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.
12 thoughts on “Call Now! Pride for the Low, Low Price of $19.95!”
You know my generation is going to be the worst of it. We’ve been told our whole lives how special, unique and wonderful we are. Are grades were inflated, the work was always easy and you always got a trophy. No one ever had to be humble and until everything comes crashing down I don’t think my generation will understand it.
Thanks for that,Shannon.
If someone buys a crappy material good, one soon knows it, since it doesn’t do what it is supposed to. Crappy ideas are much harder to test.They can poison your life while making you feel wonderful.
A classical education would help.
Have all the smart kids read Homer, Plutarch, Thucydides, Aeschylus.
Libertarians and Traditionalists could all agree on it.
Then for the religious kids is Bible study, theology, the Western Canon. For the non-religious kids it is a course in world religions and the Western Canon.
Everyone would learn about humility.
That’s actually a good idea. I think a multicultural perspective makes it harder to dismiss the ideas in traditional moral systems as simply “made up.” When you see the same idea crop up in culture after culture over thousands of years, that should convince anyone that there is some merit to the idea.
Don’t know if it is a pride thing or a general disdain for rules, authority, or social convention, but with the revival of the custom of public spitting, you really have to watch where you step, especially on the UW-Madison campus — it gets gross when the weather turns cold and the stuff starts to freeze on the cement — eeewwww!
Another “social custom” is dropping paper towel litter on the floor in the bathroom, especially if the waste bins have filled up. I suppose the view is “if they won’t empty the trash, I will simply drop the used paper towel on the floor so I don’t contaminate my clean hands, and they can pick it up when they get to the wastebasket.”
Thing is, it may be “your school”, but it is “my place of work” where I spend the whole day and need to go to the bathroom. I have tried picking up the towel litter on the “broken windows theory” of trying to maintain a tidy bathroom to no avail.
Along the lines of the previous discussion of acceptable and unacceptable conduct from the people in authority and from the people subject to their authority, I am thinking of posting a sign
“If I find out you are discarding trash on the floor of MY bathroom, I will do the following.
If you are an undergrad, I will see to it you go on Academic Probation.
If you are a grad student, I will see to it your Assistantship is not renewed.
If you are an Assistant Professor, I will bring this up when your tenure case comes for review.
If you are a tenured Professor, I will bring this up in Executive Committee to have you censured.
If you are from the Dean’s Office . . . Have a nice day!”
I do not buy the idea pride is any more prevalent today then it was any other time in history. Pride is now and always has been a prevalent trait of humans.
More or less I see the perceived increase in the modern day being a form of the vividness effect: Pride seem like a bigger problem today, because of the leaps we’ve made in communications brings us in greater contact with pride. If pride was not an issue in yesteryear and was not a widespread problem than a majority of moral systems would not have attempted to stomp it out.
But for the sake of argument, let’s accept your idea that there has been a rise in pride in the modern day.
In that case, I certainly do not accept your thesis as to why it has grown: The marketplace of ideas.
It seems to me this argument boils down to: Given too many choices an individual will choose poorly. You further make flattery and rationalization irresistible forces, siren songs of hubris no man can resist. Year after year, generation after generation and era after era is this not the argument authoritarian figures of every stripe make to justify their power? They make decisions to save the wretches of the earth from their own bad choices.
Following this line of thinking also leads you to make some pretty scary and authoritarian statements in your post. I shuttered when I read, “(W)e are choking on our own freedom.” Ack! Or this gem, “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.” In that case, perhaps we need some sort of Czar so we can regulate away “stupid things.”
Further on the point of the marketplace of ideas being to blame, tribal societies — typically closed to outside ideas — are no less immune to pride/hubris than open societies. Are not Middle Eastern honor killings of disgraced daughters and wives a form of pride or an attempt to regain pride from a act that sullied it in the first place? Are these cultures “choking on freedom” as they make prideful choices?
Instead, if there is a a rise in pride, (a theory I reiterate I do not subscribe) than I believe you come up with a more feasible reason for its growth further down in your post when you point out, “(W)e 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.”
In your theory, the real problem is not the marketplace, but a market distortion. The consequence of a good or poor choice or idea is not allowed to come to complete fruition, thus an individual is given a false feedback signal.
But once again, I do not buy pride is on the rise or a function of the free market of ideas. Pride is too old and prevalent a trait of man to pin on modern society. In fact, to say that it has grown in lockstep with the progress of man is to sound a bit hubristic.
Some relevant thoughts from G K Chesterton:
“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell”
Chesterton would no doubt argue that excessive pride, in the sense used here, is more likely to develop in the clique than in the clan, since in the clan you do not get to choose associates on the basis of knowing they’ll think highly of you. OTOH, excessive pride in the clan itself is often a feature of such societies.
