have corrections. And I think maybe it might be that really getting it completely refined would take nothing less than actually working out the grammar of each of these traits and that would be a, that’s a book-length project at least and you’re not gonna hear it presented today. But I do want to, I want to, this paper has two sections, two main sections. First, I’m gonna talk about the vices of pride and the virtues of humility and then I want to turn around and talk about the vices of humility and the virtues of pride. The vices of pride and I’m gonna just talk about a selection of each of these traits. So the vices of pride I’m gonna talk about are conceit, hyper-autonomy and domination. And then the vices of humility that I’ll talk about are deep shame, defeatist lethargy and tiny bit about servility.

In his “Nicomachean Ethics”, Book IV, chapter three, Aristotle describes a character type that he designates great-souled or large-minded. Some translations render [speaking in foreign language] as proud. Aristotle’s description of this person is for us heirs of the Christian tradition one of the most counterintuitive in Aristotle’s great book. The [speaking in foreign language] exemplifies all the virtues to the highest extent that Aristotle tells us and fully appreciates that his personal excellence entitles him to be highly honored by others. And he says this, “The [speaking in foreign language] will feel “he is receiving only what belongs to him or even less “for no honor can be adequate “to the merits of perfect virtue. “Yet all the same, he will deign “to accept his admirers’ honors “because they will have no greater tribute to offer him. “Honor rendered by common people and on trivial grounds, “he will utterly despise, for this is not what he merits.” I take it that the vice that is expressed in this passage is conceit. So the [speaking in foreign language] appears here to measure carefully the honor that others bestow on him by reference to the standard of his own excellence, his own excellence and merit. And find it, find their honor generally to fall short of what he deserves. Though he will accept honor that comes from people whom he deems to be good judges of his excellence because they don’t have anything better, they can offer him. But he has only contempt for the accolades of common people. Now just imagine common people who have a vague sense of being in the presence of something great here.

Here they are, they’re meeting the [speaking in foreign language] and they’re very deeply impressed but their understanding is dim and their praises are awkward and naive. I think we feel that the [speaking in foreign language] is colossally ungenerous and that his ungenerosity comes from his preoccupation with his own merit and his associated sense of entitlement. His entitlement to true honors truly understood that people penetrate his excellence with full understanding. Instead of focusing with appreciation on the good if under-qualified hearts of his admirers and ignoring, as much as possible, the awkwardness of their praises, he focuses sharply on his own dessert and judges those hearts, those admiring hearts, to be abysmally inadequate to the purpose. We want to say to him, look big-soul, you are awesomely virtuous all right, but it’s not all about you. Can’t you turn a bit of appreciation on others? The great-minded man’s preoccupation with himself and his merit seems to us to blind him to the glories of others. And so it could be token small-mindedness, a constriction of his attention and appreciation that sullies and diminishes his real virtues. We think he misses a lot in life because of this self preoccupation and that’s the sort of epistemic side of this. We want to encourage him to forget about himself, to look up and out, so that he can see others more clearly and sympathetically.

The self-forgetfulness or inattention or ignoring that we have in mind could be called humility and it stands in opposition to the divisive pride that we might call being conceited. The grand-minded person who is humble might know as well as anybody that he’s perfectly virtuous but he isn’t preoccupied with it, right. You could be humble while knowing how great you are but this preoccupation with it seems to us to be not virtuous. So a person who was not preoccupied with that, might find a lot of other things interesting that the [speaking in foreign language] misses. He also tells us, Aristotle does, Aristotle tells us that the [speaking in foreign language] is a man quote, “For whom nothing is great.” This is because his own glory is to him so overpowering that the greatness of everything else fades to insignificance. If anything in the world is wonderful then the [speaking in foreign language] will be intellectually hampered by his preoccupation with his own glory because it will disable him for appreciating that wonderfulness.

