Rebirth of Reason


Pride From Beliefs
by Joseph Rowlands

A common problem among ideological people is to take their beliefs as a source of pride in their lives. They think that simply holding the beliefs makes them a better person, or superior to others. And with that view, they become defensive when their beliefs are challenged. Objectivists are no exception.


There are a few questions that should be answered regarding this behavior. First, what reasons to people have for thinking their beliefs are a source of pride. Second, are those beliefs justified? If not, what is a proper source of pride and why is there confusion? And finally, what problems arise from accepting beliefs as a source of pride?


There are potentially many reasons why people think beliefs are a source of pride. The most common reason for taking pride in holding beliefs is that it indicates that you are more intelligent, insightful, or moral. Believers often think that non-believers are deluded fools who just aren't smart enough to see the truth. They may even be infuriated that others don't get it, even though it seems obvious. Objectivists, for instance, will sometimes talk about how the philosophy will never be widely adopted because only really intelligent people can understand it. If you accept the beliefs, you are clearly smarter than all of the people who don't.


A sense of superiority doesn't even need this much. People may feel superior to others just by knowing something that the other people don't. If you know gossip that your friends don't, you might feel superior for being "in the know". Religious people may not think of their beliefs as proof of their superior intelligence or morality, but they may still feel that they are better than others just for knowing the identity of the one, true religion.


The believer views himself as special. Believers often think of themselves as being in a minority, which inflates their sense of accomplishment and uniqueness. This is true even when an idea is widespread or nearly universal. Altruists often present themselves as being one of the few people who care about others, as if altruism were a minority position. Christians in the United States often act as if they are a minority that is persecuted for their beliefs. Supporters of global warming theory think of themselves as a minority, and act as if nobody has heard of it. You can see television shows that talk about global warming, and introduce the topic as if the world were ignorant of it.


Part of this feeling of being unique is tied to the belief that you have to be smarter or better than others to accept the truth, but part of it is simply feeling like you are outside of the majority and special because of it. Some of the things that are accepted with pride are not thought of as things that require particular intelligence. Often, pride is taken just for the fact that the person learned about it before others. Maybe this is a trendsetter source of pride.


Are any of these legitimate reasons to feel pride? I don't think so. We should look at them more carefully.


Those who take pride in their beliefs because they think it proves their morality or intelligence are making a mistake. You can feel pride in your intelligence, and particularly if you utilize it well. But the pride should come from the process of thinking clearly or systematically or whatnot. The beliefs are just conclusions. The strength of the conclusions is in the arguments and evidence. The power of the beliefs is in your approach to validating them. If you take the belief/conclusion as the source of pride, you get it backwards. Taking the belief as the source of value/pride means taking pride in how you arrived at that conclusion merely because it arrived at that conclusion. It's like a rationalization. If the conclusion is the source of value, then the means are only valuable for the fact that you arrived at that conclusion.


Are you happy that you arrived at that conclusion, or are you happy that you followed a process of reasoning correctly, which just happened to arrive at that conclusion. The real source of pride should be that you were rational and arrived at the best conclusion you could. It is a false source of pride to value the conclusion itself, disconnected from the means you took to achieve it. If the belief is the critical part, then accepting it on faith would be just as good as approaching it through reason. Maybe better, because it is more certain.


In practice, it matters whether your allegiance is to the process of reasoning or the specific conclusions you arrived at. The reason this is so critical is that you may discover new evidence, or come across new insights or arguments that challenge the belief. Those who treat the belief as the source of pride will be reluctant to change it. Those who take reason as the source of pride will be happy to amend their conclusions if reason requires it.


Arriving at a set of beliefs due to a sense of morality is no better. Those who support a government program because they think supporting it proves their compassion is an example of this. People might support nationalized healthcare because they want to help sick people. Again, it is the conclusions or beliefs that are taken as a source of pride. If you belief that society should do everything it can to help others, you might take pride in holding that belief. You might feel that you are a superior kind of person. A rational egoist could experience the same thing. He might determine that certain conclusions prove his sense of morality, like being against an initiation of force or being against modern art.


What's wrong with taking pride in a belief that seems to reflect your morality? One major problem with this is that it accepts a view of morality where actions matter less than intentions. Intentions might even be too strong of a word. Perhaps sympathies. If you feel pride in simply thinking something is good or bad, with no need to try to achieve or prevent it, it makes morality pointless. A morality of self-interest, for instance, is a means of choosing actions to benefit your life. If your pride doesn't come from taking those actions, and instead comes from beliefs disconnected from action, morality becomes an end in itself. To act morally, you do need to have the right beliefs about what is and isn't moral, but those beliefs are only guides. Real morality occurs when you connect them to action.


There's a certain view of morality that treats intentions or sympathies as the really important element, and actions as mere displays of those intentions or sympathies. In that view, an altruist is someone who cares about others, and any actions they take are merely displays of their feelings. But this is not an appropriate view if you accept morality as a means of acting to further your own life.


What about feeling pride in having knowledge that others don't? Pride depends on your own accomplishments, and not merely coincidental advantages over others. Pride is about recognizing your own strengths and gaining confidence through a positive self-assessment. Feeling pride over the fact that you happened to stumble on information before others is not indicative of any positive qualities in you.


How about feeling pride for being in a minority or being relatively unique? Again, if pride isn't connected to self-assessment, it isn't real pride. Being different from others is not objectively better or worse. Being in a minority doesn't make you better, and so believing in things that few others believe is not automatically valuable. If there is value, it is dependent on the way you achieved that knowledge.


So what's the problem with these false justifications for pride? What do they lead to in practice?


The first effect of this falsely-directed pride is that you wrap your sense of identity in those beliefs. Any challenge to those beliefs is a challenge to your identity. If someone dismisses them or ridicules them, you take it as an affront to yourself. You could simply view them as mistaken and maybe even intentionally ignorant if they aren't willing to rationally discuss the topic. But when the beliefs are a source of pride, a source of positive self-assessment, a challenge to them is an attack on you.


Once you accept these ideas as reflecting on your own identity or status, you will be less likely to approach the rationally. If you attempt to defend them, your defenses will be mere rationalizations because you'll have already decided the truth. And rationalizations don't work. They distort the reasoning process. Rationalizations are treated as stronger than they are. They're treated as certain, and the one who rationalizes will tend to select arguments that are all or nothing, instead of providing an inductive argument.


Even worse, it's possible that your beliefs are wrong. They can be outright wrong, where you think something is true and it isn't at all. This might be rare, depending on your beliefs. More likely, your beliefs will not be true within certain contexts, or will be overwhelmed by other factors in other cases, or will simply not recognize degrees. A common problem is that people who believe that the initiation of force is evil will tend to see that as overriding self-interest as the moral standard in certain emergency situations, or will think that defending yourself against a killer with a human shield is evil because you'd be initiating force against the human shield. The basic belief that the initiation of force is wrong is rational and justified, but there are occasional other factors involved. But if it is a sense of pride, it will tend to be accepted without qualification or limit.


There's a wider problem with accepting belief as a source of pride. Instead of welcoming new ideas or new information, you may be tempted to shut them out. Part of thinking that you have the answers is to not accept the fact that there are more questions and answers out there. If you took pride in the fact that you were diligent in your thinking and followed reason wherever it led, new information would not be a threat. But when your beliefs are the source of pride, anything new can threaten them.

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