Virtual Colloquium: Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West, “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride”
November 4, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Virtue  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Today’s virtual colloquium paper is “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride” by Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West. Dr. Roberts received his PhD from Yale in 1974 and is currently Chair of Ethics and Emotion Theory in the Jubilee Centre, the University of Birmingham (UK) and Distinguished Professor of Ethics emeritus at Baylor University. His extensive publication history includes monographs published by Oxford, Cambridge, and Eerdmans (among others) as well as numerous journal articles, mainly focusing on Christian virtue ethics. Dr. West received his PhD from Baylor, under Dr. Roberts’ supervision, earlier this year and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grove City College. His papers on virtue ethics have appeared in journals including Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Synthese, and Faith and Philosophy.

Jesus and the Virtues of Pride

Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West

We are grateful for the opportunity to participate in this virtual colloquium. Our paper, “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride,” is to be included in an interdisciplinary volume on pride edited by Adam Carter and Emma Gordon as part of Rowman & Littlefield’s forthcoming series, Moral Psychology of the Emotions (series editor, Mark Alfano). This is the penultimate draft, and we welcome your feedback. Here’s a sketch of the project.

It is commonly thought that humility and pride are traits that repel each other. And so they are, but only in a qualified sense. We propose that there are both virtuous and vicious forms of both humility and pride, and that only some of these are mutually repelling. More specifically, we argue that virtuous pride and virtuous humility are in fact mutually reinforcing, even as each is opposed to both vicious pride and vicious humility. We make our case by offering conceptual analyses of several sub-species of the four classes just mentioned, giving special attention to the presence or absence of those traits in the character of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we take to be an exemplar not only of virtuous humility, but also of virtuous pride.

We take virtuous humility to consist in the intelligent absence of the vices of pride. The latter encompass three general areas of human selfhood: the self as agent, as having special entitlements or privileges, and as a self among other selves. The third area admits division, so we group the pride vices into five species:

  1. The prides of distorted agency (selfish ambition, domination, and hyper- autonomy);
  2. The prides of corrupt entitlement (arrogance and presumptuousness);
  3. The prides of empty self-display (vanity and pretentiousness);
  4. The prides of invidious comparison (snobbery, self-righteousness, invidious pride, and envy); and
  5. The prides of tribal superiority (racism, sexism, ethnicism, homophobia, etc.).

We suggest that people with the vices of pride are concerned to have a kind of importance, which, in a way that deviates somewhat from common usage, we call self-importance. The drive for self-importance is exemplified in such things as using one’s agency for personal importance independently of the real value of one’s actions, taking over others’ proper agency, and eschewing others’ contributions to one’s own agency; having entitlements beyond what is proper to one; getting the (usually) positive regard of others in abstraction from what is actually excellent; and being superior to others and having others be inferior to oneself, either individually or in tribal terms. Virtuous humility, then, comes in a number of varieties: there is the lack of vanity, the lack of snobbery, the lack of domination, and so on.

The three areas of human selfhood just noted—the self as agent, as entitled, and as a self among other selves—are generic and unavoidable in the constitution of selfhood. They are fundamental aspects of human life that bear on individuals’ importance—not just the false value of self-importance, but the real importance of persons. People can be important for what they do, for what they are entitled to, and in virtue of their relations to one another. Also, these three belong intimately together, because they all intersect. The virtues of pride—traits like self-confidence, secure agency, aspiration, pride in one’s work, sense of dignity, self-respect, personal authority, pride in associates, group belonging, and secure collegiality—are excellences with respect to the same dimensions of character with respect to which the vices of pride are defects.

If virtuous pride is a positive self-construal in terms of one’s agency, one’s dignity, or one’s entitlements, it would seem to encourage virtuous humility in a special way, namely, by being a proper and genuine satisfaction of a basic human need of which the vices of pride are a perverse and false satisfaction. The fact that the vices of pride speak to the same psychological need as the virtues of pride marks the special intimacy between them. We illustrate this point by exploring the presence of several virtues of pride in the New Testament presentation of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, we suggest that we can discern in the teaching of Jesus that he encourages his disciples to imitate him in many of these respects.