Apparently the great soul of man is not Aristotle because in his treatise “On the Generation of Animals”, Aristotle warns young scientists not to overestimate, not to underestimate the glory of even the humblest of animals. He says this, “We must not let ourselves succumb “to childish repugnance for the investigation “of the less noble animals “for there is something wonderful “in all the works of nature. “We must approach the inquiry concerning each animal “with the belief that there is something natural “and beautiful in each one.” This passage seems to express the wonder for which Aristotle is well known to have said that it’s the beginning of philosophy. The openness to see the wonderfulness of insects and worms, requires a kind of transparency of vision, a vision of the heart which you really look at the worm, you really look at the scientific object and that vision of the scientific object can get stigmatized so it’s as though there’s a kind of lens you might say that if you have an intellectual lens and it’s got faults in the curvature of the lens, such that it doesn’t quite focus right on the retina or it focuses the light in disparate ways. So that you get a kind of a fuzzy view. And if the [speaking in foreign language] truly finds nothing great, it looks as though his own self-impression, his impression with his own greatness, has distorted his vision, his intellectual insight.

Think of the scientists, who in observing the wonders of her specimens is always preoccupied with her scientific reputation, with being the first to discover this or that, with the concern that such and such an animal or animal part will be named after her or that she will receive some prestigious prize for her discovery. Now let’s turn to the domination and hyper-autonomy. The great sole preoccupation with self shows itself also in matters of helping and being helped. Aristotle says, “The great-souled one is fond “of conferring benefits but ashamed to receive them “because the former is a mark of superiority “and the latter of inferiority.” He returns a service done to him with interest since this will put the original benefactor into his debt in turn and make him the party benefited. The great-soul are thought to have a good memory for any benefit they have conferred but a bad memory they have received, since the recipient of a benefit is inferior to his benefactor whereas they desire to be superior and to enjoy being reminded of the former but to dislike being reminded of the latter. In the context of exchanging favors, the disposition to compare himself with others, transforms the exchange in his mind into a rivalry for superiority, a jockeying for dominance. Seneca, the stoic, says, “The rule for doing favors is that “one person quickly forget what he has given “and the other long remember what he has received.”

In stark contrast, the [speaking in foreign language] long remembers what he has given and quickly forgets what he is received by others grace. He feels others generosity to him as an assault on his personal importance which he can fend off only by an assault as he sees it on theirs. Christians will consider this disposition to rivalry as a vice, but for Aristotle it’s apparently compatible with virtue. I call this vice of pride hyper-autonomy insofar as its an insistence on being self-made and not dependent on others. And I call it domination to the extent that it’s an interesting building yourself up by making others dependent on you. As involving the storage of memory, these vices are also intellectual vices and their absence, which is a kind of humility, is an intellectual virtue. By way of some passages from Aristotle, we’ve looked at conceit, hyper-autonomy and domination, three of the vices of pride. Each of these is a way of being preoccupied with your own importance. Conceit a preoccupation with your already established high degree of excellence whether or not you actually possess that degree of excellence. And corresponding humility is a kind of unconcern for it and thus inattention to such excellence of yourself. This humility allows you to pay attention to other people and things. It is thus a kind of freedom that paves the way for other virtues such as generosity, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness and justice for which you may be disabled by conceit. Hyper-autonomy is a concern to be the chief or sole contributor to your own being and accomplishments and it obstructs the recognition of your debts to other people and to God.

The corresponding humility is a freedom from hyper-autonomy, a kind of relaxation about the attribution of your own good being and accomplishments. It thus opens the way for gratitude to others and cognitive clarity about attributions. Domination is a concern to be the author of other people’s excellences and goods. It can thus masquerade as generosity while undermining or threatening interpersonal affection and forestalling the development of friendship. The corresponding humility is the absence or reduction of the concern to be the author of other people’s goods and excellences and thus the willingness to let their agency have play. This kind of humility allows interpersonal relationships to flower. Conceit, hyper-autonomy and domination seem to be distinct vices. At least they’re distinguishable. Each is thus a different dysfunctional self-concern. Conceit, an excluding interest in your own excellence or superiority. Hyper-autonomy, an insistence on authoring or originating yourself. And domination, a desire to be the controller of other people’s selves and lives. Humility in the absence of this or that dysfunctional self-concern is likewise three distinct virtues, if, as I’ve been suggesting, humility is the absence of one or the other of these vices of pride. Until philosophical analysis reveals the differences, it may not seem that humility comes in these special kinds since we don’t have distinct names for these virtues in English. In explaining how each of these kinds of humility is a virtue, I’ve proposed that it enables the functioning of some other virtue. This the humility that is the absence of conceit opens the way for generosity of spirit and the epistemic virtue of wonder.

