Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul's shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, against the vile impertinence of any creed that proposes to immolate the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others.
The first thing to note is that, in her description of pride, Rand unwittingly embraces relativism. “Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value,” Rand states. In other words, each person is their own highest value; which means the value of each person is relative to each individual. This would be all fine and good were it not for the fact that Rand insisted her values were “absolute.” (I realize her apologists at this point will counter-insist that her absolutes are “contextual”—whatever that means! I suspect she’s merely trying to have it both ways, and thinks she can get away with it by playing games with words!)
What is even more striking is the famous passage where Rand insists that man ought to be a “being of self-made soul.” Just as Rand embraced free will in its most extreme form, so she embrace a most uncompromising version of pride. We can be proud of ourselves not merely because it feels good to think that way; we can also be proud of ourselves because this self is our own creation! One can hardly imagine greater effrontery or arrogance as this.
According to both traditional authorities and the latest scientific evidence, Rand’s view of the self-created self has no empirical ground to stand on. Not only does there exist well documented genetic factors in personality, but there also exists a cognitive unconscious that quite literally has a will of its own. In other words, we don’t, nor can we, control everything about ourselves. Even worse, the extent that we can control ourselves depends, in crucial part, on taking countermeasures against our limitations. But how can these countermeasures take place when we refuse to accept the existence of these congenital limitations? How can we overcome the bad qualities in our cognitive unconscious when we deny, as Rand did, that a cognitive unconscious even exists? Throwing pride into the mixture only renders the situation worse, making it even less likely that the individual is going to face up to his limitations.
As is well known and has been demonstrated by hundreds of psychological experiments, there exists a human tendency toward self-deception. “Most people claim they are above average in any positive trait you name,” notes the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In other words, the tendency to see ourselves better than we are is built-in. Why, then, does this tendency need encouragement? If people already tend to think better of themselves than is warranted by the facts, why would any psychologically astute person wish to encourage them to be proud? The better strategy, it would seem, would be to pump a bit for humility—if for no other reason than as a sort of countermeasure against the innate bias towards pride.
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” the Bible claims. Is this just mystical nonsense? Or is it one of those sayings that causes most people to regard the Bible as a repository of wisdom, since it backs what people have learned through hard-earned experience? Most traditions of folk wisdom contain warnings about the dangers of pride. Literature, from the Greek dramatists through Dante and Shakespeare to the great novelists of the last two centuries, repeatedly warns against the dangers of pride. Where did these warnings come from? Why do they continue to resonate with most people? Is it merely because most people are envious, or corrupted by religious teachings and Immanuel Kant? Or does the experience of the human race testify to a truth about human nature and the psychological dangers of encouraging people to think too well of themselves? And what about the effects of pride on Rand herself? Was it pride that encouraged her to begin an ill-advised affair with a man half her age—an affair, moreover, that turned out to have disastrous consequences to both her personal life and the intellectual movement devoted to her philosophy?