Finally, we suggest that virtuous pride and virtuous humility are each contrary not only to vicious pride, but also to what we call vicious humility. The latter finds expression in traits like deep shame, servility, and a variety of other unrealistically low dispositional self-construals.

That is a basic outline of the conceptual scheme of pride and humility we develop. In the paper, we offer several narrative examples to illustrate the nuances of each trait and their interrelations with one another. We also defend our view against some objections. We welcome the opportunity to explain and/or defend ourselves here as well. Thank you in advance for your feedback.

The complete paper is here. Comments welcome below!

  • Thank you, Bob and Ryan, for sharing this excellent and edifying paper! I have only a couple of minor comments/suggestions.

    The first has to do with your claim on on p. 30 that the disciple of Jesus who exhibits virtuous pride, “confidently does her good works in part so as to be seen by her fellow human beings. Her purpose in so doing is that they too might glorify her Father.” This seems right and Aquinas says something much along these lines in his discussion of the proper reasons for desiring glory (De Malo, Q IX [“On Vainglory”], a. 1). Perhaps it would be helpful to cite Aquinas here.

    My second suggestion has to do with the claim in your final sentence before the conclusion on p. 32 in which you say that “deep shame, defeatist lethargy, servility, and the other vices of humility are always epistemically unrealistic cognitive-affective distortions.” I am not sure I like the phrase “epistemically unrealistic” here, partly because I’m not sure what it would mean for any mental state or disposition to be “unrealistic” – I wonder whether another phrase like “epistemically defective” or “epistemically inapt” might better communicate your meaning.

    Again, this is an excellent paper and I am grateful for your fine work in it.

    November 4, 2016 — 10:58
    • Ryan West

      Thanks for reading the paper, and for these very helpful comments, Adam.

      November 4, 2016 — 11:53
  • Tim Perrine

    Hi Robert and Ryan,

    Thanks for your interesting paper. Pride and humility strike me as perplexing traits mostly because so many conflicting things have been written about them. Its nice to read a careful treatment of them. I have two comments.

    First, you all write:

    “…the virtue of humility consists in the absence of various vicious forms of pride…” (p. 4).

    “Humility is the absence of one or another vice of pride” (p. 17).

    “Virtuous humility, by contrast, is not a self-construal at all, but rather an absence of the concern for self-importance” (p. 32)

    This suggests to me that you are thinking of virtuous humility primarily as an absence or lack of other character traits (though I could be misreading you). But that strikes me as slightly strange. I normally think of a virtuous character trait as something more positive, like a positive disposition to act, think, feel, or be for something, and not merely a lack of a disposition to act, think, feel or be against something. Could you say a little more about how you are conceiving of virtues more generally? Do you think there are other virtues that are primarily absences or lacks of other character traits?

    The second comments concerns your section on individual comparison and is, I hope, a minor tweak. In my own work on envy, I’ve come to think that what is really important in interpersonal comparison is not simple evaluations “being important” but more complex evaluations involving our personal identities or features we care about. A proud person is not just proud because they are “important” but because (e.g.) they are the “most important artist working with this medium” or “the best stoneworker in town.” Likewise, an envious person feels worse about herself not because another surpasses her over some feature that is objectively important but because the other surpasses her on some feature that is important to her own self-value or worth. (In fact, a person’s envy might be intensified when they realize that the person who is superior to them in some regard is, from society’s point of view, less important. A professor of mathematics might be even more envious when he discovers that the problem he couldn’t solve wasn’t just solved by someone else, but by the night time janitor.)