The humility that’s the absence of hyper-autonomy opens the way for gratitude. The humility that is the absence of domination opens the way to a happier mutuality to generosity and the sincere promotion of other people’s potential. I turn now to the vices of humility and the virtues of pride. And I want to talk about deep shame and defeatist lethargy as two kinds of vices of humility and a little bit about the servility and I’m gonna make a few comments about vanity here too. The last one, vices of pride, not vice of humility. When David Hume speaks of humility, he has in mind an emotion very much like what we call shame in later English. Humility and pride are on his view contrasting passions. Pride is a good feeling about yourself because of your association with something excellent. Say a beautiful house, a record of achievements and a good set of qualities of mind. While humility is a bad feeling about yourself because of your association with something that seems dishonorable. Say a dirty, decaying house in a slum neighborhood, a criminal record and a lack of marketable skills.

Hume thinks of humility as a passion, an emotion that you feel at a given time, right, and then you might not feel it for a while. But we’re talking here about virtues and vices not about particular emotions and the feelings of them. So the first definition of humility in the “Oxford English Dictionary” kind of follows Hume but it is a trait in that definition. “Humility is the quality of being humble “or having a lowly opinion of one’s self. “Meekness, lowness, lowliness, humbleness “the opposite of pride or haughtiness.” That’s the OED first definition of humility. This isn’t a very good definition of humility, in general, certainly not of humility as a vice. But it does put into words one of the concepts of humility as a vice. Did I say, it’s not humility as a virtue, obviously. But it does put into words one of the concepts of humility as a vice and it connects nicely with the passion that Hume mentions. If you have a low opinion of your value, you’re likely to be susceptible to feelings of shame. That’s the connection between those two. One of the vices of humility then is a pervasive disposition to think and feel yourself to be worthless. It’s a chronic and implicit feeling of being, in the words of the Homeboy, Bandit, [speaking in foreign language] good-for-nothing. This sole theme, this [speaking in foreign language] self contempt may be overlaid by posturing and bravado but these are really expressions of despair.

Gregory Boyd is a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles. He’s the founder of Homeboy Industries, a group of businesses expressly created to produce jobs for former gang members. Boyd sees the intimate connection between self-respect and another virtue of pride that I call secure agency, an implicit and explicit sense of one’s ability to act well and effectively. He tells the story of Bandit, the homeboy I just mentioned. Bandit’s daughter is going off to college to study forensic psychology and Bandit is concerned about her and asks Father Greg, known as G-Dog in the community, to give her a send-off blessing. After the ceremony when everybody is preparing to go home, Bandit hangs back in the parking lot and Boyd says to him, “Can I tell you something, dog?” Dog is a term of endearment in the community. “Can I tell you something, dog? “I give you credit for the man you’ve chosen to become. “I’m proud of you.” [speaking in foreign language] He says eyes watering, “I’m proud of myself. “All my life people called me a low-life, “[speaking in foreign language] I guess I showed ’em.” Then Boyd says, writes, “I guess he did.” And then he writes, “And the soul feels it’s worth.” “The soul feels it’s worth,” is a line from the Christmas carol, “O Holy Night”, sung by G-Dog’s mother. They found a recording in the attic and played it. And it goes this way. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, “till he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.”

