Response to “Forward Thinking: What is the Ethical Relevance of Pride?”

As it happens, this is a question that I can address from a position firmly rooted in Buddhist psychology. Pride — as I will define it below — is an unskillful habit that leads to unfortunate results in daily life.

Let’s begin with distinctions, since the word “pride” is used in various ways. For instance, in this country (the US), one is censured for having pride in one’s birth, but not for having pride in legitimate accomplishments. So, for the sake of argument, I will confine myself, at least initially, to arguing against the idea of taking pride in accomplishment.

To start with, let me say that it is natural and unproblematic to feel pleasure when we have set ourselves a worthy goal and, through sustained effort, without harming anyone, accomplished that goal. This pleasure is one of the gifts of human nature and, if we enjoy it in the proper way, it can spur us on to set ourselves new goals and put in the effort needed to accomplish them.

Now this pleasure, like all feelings, has the nature of arising and passing away. If we observe any feeling with sympathetic but dispassionate interest, we can observe its arising and, after a relatively short time, its passing away. That feeling might then arise again when we are reminded of the original conditions for it. But generally, its arising is like that of a bouncing ball, at first very energetic in arresting our attention, but gradually less and less energetic, and occurring at longer and longer intervals. 

The problems begin when we try to hang on to the pleasure of accomplishment, to re-stimulate its arising and to feed it energy to prevent it from fading away. This is a very common, even stereotypical, response to pleasant emotions of all kinds. (There is an opposite, but parallel, stereotypical response by which we suppress negative emotions.) 

When we re-stimulate and re-energize the feeling of pleasure in accomplishment, I would call that the first stage of pride. It is problematic in that it fixes our attention on a past state of events, and therefore distracts us from the present moment with its various opportunities and requirements for active response. 

Being distracted is bad enough, of course: we not only miss out, we can make mistakes when we are distracted. But there is another level of misuse of pleasure-in-accomplishment: we can use it to prop up our sense of self.

Usually this comes about because of wounding, often social wounding. We generally imagine that each of us is a self navigating a sometimes-hostile world. We reinforce our self with various kinds of armor as a defense against wounding, and pride at least seems to offer a particularly strong kind of armor. We transform our quite natural and organic pleasure in accomplishment into something rigid or tool-like — a way of defending ourselves (“I did something worthwhile, and no one can take that away!”) or even of attacking others (“Yeah, talk to me when YOU have done something worth talking about!”)

When we take this second step, enter this second stage of pride, we create an entirely new set of problems. Besides being distracted from all that is offered by this moment of existence, we have strengthened the barriers between ourselves and other human beings. We thus miss out on opportunities to learn, and to give and receive support. And in addition, by tying our status to our past accomplishments, we have made it harder to take risks that might lead to future accomplishments. We put ourselves at risk of becoming one-hit wonders.

Suppose we use the very common metaphor, in Buddhism and elsewhere, of life as a wide river with strong currents and many dangerous rocks, both obvious and hidden. Our selves can then be imagined as vessels — ships or rafts, perhaps — that allow us to stay afloat and avoid or survive crashing into the rocks. A person defending him- or herself with pride would then have a clumsy, over-large ship, and this proud person would spend most of his or her time making sure that the hull was not leaking. Small wonder if such a person did not have energy to spare for navigation!

An important thing to note is that this predicament doesn’t have anything to do with whether the source of the pride is unacceptable (for instance, pride in one’s ancestry), or whether the source of the pride is acceptable (for instance, pride after winning a Nobel Prize in medicine for reversing aging.) The problem, from a Buddhist perspective, is that a natural feeling has been turned into something ill-suited to its natural function — as armor, or as a weapon, or as a guarantor of status.

Americans have, in the past forty-some years, fallen into the error of believing that the best and most productive state of being is that of “high self-esteem”. This is usually attributed to Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, although the idea could perhaps be traced back to Hume. The theory of self-esteem is that, in order to function at a highly productive level, we need to have an appreciative awareness of the excellent qualities that are part of our very selves.