I think pride is a genetic constant but traditional cultures recognized that and sought to actively suppress it. I think we’ve lost the idea that pride is dangerous and instead come to value it excessively. We’ve uncaged the beast.
Some people will choose poorly but that wasn’t my main point. My main point was that people don’t actually understand that they are choosing at all. Culturally, we don’t think of ideas a products that are bought and sold and are therefore subject to market forces. We intuitively understand that a combination of aggregated individual desire combined with marketing can make certain products seem more desirable. We understand this when we look at the ebb and flow of popularity of material products.
We don’t think about ideas that way. When we buy a book of ideas we don’t think that we are signaling the market to produce more books with those same ideas. People think ideas are floating out there in an abstract space unconnected to any specific individual action (like Platonic ideals.) We don’t really understand that we shape the ideas we can consume now by our previous consumption of ideas. We don’t understand that ideas might become widespread and popular merely because people desire them to be true and are willing to pay good money to be told that they are.
This is why the consumption of ideas requires just as much discipline as the consumption of material goods. You have to be aware that every idea is sold as a product and apply the same judgment as you would a material good.
Of course they can be resisted but you have to be aware of them and exert self-discipline. Traditional moral systems paid a great deal of attention to training people to view their own desires with skepticism. We’ve lost that.
That is a major problem but it is not the only problem. Living as a free person requires self-discipline. If you have infinite choice, you have infinite capacity for error. You can’t choose impulsively but must think carefully before choosing. I think we’ve lost the culture of self-discipline. Combined with socialization of consequence, that is very dangerous.
“That is a major problem but it is not the only problem. Living as a free person requires self-discipline. If you have infinite choice, you have infinite capacity for error. You can’t choose impulsively but must think carefully before choosing. I think we’ve lost the culture of self-discipline. Combined with socialization of consequence, that is very dangerous.”
All I hear is moral theory, theory, theory.
All I want is the ability to walk down the sidewalk without playing hopscotch with where people spit and to have a clean place to go to the bathroom at work.
Why do you think air travel is so cringe-worth these days? Sure the seats are packed tighter, and the “load factors” are higher, and the airlines have incentivized packing the cabin even tighter with luggage, first with poor quality of checked baggage service, then for charging a lot of money for a poor quality of checked baggage service. But then your seatmates have the personal grooming of homeless people and the cooperative spirit of prison inmates. And people wonder about Steve Slater?
And Steve Slater, too, is part of the problem. And I am also part of the problem. I tell people that what Mr. Slater did wrong was not his acting out against the passengers but the way he did it. He should have enlisted the cooperation of his fellow flight attendants and gone all passive aggressive, given the planeload a dose of collective punishment by waiting 40 minutes to let people out, concocting some excuse of some technical problem with the boarding ramp — and no one would have been the wiser that they were being had.
So Dan from Madison has an employee “blow up” at him, and Dan from Madison has his fill and fires the employee and tells the world about it, and the thread fills up with the most nasty snark telling Dan what a nasty person he is.
I want you all to go to the window and to shout out over the street, “I’m mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore!”
Self absorption. It’s the one phrase that I believe can sum up a much more complex cultural phenomenon.
I work in a region where most everyone has come from elsewhere in the US. I can almost immediately tell which among them originate from Southern California. WHY? In a word: they are whiners. In addition, they feel compelled to tell you their ‘story’. As if, frankly, anyone cares.
It is a microcosm of a pervasive element in our society, prompted by the “It’s all about YOU, and you’re GREAT!” mentality in commerce, television, and often in printed periodical literature.
Toss in 40 years of progressive moral relativism, with suppression—passive or active—of societal responsibility, and you have exactly the people that all of the writers have discussed.
It’s not so much ‘excess freedom’, as insufficient internal controls. One needs a gas pedal AND a brake. Many in modern society lack the latter.
…the most nasty snark telling Dan what a nasty person he is
Paul, do you have reading comprehension problem? Or you consider anybody who disagrees with the view you approve of – however respectfully – a nasty person?
And you are the one talking about “passive-aggressive”?
You bet there were nasty people in that thread – but not the ones disagreeing with Dan.
Disagreed with Tatyana on the “Dan/Madison” string. Agree with her entirely here.
Calm down, Paul. Consider switching to decaf. And why the focus on spitting? Are you in a community of compulsive expectorators?
Yes, it’s everybody’s fault to some degree: as the saying goes, “No single raindrop wants to accept blame for the flood”. Recognition of a problem is, however the first step to cure.
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