Ben had it suffered from the kind of humility I’m calling deep shame and through the work of G-Dog and the community at Homeboy Industries, he began to get free of this vice and has made something of himself even to the point that he has a daughter going off to college, first in the entire known history of the family, in the neighborhood. In his book of stories about the homeboys and their ministry to them, Boyd emphasizes the role of unwavering, welcoming, loving regard for these people. A number of whom are also very tough criminals and even murderers. The usual reaction to them by respectable people is to treat them with fear and loathing as members of an alien species, not really human beings. The vice of pride that we call vanity is a concern to be adulated, admired and celebrated but fails to appreciate the claim to personhood of the appointed admirer. That is to say, it desires to be adulated by the admirer but it doesn’t really appreciate them, admire the admirer very much. As such it’s a socially isolating social state of mind. It’s true that the admirer must have status to glorify the vain person but status is not the same as humanity. Consider Rosamond Vincy, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.”

In the following description she’s thinking about Tertius Lydgate, a handsome young physician, who has recently arrived in town and whom Rosamond takes to be of higher social rank than any of the eligible bachelors in Middlemarch. And now I quote from the novel. “Rosamund in fact was entirely occupied “not exactly with Tertius Lydgate as he wasn’t himself “but with his relation to her. “And it was excusable in a girl “who was accustomed to hear “that all young men might, could, would be “or actually were in love with her to believe at once “that Lydgate could be no exception. “His looks and words meant more to her than other men’s “because she cared more for them. “She thought of them diligently “and diligently attended to that perfection “of appearance, behavior, sentiments “and all other elegancies which would find “in Lydgate a more adequate admirer “than she had yet been conscious of.” So Rosamond exemplifies advice that consists in intense concern for positive regard to use a conveniently reductive term. And she has this in common with Bandit, the Homeboy.

They both need positive regard. They both have this need. And so Bandit’s and his deep shame, is a need for positive regard. Though in the depths of his pathology, he might not admit the need. Boyd’s unwavering compassion and regard for Bandit and others like him aims to help them feel their worth and so become more human, more excellent, more responsive people. It aims to elicit from them a respect and love similar to the respect and love that he shows them. By contrast the admiration and adulation that Rosamond hungers for, will not have such an effect on her. It’s not going to elicit positive regard for her admirer in the way that Father Greg’s positive regard for Bandit elicits from Bandit positive regard for Brother Greg. So her vanity is such that even if she met with real love she would probably construe it as a kind of status confirming admiration that in her vanity she seeks. Thus her vanity makes her highly resistant to love, even more resistant one might think, than the criminals with whom Gregory Boyd works. This contrast is reminiscent of the Gospels. Boyd’s interaction with Bandit in the parking lot is emblematic of his ministry. He says, “I give you credit “for the man you’ve chosen to become. “I’m proud of you.”

And Bandit accepts the credit and affirms that he’s proud of himself. This pride seems to be an expression of the virtue of self-respect rather than of the vice of conceit. At least it is so from all that we know. Bandit it is very glad to have been credited by someone who knows him with having done something important and good. But as far as we know, his pride is not a preoccupation with his own excellence as in the case of the great-souled man. Nor does it involve his feeling contempt for others. Credit for the things chosen and done and for making something of oneself touches at least three lines on the table of vices and virtues that you have on the handout. The held importance of self, whose virtue is self-confidence. Entitlement claiming whose virtue of pride is entitlement serenity. The social dimension of self masking whose virtue of pride is secure agency. David McCullough reports that, “More than once in his presidency, “Harry Truman would be remembered saying, “‘It was remarkable how much could be accomplished “‘if he didn’t care who got the credit.'” He reports this in the context of Truman’s insisting that the European Recovery Plan, to rebuild the economies of Europe after World War II, be named after George Marshall rather than after himself. Truman was a pretty self-confident person, someone who had a good sense of his own worth, of ability to do things and so had the virtue of a pride that we call, that I call anyway, entitlement serenity.

