Rebirth of Reason


Moral Pride
by Joseph Rowlands

I reject the idea that the purpose of morality is to prove that you are a good person. It's circular, and nonsensical. Morality is a method. It allows you to evaluate options and choose between them. It is religious morality that converted morality into a test, where the goal is to achieve status and prove what a good person you are. In a secular worldview, this is nonsense. Morality is not some higher value that you should dedicate your life to. Morality is not an ends. It is a means.


Consequently, I also reject the idea that "being moral" is a proper source of pride. This merely transfers the audience from God to yourself, while leaving the idea that the goal of living is to seek moral status. In both cases the goal of morality becomes to prove your status, instead of to live your life well. And when status becomes the goal, it detracts from the real goal of living your life. Decisions are made based on whether they satisfactorily prove how moral you are. Morality becomes an end in itself, with no greater goal that to prove how moral you are.


Once the goal of morality become an attempt to prove how moral you are, it changes the way your moral system works. It becomes about testing you, just as a religious morality tests whether a person should go to heaven or receive other supernatural benefits. And testing requires costly choices. In order to test your moral convictions, they must be pitted against your own self-interest. Only when the costs are high can the test be meaningful. And so instead of valuing choices that are easy because one option is so overwhelmingly beneficial, a status-seeking morality values choices that are painful and costly. A willingness to sacrifice is the ultimate test of morality.


Even if you have enough sense to avoid seeking sacrifice, status-seeking will look for choices that are hard to make. Perhaps they incur large short-term costs for long-term benefits. Or perhaps they pit your rational judgment against your emotions. Or perhaps they pit one important value like career against another important value like romance. It doesn't matter much. The useful tests, the valuable tests, are the one that hurt the most. What kind of morality is that?


Morality should be about living life well, and should be measured by how well your choices lead to success. Measuring morality by cost, which is how any status-seeking morality must lead, turns the morality on its head. It values the hardest choices and discounts the meaning of useful choices.


If the virtue of pride is aimed at seeking moral status, it is not a virtue worth pursuing. But does it need to be? Why exactly is pride, and why is it valuable?


The Objectivist answer is that pride seeks the value of self-esteem. But what does that mean? Generally, it is thought to have two components. It consists of the confidence that you can live your life, and the evaluation that you are worthy of living.


If we take the first part of self-esteem, this is not controversial at all. There certainly is value in having an appropriate confidence in your ability to live your life. Action requires decisions to made and followed through on. If you are constantly questioning yourself, or second-guessing your capabilities, you will not be able to execute. A lack of confidence can prevent you from acting on your best judgment. Confidence can remedy this. The confidence must be rational, of course, or you'll end up making bad choices and continually meeting failure.


In this sense, the virtue of pride fits a common pattern among virtues. Virtues can be thought of as the tools needed to connect rational thought with productive action. There are many ways in which this connection can be impaired or severed, and the virtues attempt to defend against these. Honesty keeps you focused on what's real so a false view of the world does not distract you. Independence puts the power into your hands instead of requiring the permission of others. Integrity lets you stand up against various pressures, like emotions or social expectations. And pride lets you defend against crippling insecurity and fear.


It's important to note here that this part of self-esteem, and consequently this aspect of pride as a virtue, has nothing to do with moral status. It is concerned with confidence in your abilities, and earning that confidence.


The second half of self-esteem is more questionable. What exactly does it mean for someone to feel "worthy" of living? One interpretation is that worthiness is a matter of moral status. If you are a good person, if you act morally, if you are virtuous, then you are worthy of living. If you are evil, if you do nothing but destroy the values in your life and others, you are unworthy.


Here we have a possible justification for the centrality of moral status in the virtue of pride. If your worthiness to live is determined by your moral status, then pride should properly be concerned with moral status. But is this rights?


Why would "being moral" have anything to do with worthiness to live? In a religious morality, that might make sense. Morality is a test of your character, and life is a gift from God, so you might feel the first is a measure of your worthiness to have that life. But in a secular worldview, does it make any sense to talk about worthiness to live? The whole idea seems to suggest our life doesn't belong to us by right, and that somehow we have to earn it. Earn it from whom? Why do we need to earn it? It is nonsense if we reject the idea that our life is not ours by right.


The whole notion of having to prove our worthiness is taken straight out of the religious viewpoint. It has no place in a secular worldview. Your life belongs to you, and nobody else. You don't have to earn it, or to apologize for it, or to make up for it. You can do whatever you want with it. It's yours.


And even if you did have to prove your worthiness to yourself or others, why would acting morally act as that proof? This treats morality as something above and beyond your life, instead of simply a method of making good choices. And it reverses everything. Instead of morality serving your life, your life is placed into the service of your morality. If morality is the measure of worthiness to live, then morality becomes the purpose of life. This is all totally destructive and incompatible with a morality of life.


Perhaps this is too literal, though. Perhaps this aspect of self-esteem is not really about "worthiness". Maybe it is simply an assessment of your life, and whether you approve of it. There's value to be had there. If you aren't happy with your life, you may lose motivation. You might fights against yourself, or feel constant guilt or unhappiness. You may become depressed and no longer find life valuable.


So it makes sense to really value your life, and to approve of the way you are living it. And part of this is an evaluation of yourself. Do you give into emotions to easily? Are you lazy? Do you act to preserve the values you most enjoy in your life? Do you keep your promises? Are you honest with yourself and others?


This kind of self-evaluation can be thought of as how moral you are, and perhaps that's where the confusion lies. If you're unhappy with your choices because you are dishonest and lazy, there are definite moral implications there. But the problem isn't that you violated some arbitrary set of rules called morality. The problem is that you undermine your own life by making bad choices or by lying to people or by giving into your irrational desires.


But moral choices are just one of the things you might dislike about yourself. You might dislike your appearance. You might dislike your body. You might dislike how hard it is for you to remember numbers or names. You might dislike how you can't wrap you head around certain complex ideas, or can't get interested in topics that you think you should be. You might dislike all kinds of things about you.


We can think of self-esteem as serving two purposes. It gives you the confidence to act on your choices, and it gives you the motivation to live your life. And if we focus on this latter goal, it should be clear that it includes a much wider evaluation than simply whether you follow certain moral principles. It is an evaluation of your life and character. It isn't really an evaluation of whether your are worthy of living. It is an evaluation of whether your life is worth living.


Objectivism describes pride as "moral ambitiousness". It claims you must "earn the right to hold oneself as one's own highest value by achieving one's own moral perfection". The positive way to spin this is that it doesn't mean it at all, and simply means that part of a positive self-evaluation requires living life the way you rationally conclude you should. But the wording is indistinguishable from the view that pride is earned through moral status, which acts as a test of your "goodness". If you consider that many people think that morality is test of how good of a person you are, if this is not what it means, the lack of distinction is far from a minor oversight. As described, this view of pride take the view of morality as a test of character instead of as a method for making decisions and living life.


If pride has an element of self-evaluation, it should not be judged by conformity to a set of moral rules. It should be expansive. It should be an evaluation of the way you have lived your life, the values you seek, your strengths and weakness, your hopes and dreams. Only when your happy with the totality of your self will you find the motivation to push further.


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