    Consequently, I’m not sure it is quite right to say that the difference between the proud/envious and the humble turns on the willingness to draw inference to who is important as a person. If I’m right, then even the proud and envious rarely do that. Rather, I think it might be slightly more apt to say that the difference turns on the willingness to draw features about their own self value or attitudes they bear to themselves. The humble person is less likely, upon a positive or negative social comparison, to bear further positive/negative attitudes towards themselves.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting paper.


    November 5, 2016 — 12:13
    • Ryan West

      Hi Tim,
      I apologize for the delayed response! Here’s a brief response to the first comment. (I need to think some more about the second.)
      In one sense, yes, we are conceiving of humility primarily as a lack of vicious pride. But that doesn’t mean humility is simply a hole in one’s character. Consider another virtue that I take to be like this, patience. (I am not sure if that completes the list of virtues in this category.) There’s a form of patience that requires active willpower. But there’s a deeper form of the virtue in which the patient person simply bears with what would be frustrations for others, but which aren’t frustrations for them. There isn’t a particular concern at the heart of patience. Rather, the patient person has a particular ordering and texture to her concerns which explain her insensitivity to what aggravates the impatient. From another paper: “A patient driver, say, might want to get to work on time, but she is slower than her impatient counterpart to construe a traffic jam as a reason for anger because her desire for punctuality has a different location in her motivational structure (other things matter more, so she isn’t so emotionally sensitive to lateness), and/or because punctuality has a different meaning for her (lateness is ‘encoded’ in her heart in such a way that it isn’t easily construed as an offense for which others are blameworthy). Something similar could be said about the humble person’s priorities and understanding of her own importance.” Thoughts?

      November 9, 2016 — 5:40
  • Heath White

    Evagrius of Pontus, operating out of the same environment as the Desert Fathers, distinguishes vanity from pride, both of which are seductive sins for spiritually advanced monks, but pride the subtlest of all. Vanity is doing spiritual things (fasting, praying, etc.) for the sake of others thinking well of you. Pride is doing them, even for the right reasons, with the thought that they are achievements of one’s own, rather than due to the power of the Holy Spirit working through one. Or in other words, pride is failing to acknowledge that one’s spiritual achievements are gifts of God. Humility is the reverse: acknowledging that God is the true agent of one’s spiritual achievements, and therefore not having a particularly high opinion of oneself for achieving them.

    This kind of pride/humility is not going to show up in, say, Aristotle, because it depends on a specifically Christian metaphysics: namely, that God produces all good works and spiritual achievements in the believer. Aristotle, or any secular person, would say in contrast that the human agent is the true agent of her virtuous actions and character.

    I did not see this dimension of specifically Christian pride/humility discussed in your article. It could slot in under the discussion of “hyper-autonomy,” although on this conception there’s nothing “hyper” about the vice. And I don’t know if you are shooting for specifically Christian conceptions of the virtues or not.

    November 10, 2016 — 8:57
    • Ryan West

      Thanks for this helpful comment, Heath. You’re right, we don’t go into the particular pride/humility dynamics you find in Evagrius, et al. in this paper. Here’s one possible way to talk about those dynamics using our taxonomy. Failing to acknowledge that one’s spiritual achievements are gifts from God can express various vices (e.g., self-righteousness, hyper autonomy, deep shame, etc.), depending on the reason for one’s failure (e.g., the concern to be morally superior to others, unwillingness to rely on God’s grace, having such a low view of myself that I am blind to my spiritual achievements, etc.). The role of the various species of virtuous humility would be to clear away the various versions of vicious pride that might muck things up in this arena. But we could point to an additional, explicitly Christian virtue of pride here as well, which falls within the “self among other selves” sphere. This virtue would involve a dispositional construal of oneself as clothed with Christ’s righteousness. In another paper, Roberts calls this virtue “being in Christ.”
      As an aside, there does seem to be something “hyper” about the hyper autonomous refusal to credit God with one’s spiritual achievements, at least on the assumption that human agents (typically) cooperate with God’s grace in the process of sanctification.

      November 14, 2016 — 12:44
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