Now, in Buddhist thought, the sense of self is, at best, a useful illusion. It is unreal in the sense that we are never really as separate from “outside” reality as our sensed self insists we are. If we carefully examine the inputs (from our senses, from other people, from culture, from the mysterious and inaccessible functions of our own brains), we can get a somewhat better measure for how much of our selfdom comprises continuous interaction with “outside” reality. Also, our strongly-felt sense of self-consistency is an illusion, as we can readily perceive by comparing today’s self with that of our childhood, or the self we were when our beliefs and understandings were different than they are now. 

But if we examine self as a function, rather than as a felt subject, we can see its usefulness, and the reason that evolution has allowed it to persist, despite its very large metabolic cost. It is, after all, very useful to be able to, in imagination, wrench events from their actual context and examine them in isolation, or even in a different, hypothetical context. These are very powerful advantages that confer selective advantages on our species, and even on those individuals who are best at applying them.

Still, despite recognizing the very real advantages of possessing a self-function within our brains, Buddhist thought is radically opposed to ideas — such as the self-esteem movement — that perpetuate the illusions of separation and consistency that are part of our experience of self. In place of such ideas, Buddhist thinkers advocate a strong sense of agency.

Agency is the ability to choose our actions in the world, and to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Situations that can be analyzed in terms of self-esteem can often be better analyzed in terms of agency. For instance, it is sometimes asserted that the reason that an abused woman does not leave the abusive situation is that she lacks self esteem. A better analysis is that a key component of agency — the confidence that one’s actions can have the consequences we aim at — has been crippled for her. The technical name for this crippling of agency is “learned helplessness”, and it is one of the favored and most effective tools abusers can use against their victims.

Why is it better to frame the problem of the abuse victim as one of agency rather than self-esteem? Because what an abuse victim needs is not assurances of her good qualities, but rather a safe space in which she will have the opportunity to make choices and discover again the possibility of getting the consequences she desires. Even a surprisingly small space can often make a big difference, as, for instance, when creative writing classes or Buddhist meditation retreats are offered in prisons. Although being able to write down and read aloud one’s thoughts, or even to spend time in silent contemplation, might seem like a very small amount of control of one’s life, these are significant improvements in an environment where every action from wake-up call to lights out is dictated by others. 

The two essential aspects of skilled agency are these: first, a person understands that all his or her actions have consequences, and it is impossible to evade those consequences. The second requirement is that a person be willing to take whatever actions he or she judges will be beneficial. These two aspects of agency curb the tendency to impetuousness, on the one hand, and indolence on the other. When the focus is changed from one’s innate qualities to one’s choices, a person begins to experience freedom. If one sees clearly the way action begets consequences — that is, if a person does not fall into illusions such as separation from “outside” reality and failing to recognize internal change — then skill develops, and skill and freedom continue to increase together in a virtuous cycle. Someone who practices agency in this way does not fall into pride, first, because he or she takes responsibility for managing emotions, and second, because armoring one’s self does not contribute to either aspect of agency.

To return to our analogy of the river, those lumbering sailors in the big, leaky boats might have the opportunity to look over their high, splintered gunwales and notice that not everyone is so burdened. Keeping them company on the river are many small, maneuverable rafts whose pilots are busy learning seamanship — that is, they are engaged with the river, discovering its dangers and opportunities. Often, they travel in groups, sharing what they have learned and giving warning of particular dangers. 

And if the prideful person can look still further, he may catch a glimpse of the great-souled ones, whose skill in agency is complete. Those are the ones who have dived naked into the stream and are cavorting in its currents like dolphins. They have left behind even the minimal self of the rafts; their understanding of the currents and rocks is perfect; they have no need even to choose their actions, since they act from simple necessity.

These are the ones who have no pride, but whose actions and words survive the centuries.