HomeMoral Tradition: The Virtue of PrideEducationAtlas University
No items found.
Moral Tradition: The Virtue of Pride

Moral Tradition: The Virtue of Pride

10 Mins
October 1, 1999

In her speech "The Objectivist Ethics," Ayn Rand described the virtue of pride as "moral ambitiousness," because it is predicated on the aspiration to live up to one's ideals. Fundamentally, pride is the moral principle of valuing one's self-esteem and taking the steps required to achieve it. We need such a principle because of our profound need for self-esteem, and because a robust self-esteem, grounded in the facts of reality, is not something we can achieve easily or automatically.

Historically, many ethical codes have condemned pride as a "deadly sin," as part and parcel of their advocacy of moral ideals that are incompatible with life and happiness. To sustain a moral ideal that runs contrary to real human needs, these ethics have made a virtue of humility, the antithesis of pride. For instance, the Christian ethics requires that its adherents sacrifice themselves to duty, others, and the Church. When people fail to practice martyrdom, as they must if they are to live, they feel inadequate and guilty. Humility is the principle that tells people it is not only permissible to feel inadequate but virtuous. "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit" (Psalms 51:17). Pride in the Christian view is sinful because it presumes the moral sufficiency of man. Pride implies the sanctity of an unbroken spirit. If man were the measure of all things, what place would there be for God, for the clergy, for faith?

It is natural, then, that advocates of humility habitually characterize pride as vanity and boasting. But as the Ancient Greeks knew, objective pride is based in a rational recognition of facts in their proper context and involves neither vanity nor boasting. Pride does not consist in unmerited admiration for oneself, or for some particular trait—such as physical beauty—out of its proper context. Nor does pride entail the false inflation of one's worth; that is merely self-deception, which is harmful to the self. In essence, when pride's critics treat it as vanity or boasting, they characterize a healthy trait in terms of an unhealthy distortion of it. This is rather like attacking those who choose to eat a healthy diet because some people distort diet control into anorexia. It is a condemnation based on the nonessential similarity between the justified pride of a person taking credit for his accomplishments and the hollow posturing of a braggart.

Objectivism holds that morality is centered on the needs of man's life. Self-esteem is one's most basic, personal appreciation of one's own life and happiness as a moral end. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand described self-esteem as "one's inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means, worthy of life." Self-esteem is thus a positive self-assessment in terms of one's competency and one's worthiness. Self-esteem is a profound value because it is a precondition of happiness and is the basic source of the motivation we need if we are to act confidently and purposefully. "It is also," Nathaniel Branden notes in The Art of Living Consciously, "the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment . . . are right and natural for us."

The virtue of pride is a commitment to achieve self-esteem by taking credit and responsibility for acting on one's judgment, in accordance with principles.

As a means to self-esteem, pride aims at both forms of positive self-assessment. On the one hand, pride seeks a positive assessment of one's actions, that is, esteem in one's competency. On the other hand, pride seeks esteem of oneself as the author of those actions, that is, esteem of one's worthiness. Pride results in being able to look at one's accomplishments and say both "I did it" and "It is good."

Because pride is a commitment to achieving a positive assessment of oneself in the full context of one's life, it consists in two essential perspectives: looking backward and looking forward in time. These two perspectives provide one with the objective appreciation of one's past accomplishments and the commitment to success in the future.

Pride in one's past means taking credit for one's specific achievements, pausing to recognize oneself with either "I did it," or "This is good." It means taking credit, as a self-made being, for simply being who one is. This includes taking credit for one's accomplishments of character and personal development, such as developing the traits of productiveness and efficiency in one's work or, say, learning to dance the tango with style.

As an orientation toward the future, pride consists in taking responsibility for enhancing one's self-esteem, for building one's character, for being worthy of life. It means striving for moral and therefore existential improvement, with oneself as the beneficiary. For example, this means taking responsibility for one's material success and professional development by seeing to it that one pursues an enriching career or series of careers, and taking responsibility for one's spiritual enrichment by seeking out the kind of art, ideas, and relationships that it requires. A person of pride does not wait for others to fulfill his dreams for him, nor does he restrict his aspirations to what others demand. His credo is "I will do it" and "it will be good."

