Collective Pride

On February 11, 2011 by admin


Arindam Chakrabarti


One good thing about collective pride seems to be that it has a tendency to curb or neutralize individual pride. One often takes pride in one’s family or school by stating how unexceptional or routine one’s own performance or achievement is compared to others of the same family or school. Similarly, the glory of greater collections tends to render the excellence of smaller groups less and less worthy of exhibition. But does that mean that collective pride is any more excusable or less offensive than individual pride?


Hume makes a stray remark that “Vanity is rather to be esteem’d as a social passion, and a bond of union among men.” Nationalism, patriotism, political party pride are such cohesive forces which do promote integrity and protect social groups from aggression or absorption by stronger groups. But they also encourage large-scale combativeness, cultural insularity and communal hatred. Schopenhauer decries “national pride” as “cheap” precisely because it levels out individual excellences and provides a generic refuge to those who lack self confidence and individual merit.


While the commendable forms of collective pride are patriotism, commitment to one’s club or community, rootedness in one’s culture, the contemptible forms are too well known: Racism, Jingoism, cultural chauvinism, the religious myths of the chosen people are easily recognizable as obnoxious. But the more paternalistic forms of cultural pride which come in the form of not wishing to judge alien or primitive societies by one’s own exacting standards, or the readiness to explain away and put up with atrocities too easily as due to “different value systems” are harder to recognize. Modern societies tend to practice some sort of collective self-mortification by being cynical about the domestic and over reverent about the foreign. But we must be as suspicious of excessive group humility as we have to be cautious against individual obverse vanity.


Sometimes, of course, the very content of collective pride precludes competitiveness or intolerance. If a certain cultural or religious group feels proud that they are the only people who have the catholicity to honor the value of all other cultures or the truth in all other creeds such a pride kept within limits should be less harmful and more ennobling than others. In so far as collective pride too is, after all, felt by individuals, it is based on more or less close relation with the self of the proud person. It can be, in that sense, always reduced to individual pride. An American’s pride “that we Americans are the most prosperous nation in the world” can be reduced to the pride that she herself belongs to the American nation which etc. But in this individualized form national or cultural prides are easily seen to be un-universalizable especially in international or trans-cultural contexts where such prides can be pointfully shown off.


Unlike individual pride which can be well deserved in certain cases, especially when the proud-making excellence is hard earned, collective pride is very often undeserved. So is collective shame. The individuals who feel these emotions hardly have any choice or responsibility in bringing about the noble or lowly thing which makes them proud or ashamed. The illiterate Bengali feels proud of Tagore’s poetry, the conscientious American feels ashamed of Vietnam. One feels the irrationality of such emotions but cannot therefore help feeling them. Even unavoidable individual prides are often based on truthful recognition of quite unchosen features like noticeable good looks, or congenital talents. What we shall be examining, however, is whether such pride becomes any more commendable when it is more widely shared. Let us put collective pride in the explicit “we” form to the test of universalizability. Suppose I am proud that we Indians have the greatest music of the world. On the crudest level I cannot at the same time will that the English, the American, the African or the Japanese should be proud that they also have the greatest music, because if they have to be proud that they all have the best music then they will have to have the best music in which case ours no longer will remain the best or even one of the few best musical traditions. It will not do to try to save the universalization by introducing the dodge that I have no objection to their believing that they do have the best musical tradition. For, as I have argued above, for me to wish that the Germans be proud that they produced the greatest music is for me to wish that it be true that they did, otherwise all I am ready to universalize is false collective pride.


As in the case of true or well-deserved individual pride, the truer a cultural group’s claim to excellence (in a particular respect) the less sincerely can the pride be willed to be universalized. To come up with considerations like “So what, if the Americans do not have so great a musical tradition of their own, they have science and technology” makes the national pride all the more offensive instead of toning it down. The less shallow way out is to relativize excellence to standards internal to a nation, culture or group. Thus, while I can be proud that we Indians have the greatest music by Indian standards, I can allow that every other nation be proud that they have the greatest music by their standards. This sort of “ours is the best for us” move lies at the back of most moral recommendations of moderate collective pride. While we give up the claim that there are absolute transcultural universal standards of judging the worth of cultures themselves, within a culture we can retain objectivity of norms for evaluating individual accomplishments. If every culture (that is, these sets of norms which are immanently objective) is to be judged only by its own standards, each of them will come out as excellent and unique and a non-jealous collective pride will be trivially universalizable. But this will not be an other-directed pride in our sense. In so far as the other groups in comparison to which a member of the collection will feel proud about a certain communal feature will not abide by the same standard of evaluation, Hume’s fourth or last constraint will not be fulfilled.


Also such uncompetitive pride will not come with expectation of recognition of exceptional merit from members of other groups. It will be as universalizable as simple love of family or devotion to one’s own culture which does not await any comparative estimate. The price we pay to make such collective pride morally permissible is this drastic mitigation of our claim of exceptional excellence. Alternatively, one can insist upon a universal moral standard and a transcultural scale for rating civilizations themselves. Cultural pride will then be meaningful and nontrivial. But then and to that extent it would be equally unfair and self-exempting. I don’t see how such cultural pride can be universalized, given the logic of pride-ascribing sentences that we have decided upon. We might not help having such prides. But we better not be proud of them.


Before I conclude, I must return to the widespread notion of species pride. About non-humans even if they do have social structure, as indeed some of them seem to have, we can either take the position that they are incapable of having self-consciously assessed cultural, moral, aesthetic qualities or achievements. Alternatively, we can hold on the evidence of the collective building skills of some ants and fidelity, etc., of dogs that they too can have shared features of varying excellence and can be proud or ashamed of those. If we hold the former view, then, our pride as human beings makes no sense because we do not have out-groups to compare our excellences with or expect recognition of superiority from. If we hold the latter view then our pride as humans remains ungeneralizable because we cannot will that all non-humans be as proud as us. So species pride is either senseless or immoral.


Arindam Chakrabarti is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where he directs the Center for South Asian Studies.

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