A sufficiently strong sense of himself as not to need to be seeking credit and other entitlements and thus an ability to keep his eye more on what is needed to be done then on his own glorification in what gets done. Or what he got done. Greg Boyd’s encouraging words to Bandit about the credit he deserves and Bandit’s joy in receiving the credit, are contextually justified. Presumably Bandit’s self-concept remains somewhat fragile so it’s a good pastoral thing to reinforce his entitlement serenity by giving him the credit he’s entitled to. A person with deeper serenity in this regard wouldn’t need this particular pastoral attention. The pastor might then focus with Bandit on the achievements of his daughter. And that of course would reflect well on Bandit as well. Deep shame is closely connected with the vice that I call defeatist lethargy and also with pusillanimity. Tara Smith confuses humility with defeatist lethargy or pusillanimity which is small-mindedness, right.

The [speaking in foreign language] is large-minded and it’s [speaking in foreign language] or no, [speaking in foreign language] in Greek, the small minded, right. Tara Smith confuses humility with these vices. She says, “The humble person does not want very much. “She is content with a minimal standard of living “or job or romance and satisfies herself “with relatively low level needs and aims.” That’s the end of the quotation. The pusillanimous person is short on aspiration, doesn’t have high high aims and the lethargic defeatist feels powerless to do anything worthwhile. The gang members, former gang members and potential gang members with whom Boyd works, come from homes and neighborhoods that tend to breed deep shame and defeatist lethargy.

Youth workers and teachers have nominated a young woman named Vanessa, a teenager who from such a neighborhood, who has clearly escaped the grip of these vices of humility, as a moral exemplar and community leader. She has co-founded an intramural basketball league for adolescent peers. Kevin Reimer and Kyle Montuva, quote following words from Vanessa from an interview with her. Vanessa says, “I recently began to realize “that I’m significant to society. “I don’t want to be like, who and great, “but it’s nice to know that I matter “and people care about me and I can pass that down. “All the blessings I’ve been given I can give to others “and I think that’s pretty cool. “It says that I pretty much care about people “and I care about who they are. “I wouldn’t have realized this if, “I wouldn’t have realized who I am “if someone hadn’t signaled that I was special “that God loved me. “It’s this chain of reactions. “If you become aware of other people “then it’s beneficial to everyone. “It makes a big difference and it’s so important “because if you’re not noticing what other people are doing “it’s like living time-bombs. “They don’t realize how wonderful they are “and how important they are other people. “If nobody took the time to tell me, I’d be the same way. “I’m proud of the fact that I’m thankful for what I have, “that I’ve gone through what I have, “even when I have struggles. “There are so many things I don’t like about myself “but I do like how I’m positive. “I would not appreciate things if I didn’t. “That says I’m pretty caring and compassionate to others. “If you aren’t, you’re wasting your time and energy. “No matter what happens “it gives you the encouragement to go on.”

So Vanessa speaks about herself here in very, very positive terms. She’s moving towards mature self respect and secure agency. She has a strong sense of her own value and her ability to affect the world she lives in for good and she conceives that good, in part, as lifting some of her community members out of deep shame. They don’t realize how wonderful they are. She aspires to make something of herself. She’s neither grandiose nor small-minded but has the virtue of pride that I called aspiration on the table of vices and virtues. She’s not conceited like Aristotle’s [speaking in foreign language]. Her speech is permeated with expressions of gratitude which presupposes the humility that is the absence of hyper-autonomy. She’s very self focused in this speech but she expresses no contempt for anybody and if she thinks herself superior to others who are less confident or grateful, she doesn’t stress that superiority or seem to get satisfaction from her superiority, as such. Her pride seems to be entirely of the virtuous kind. Vanessa is a fine exemplar of virtuous adolescent pride. However, I would stress its adolescence.

If at the age of 50 she is still excited and voluble about herself as she is in this speech, I think we’ll worry about her maturity. We hope that at that age, her self admiration has quieted down and become implicit self-respect, self-confidence and secure agency. She will not be less knowledgeable about her virtues but she’ll be less focused on them. Her focus, if she has matured in her virtues of pride, will be on her projects, on other people’s improvements and on the glory of God to whom she expresses such gratitude even in her adolescence. Thank you. [audience applauding] [film beeping] [film whirring]

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