The two perspectives of pride in the past and pride in the future are inseparable, because one cannot achieve self-esteem by means of one without the other. By taking responsibility, one makes sure one will have objective reasons to assess oneself positively as time moves forward. But to make that positive assessment, one must take credit for one's actual accomplishments. One cannot experience self-esteem without taking credit, and one cannot earn it without taking responsibility.

Because pride directs one to be both existentially efficacious and of good moral character, every virtue that we identify as a practical means to our long-term well-being (and thus as part of a good character, too) becomes a means that pride incorporates into the pursuit of self-esteem. Thus, our need for the virtue of pride reinforces the rationale for everything we know about virtues such as integrity, independence, productiveness, justice, and honesty. These principles are founded on the existential requirements of living well. But once that rationale is established, it is reinforced by the spiritual need to value oneself as the life one is always in the process of creating. In this way, there are "feedback loops" among the virtues just as there are among the values.

It is important to note, however, that indirect arguments for virtues on the basis of pride are logically dependent on the direct arguments that link those virtues to life. One cannot say, for instance, that one's self-esteem depends on being a person of integrity, independent of one's need to think in principles and develop one's moral character. Rather, given that one does have a need for a commitment to acting on principle to achieve long-term values, one can take pride in acting on principle. There is thus a general kind of "feedback" argument, which proceeds as follows: "X enhances one's ability to live and be happy; therefore, X is a virtue. My self-esteem depends on regarding myself as competent and worthy. Only by making commitments to act in ways that genuinely enhance my ability to live and be happy can I objectively regard myself as competent and worthy. Therefore, my self-esteem depends on X."

One has similar reasons of pride for each of the values one pursues and each of the virtues one practices. In analyzing one's reasons and in presenting them to others, it is crucial for the sake of clarity to recognize cases of logical dependence like this. We cannot say that in addition to the more fundamental arguments for the virtues, we have also this argument from pride. Rather, given the more fundamental arguments, we therefore have reasons of pride as well.

Aristotle described pride as the "crown" of the virtues, because it calls upon each of them. This is an accurate description, and when we take credit for our accomplishments, we experience the profound psychological reward of each of our virtues. But this characterization puts all the emphasis on the retrospective view, on pride in the past. As the practice of aspiring to moral improvement in the future, pride might also be described as our moral compass. Pride is a compass that points to self-esteem as its goal, and that directs us to moral ambitiousness as the means of reaching it.

In moments of moral deliberation, people often bypass other considerations by relying on their pride, which means, relying on their character and sense of self. But is this justified? Since reasoning from one's pride is logically derivative, we might think it inappropriate to reach a moral decision by saying, in effect, "I'm the kind of person who should do that," or "I need to be able to look myself in the mirror." Indeed, some critics of Objectivism chastise its practical, teleological ethic by claiming that it rules out such elevated forms of moral reasoning.

Their mistake lies in failing to distinguish between the logical fundamentality of a value and its importance in a hierarchy of personal values. Values such as a career or romantic love are important, without being fundamental, because they provide so many more fundamental values. Similarly, we can distinguish between, on the one hand, the logical priority of various arguments in establishing virtues and the application of our conclusions in daily moral decision making. An objective pride in one's character sums up one's moral accomplishments, which means that it sums up one's commitments to other virtues. This is why one's pride is a moral compass that guides one in creating a happy, successful life. In one's pride, one takes stock of one's overall moral condition. When one does not have the time or a good reason to engage in more complex moral deliberation, it is therefore not only convenient, but necessary, to rely on one's sense of self as one's guide. One has to face many concrete problems that one cannot reason through in every detail, and one can only handle these by asking oneself "Could I take pride in doing this?" This is just what a moral compass is for.


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 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 (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 lockstep of custom" rather than inventing one's own life (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 (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 emphasized 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 (223–288).

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" (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" (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 the 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" (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" (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 described 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" (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" (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" (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 doe the poet require applause in order to rejoice in the creation of it" (36). He also says: "Those who are blessed with such gifts almost never receive great honors for them, and they 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.

About the author: