WordPress provided a year-end statistical review of my blog for 2014. One of the most viewed posts was “Why humility is not a virtue,” so I decided to write more about the topic. Most of us have been taught that humility is a virtue and pride a mortal sin. Humility teaches us that we should have a low estimate of ourselves and not take credit for our accomplishments—as “we didn’t really build that,” to paraphrase President Obama. Whatever we achieve is due to others; it would be arrogant to think otherwise.
Why do we accept humility as a virtue? That is a clever trick of modern intellectuals. They have twisted the legitimate concept of humility described above—which is not a virtue, as I will show—by packaging it with opposite, truly virtuous elements: rational recognition of facts for what they are, such as one’s achievements and mistakes, and taking and giving credit where it is due. Claiming that humility consists of both an irrational denial of one’s own accomplishments and a rational recognition of facts renders it an anti-concept. Ayn Rand called such anti-concepts package-deals, because they sneak in good elements with bad, making such anti-concepts more palatable. Because of their contradictory components, anti-concepts hamper our ability to think clearly.
Anti-concepts are particularly hazardous when they are served as moral virtues, which are supposed to guide our actions to achieve values. We accept humility as a virtue because we think we can achieve our values by not being arrogant or boastful but by recognizing facts instead. I have heard business leaders promote humility as the recognition of facts and the avoidance of ‘hubris’ (an inflated view of one’s own abilities and accomplishments). An MBA class once told me that humility means acknowledging and being accountable for one’s mistakes. However, these are not examples of humility but of the virtues of rationality (adhering to facts and acting accordingly) and justice (evaluating people, including oneself, objectively and granting them what they deserve).
Rationality and justice are virtues because they define actions needed to achieve our values: primarily life and happiness, and all the contributing sub-values. They are also crucial virtues in business. Try operating a business for the long term by ignoring facts, such as customer preferences or new competitors, or by failing to judge employees and business partners and treating everybody equally, regardless of character or performance.
Humility, on the other hand, in its original, non-manipulated meaning of self-abasement and having a lowly opinion of oneself, does nothing to help achieve our values. On the contrary, humility guides us to give up values—because we are not worthy of them. In business, humility would require we give up promotions and bonuses for the sake of our co-workers, or business opportunities for the benefit of our competitors. Humility is not a virtue but a vice that leads to destruction of values, which harms us but also everyone else who would have benefited from trading with us.
Why are the intellectuals so keen to sell humility as a virtue? Because they want to convince us that it is our duty to put others’ interests above our own, that it is noble to sacrifice for others. If we believe that we are lowlier than anybody else, sacrificing our values for others is the logical conclusion—the anti-life conclusion that would induce ongoing guilt and prevent us from flourishing and achieving happiness.
By the standard of human life, humility is not a virtue but a vice that must be rejected. Its opposite, pride, is a virtue that human happiness and flourishing require. Unfortunately, a similar distortion has been applied has been applied to pride as to humility. Pride, the intellectuals claim, means arrogance and boastfulness—both of which contradict the virtues of rationality and justice. The distortion of the virtue of pride is intended to confuse its original, Aristotelian meaning: the policy of cultivating rational virtues so that we can achieve our values and live a good life. In Tara Smith’s words, pride is the policy of doing one’s best—because our lives are worth living and we are worthy of success and happiness.
To achieve our values—happiness, flourishing, long-term business success, we need clear, non-contradictory moral virtues to guide our actions. The modern anti-concepts of humility and pride are not among them. We must understand them as distortions and learn the true meaning of humility and pride. Such clarity would help us reject humility—and embrace pride as a virtue.