Sunday, March 30, 2008

Taking pride in pride

What does Ayn Rand mean when she says pride is a virtue? Let's take care—even pride—in examining some subtleties of her explanation:
Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul's shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, against the vile impertinence of any creed that proposes to immolate the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others.
What does it mean to recognize the fact that you are your own highest value? Does it mean to be haughty and assume that you are always right? Does it mean that values are relative? What does it mean to say that man is a being of "self-made soul"—and what does this have to do with pride, anyway?

Ayn Rand was not the first to understand that the virtue of pride does not imply haughtiness. Aristotle was. The Irwin translation uses the term "magnanimity," but the virtue Aristotle describes has much the same connection to the value of self-esteem (the conviction that one is able and worthy of living) as Ayn Rand makes:
The magnanimous person, then, seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is worthy of them. For if someone is not worthy of them but thinks he is, he is foolish, and no virtuous person is foolish or senseless. . . . Someone who thinks he is worthy of great things, but is not worthy of them, is vain. . . . Someone who thinks he is worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous. . . . Magnanimity, then, would seem to be a sort of adornment of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it does not arise without them. This is why it is difficult to be truly magnanimous, since it is not possible without being fine and good (Nicomachean Ethics, 1123b-1124a).
Recognizing that you are your own highest value does not imply that you must think you are infallible or perfect no matter what. Far from it.

Notice Rand's immediate explanation: "like all of man's values, it has to be earned." What is the "it" here? The value of your self. Being a good person, having a good character, isn't easy. It requires a constant commitment to rationality, and all of the other virtues that Rand describes in Galt's speech.

requires a commitment to the facts, not to a subjective conviction that one is always right regardless of the facts. Honesty means never faking reality, even if doing so helps maintain one's short-term self-image. Justice means seeking and rewarding rationality in others, even when doing so means acknowledging that you were wrong about something. Etc.

As Socrates argued, the virtues form a unity; and as Aristotle says, one cannot have magnanimity (pride) without having all of the others.

Why do we want to have a good character? Because character is "what makes all others [i.e., all other values] possible." One aspect of character in particular is crucial: the achievement of self-esteem. "[T]o live requires a sense of self-value." Someone who thinks his life is worthless (Aristotle's "pusillanimous" man), someone who thinks, perhaps, that he is but a means to the ends of others, has no serious motivation to produce new values. He is moved not by love but by fear.

Self-esteem therefore requires the rejection of self-sacrifice, and this is part of what Rand means by "recognizing that you are your own highest value." But this does not imply relativism or subjectivism.

Values are relational: something can be of value only to someone for something. The only fact that gives rise to the need for values is the fundamental alternative of life or death, an alternative faced only by an individual living organism. But this does not imply that values are relative if that means relative only to one's beliefs or relative to a culture's beliefs. What is good or bad for someone is a matter of biological fact. The value of food, water, and freedom are objective values for individual human beings. But they are of value only to each individual human being. The pursuit of your well-being is primarily of value to you; if it is also of value to me, it is only because of how you are of value to me (if you are my friend or my lover).

Very well: the virtue of pride helps us to achieve the value of a good character, which includes, among other things, the value of self-esteem. But how does pride help us accomplish this? What does it even mean for man to be a "being of self-made soul"?

A clue is found in Rand's statement that "the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit." This is not just idle "reach for the stars" rhetoric tossed in to spice up the passage. Rand is referring to the fact that it is one thing to know one's values and act to achieve them; it is another thing to desire them deeply.

Many of us have experienced "weakness of the will." We've arrived at the conscious conviction that we should pursue that job, that girlfriend, or that A+ in philosophy class. But we are faced with temptations that would derail our pursuits. We want to finish our Ph.D., but wouldn't it be easier to get a nine-to-five and start making money? We want the woman of our dreams, but the ex we left months ago keeps pushing to get back together. We want to study hard tonight for that exam tomorrow, but our buddies down the hall are organizing a bar crawl, and wouldn't it be fun to come along?

Most people will be torn by these dilemmas, but to the extent that we develop our values consciously, we are torn less and less. Knowing what is right and wanting to do only what is right is not easy. That is why character is a value that has to be earned. It is earned because one's desires follow from one's thinking, and earning it requires doing the thinking needed to desire the right things.

The ease of desiring a value varies in proportion to the obviousness and proximity of the value. When you are tempted by the bar crawl, it is comparatively easy to transform that temptation into the desire to study by realizing that if you know there is a test tomorrow, and you know you can still do something to prepare for it, you know you'll hate yourself for going drinking—and you also probably know you won't enjoy yourself while you're doing it, anyway. The value of the test is obvious to you, and the window of opportunity for preparing for it is small. So you are easily motivated to stay home.

A conflict over a career decision is far more difficult to resolve. Choosing a career depends on numerous factors: one's interests, one's abilities, the supply and demand of the market for the profession, etc. It is hard to predict what one will enjoy doing years down the road and it is harder to predict how successful one will be even if one does enjoy it. But a man who knows his interests and abilities will be able to settle on some career choice soon enough. Everyone knows people who make career decisions without flinching, and others who grind away for years without being able to make up their mind. The difference between them is the extent to which they have done the extra hard work of thinking through more fundamental questions about their abilities and interests; it is a typical manifestation of difference in their pride.

A person's character just is the sum of his dispositions to desire various kinds of action (particularly dispositions with regard to questions of virtue and vice). Because one's desires are the result of one's thinking, one's character is therefore also the result of one's thinking. And because one's thinking is the product of the choice to focus one's mind or to drift or evade, thinking is self-caused. It follows that one's character, which is a product of one's desires, is also a product of one's thinking and therefore self-made. There are many who challenge the possibility of free will; most do not understand that its locus is thinking, not acting or feeling.

That man is a being of self-made soul does not mean that there is no genetic or other physiological basis for one's faculty of consciousness, or even that there are no personality traits that are influenced by genetic or environmental factors. It may even be that serious damage to the brain could result in an inability to function and desire normally. For a normal human being, however, good character is not just a personality quirk. It is a product of years of thinking and acting, and everyone knows people whose characters have matured over the years, and others who have failed to grow, and have foundered because of it—regardless of their personality quirks.

Pride is not feeling great about yourself regardless of your actual merits. Pride is working hard to earn actual merits, and working hard to earn a desire for one's values—especially to earn one's self-esteem.