A Humanist Ethics of Pride

A Humanist Ethics of Pride

5 Mins
January 25, 2012

BOOK REVIEW : Richard Taylor, Restoring Pride: The Lost Virtue of Our Age (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Press, 1996)

October 1999 -- Pride may be the antithesis of the essential Christian virtues of humility, yet it has its supporters, even outside of Objectivist circles. A notable recent contribution is Richard Taylor's Restoring Pride: The Lost Virtue of Our Age (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Press, 1996). Taylor is a former professor of philosophy who at various times held posts with Brown University, the graduate faculty of Columbia University, and Rochester University. A noted ethicist and a leading author of the secular humanist movement, Taylor in this book provides a moving defense of personal excellence as against egalitarian conformity and (unintentionally) offers an interesting contrast to the Objectivist conception of pride.

Because pride has so often been seen in the light of an assumption of its destructive, vicious character, it is especially important to inquire of an ethicist how he means to use the term. Taylor, attempting to revive the classical conception of this virtue, defines pride as "the justifiable love of yourself." Where Objectivism conceptualizes pride as the means to self-esteem, Taylor's pride seems more or less equivalent to the value it seeks. But knowing the value allows us to infer the means, and it may be in light of this that Taylor says it would be "idle and off the track to quibble" about his definition (p. 32).

There is more in Taylor's theory that is congenial to the Objectivist perspective. He decries as "willing slavery" the common habit of "falling into the lockstep of custom" rather than inventing one's own life (p. 11). Custom is to be challenged because it is a human construction, and thus not a "fixed truth" in the way that physical law is. (p. 12) Taylor thus recognizes in his own words the distinction that Ayn Rand emphasized between the metaphysical, which must be accepted, and the man-made, which is subject to evaluation and alteration. Taylor emphasizes an Aristotelian conception of happiness as arising from the use of reason, which he explicitly expands beyond formal "reasoning" to include "observation, reflection and, above all, creative activity." He equates the fullest form of happiness with health and rational creativity (pp. 223-228).

However, Taylor's conception of pride differs from Objectivism in a crucial respect, namely the criteria by which one is justified in loving (that is, esteeming) oneself. Taylor writes: "The nature of genuine pride is thus clear. It is the love of oneself that rests upon some strength or excellence-some virtue, in the ancient sense of that term-which is not common to all, something that enables its possessor to stand out among the multitude." (p. 32) "Thus the proud rise above ordinary people, and are quite literally superior to them; but their superiority rests not on class, power, or wealth, but on being gifted in some way and then applying those gifts to personal achievement." (p. 16) In short, Taylor sees pride as essentially social and relativistic in character: excellence is its source, and excellence is defined in terms of superiority to other people.

Objectivism, by contrast, holds that any person-ideally, everyone-can take pride in his rationality, in his character, in his accomplishments. Each person's competence and worth are measured relative to his own characteristics and needs, not, primarily, those of others. Taylor appears to sense this possibility when he urges his reader to "Form in your mind a clear idea of what it means to be a genuinely superior human being-superior, that is, as a person, and not merely as an adherent of this or that religion, ideology, or group-and then make yourself that human being."

Despite this, Taylor sees it as impossible to reconcile self-love with the egalitarianism of contemporary ethics: "Many perfectly normal and ordinary people seem to have no special abilities at all. They are born, live out their perfectly ordinary lives, and die, having had virtually no effect on the world beyond those who happened to know them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it is not compatible with the claim that everyone does something or other exceptionally well." (p. 47) The implication is that not everyone is, nor can be, worthy of self-love.

Taylor attempts to square this elitism with the universalism of his ethos as follows: "The gifts and potentials of one person are not those of another. Indeed, each person is unique. His or her gifts and abilities are probably not exactly matched by anyone else on earth." (p. 21) In other words, as Taylor sees mankind, people have a unique combination of potentials, and one achieves justifiable self-love by actualizing those that will allow one to stand out from, and stand above, others.

How many kinds of excellences are possible? Taylor quite clearly insists that the variety of potential "excellences" is far beyond what we might imagine. "There are people who have an uncanny ability [for rearing children]. They are not merely parents, for there is no creativity or merit in that; anyone can beget children. They are good parents, in a way that is not easily describe and cannot be reduced to formulae. Such people, by a kind of natural talent, consistently make the right choices with respect to [rearing] their children. They do things right where others, with every good intention, consistently blunder. Such an ability, precious both in itself and in its fruits, is nowhere regarded as a mark of genius, even though it is far from common. It is, nevertheless, a source of pride in its possessors, and quite properly so." (pp. 37-38) But it is hard to see, even on such an expansive conception of excellence, how every person could be superior to all others in some meaningful dimension.

The tension between universalism and elitism recurs in several passages. One of these raises an issue familiar to students of Objectivism who have puzzled over Ayn Rand's conception of "philosophically objective value." Does that term imply that a competent brick layer is a lesser being than a competent scientist? Is the mason less worthy of self-esteem? Taylor seems to share Rand's view, with a twist: for he writes that some ways of excelling excel other ways of excelling. To prove his point, Taylor compares Beethoven with some (unnamed) person who is the world's most outstanding slingshot expert and who apparently achieved a brief moment of fame as such. "Even if we suppose that everyone, or nearly everyone, does something especially well, or that we are all of us gifted with respect to something or other, that would hardly make us all equals," Taylor argues. "The reason for this is that some abilities or capacities are worth more than others. Some are, indeed, immeasurable treasures to their possessors, while others are of trivial significance. It is this fact that enables us, with universal consensus, to single out certain individuals as persons of greatness." (p. 47)

This raises an interesting question. Given the innumerable potentials that an individual has, why must he choose to actualize that combination (or one of those combinations) that will cause him to be better than others? Might a person not reasonably prefer to be an above-average philosopher to an absolutely top-notch mother? To answer, Taylor invokes the classical tradition: "Genuine pride is a lost virtue. I say lost, because it was clearly understood by our cultural ancestors, the pagan Greeks of antiquity ... Pride was for them the appreciation of one's own special worth and superiority over others. To be proud is to believe that you are in the clearest and truest sense better than other people, and to be correct in so believing. " (p. 30)

Taylor's concept of pride is thus clearly comparative, but (he insists again and again) it does not exult in being perceived as superior. "The beauty of a deed is not in its fruits but in the character it displays and this requires no participation by others. A poem of unique worth requires no audience to be what it is, nor does the poet require applause in order to rejoice in the creation of it." (p. 36) He also says: "Those who are blessed with such gifts almost never receive great honors for them, and they even, sometimes, do not even receive significant notice, yet they are precious things and very proper sources of pride."

This is a book that takes up a noble cause, and in spite of the contradictory tendencies noted above, it contains much of value. For example, in one chapter Taylor alerts us to the many ways in which the term "pride" is abused in the common parlance, much as the "self-esteem movement" has abused the objective meaning of that term. With its flaws, this book will not in itself make a moral revolution, but in urging his readers to esteem their own potential to be exceptional and to throw off the strictures of mediocre conformism, Taylor sounds the trumpet of moral individualism in a compelling manner.