I started this post as a comment to Dan’s previous post but it grew overly long so I decided to make it a separate post. Dan asked an important question:
…do people of this generation or people in general seem to show more pride in today’s era than in past eras? Or do you think I am noticing something that isn’t there?
Most of the world’s traditional religious and secular moral systems view pride as the most dangerous emotion. Modern research bears this out. I think the dynamics of modern life make us very prone as individuals to rationalize our unearned pride.
The classical Greeks saw hubris as the most dangerous emotion. A good half or more of Greek literature deals with that theme. In Christianity, pride was Lucifer’s sin (as it was in Sumerian mythology). Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism likewise identify pride as a major source of negative behaviors. Even the Aztecs and the Mayans seemed to think the same.
Indeed, the only moral systems that do not view pride as particularly dangerous are the invented moral systems of secular intellectuals over the past two centuries or so. Since these moral systems are based on intellectual hubris, it is easy to see why they wouldn’t view pride as dangerous.
Evolved moral systems adapted to view pride/hubris as dangerous because pride is the primary emotion that leads to violence. This is especially true of unearned or inherited pride. Pride/hubris gives us emotional permission to dominate others by any means including violence. Pride/hubris gives us emotional permission to believe that the rules, moral and otherwise, do not apply to us. The modern horrors of fascism and communism were not committed by humble people but instead those whose hubris led them to believe that they and they alone understood right from wrong and what was best for everyone.
I think there is a lot more hubris these days in individuals and I blame an unlikely (for a libertarian) source: the free market in ideas. The great benefit of the free market is that it will sell you anything you want to buy, thus giving you direct control over your life. The great danger of the free market is that will sell you anything you want to buy, thus allowing you to do stupid things with your life.
One of things the free market of ideas sells in batch lots is flattery. If you so choose, you can buy complex and detailed rationales for why you personally are so wonderful. You can buy rationales for why you don’t have to follow the rules. You can buy rationales that tell you that you have a right to dominate and control others. You can buy pride and hubris.
Products in the free market evolve from a feedback loop from producers to consumers and back again. Producers make products, consumers choose whether or not to buy the products, which signals to producers which products to make. This is obviously true for material products but it is true for ideas as well.
When an idea sells well, producers create more similar ideas. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this and instead think of ideas as something existing in an ethereal, abstract plane immune from economics. They forget that their own choices control what ideas others present them with and instead believe that the ideas arise wholly from an external mechanism that merely communicates the “truth” to individuals. Therefore, they don’t apply the same rigor in evaluating ideas as they do material goods or services. People who readily understand that those who sell material goods will try to manipulate them don’t apply the same wariness when buying ideas. They don’t understand that ideas come with their own built in advertisements and hucksters.
Living in a free market requires self-discipline. This is obviously true in the case of intoxicants like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, etc. but it is equally true in things like food and debt. If a person is free to make good decisions, they are also free to make bad ones, and only the individuals themselves controls those decisions. The same applies to ideas. If an individual does not discipline their consumption of ideas, the free market will sell them self-destructive ideas just as it will sell them too much booze or cheesecakes.
This is why the ideas like “free love” — i.e., sexual promiscuity — keep popping up over and over again throughout history, in every culture. People want to follow their genetically encoded impulses to have promiscuous sex and are ever willing to buy rationales for why it is okay to do so. Likewise, moral systems throughout history have fought to interrupt the free market in ideas related to sex out of fear that people will buy into the idea without considering the long-term consequences.
Just as people desire sex, people desire pride and status, so the free market of ideas sells it to them. Most commercials try to sell their material products by first selling the idea that the material product will give the purchaser pride and status. Social and political writings almost always appeal to moral vanity by telling the reader that they are a superior human being if they believe in the ideology promulgated by the writings. People have eagerly gobbled up ideas that tell them that they have every right to feel pride in themselves to the extent they don’t have to accept traditional restraints on individual behavior.
Worse, although we increasingly socialize the cost of bad decisions, thus interrupting the empirical feedback that lets individuals balance freedom of choice with individual consequences for those choices. Many today eagerly buy the idea that while they and they alone have the right to make “personal” decisions, it is nevertheless the responsibility of society to pay for the consequences of those “personal” decisions.
So, we are choking on our own freedom. Self-restraint and humility are hard sells in the contemporary free market of ideas, especially to the young. When you’re 20 you don’t want to hear that you need to keep your pants zipped. Likewise, they don’t want to hear that there are things they don’t understand in business, technology, politics, society or culture. Instead, they buy ideas that tell them how overwhelming their intellects are, how morally superior and unselfish they are compared to everyone else and, mostly important, what fantastically good decisions that make as a consequence. Young people and their parents buy ideas that tell them they are “special”, i.e., high status, and dominant, even though they have no empirical accomplishments to justify that pride.
When they collide with empirical reality, when they fail to receive the status and deference that their purchased rationales tell them they should receive, they react with anger generated by wounded pride. They express that anger in every way from individual shouting and violent outburst to highly dangerous political movements.
I think we are in for a rough ride over the next few decades. Only the school of hard knocks teaches humility anymore, and the hubris of individuals can do a lot of damage before empirical reality knocks the arrogance out of them.