The deadliest sin: arrogance

One of the traditional “seven deadly sins” is pride. But that’s actually not the right word.

Most of those “sins” have unambiguous meanings — sloth, gluttony, lust. But “pride” is trickier. It can indeed be bad if excessive, and people often take pride in the wrong things. However, pride in the right things is good. To gain that feeling motivates us to do good things. I take pride in those I’ve accomplished. And then we have “gay pride,” “Black pride,” etc., certainly positive feelings. (“White pride” — uh-oh. Maybe not so much.) 

The Greeks had the word hubris, meaning immoderate pride. It has a connotation of self-aggrandizement, which comes closer to the concept we want here. But I think the most appropriate word is arrogance. That’s the sin that makes my blood boil.

It differs from succumbing to sloth, gluttony, or envy, which are understandable and, really, forgivable human frailties. Wrath and lust are also normal feelings. Every human experiences these. And are they indeed wrong? Anger is often justified; in the face of evil, lack of any wrath would be wrong. And of course we are imbued with lust as a natural feeling in order to keep the species going! Anyhow, these kinds of feelings are to a great degree outside our control.

This raises the eternal free will conundrum. I’ll limit myself to simply saying we’re all subject to impulses beyond our control — but we do have the power to countermand them. Lust aroused by an attractive person is not a choice, but rape is.

This brings in another key point. The religious concept of sin as an offense against God fails if there is no god. It’s better to think in purely human terms. Nothing can be a sin unless it harms another person. The “deadly” seven don’t fit well with that — generally not deadly at all, typically harming, if anyone, only the “sinner.” That’s true of pride, insofar as it’s merely an inner feeling. Arrogance, however, operates in relation to other people. Not just a feeling, but a behavior, that does harm them.

And I see arrogance as the fundamental sin, the ur-sin, behind most bad things people do. Consider its opposite: humility. A recognition that other people are entitled to the same rights and respect as you. The sin of stealing, for example, is a rejection of that ethos. The thief believing they’re somehow more entitled to whatever is stolen. That’s arrogant.

This applies to almost anything we call a crime. Arrogantly disregarding the rights of the victim; privileging one’s own wants above theirs.

This is why arrogance is so hateful. Even in mere boastfulness and braggadocio. That’s saying, “I’m better than you,” privileging your ego above those of others and making them feel bad. Contrast again humility, embodying deference to their equal humanity.

Humility is also epistemologically important. Confirmation bias is the tendency to welcome information validating pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information. We all suffer from this, but humility is a good antidote. As opposed to the arrogance of thinking you know it all. 

The ultimate in arrogance is abuse of power. Privileging oneself totally over others, dictating their very terms of existence. The related word, “arrogate,” as in arrogating power, bespeaks the illegitimacy. A true public servant, in contrast, regards power as a solemn trust, to be used to benefit others, not just their own ego.

It’s said “we’re all equal before God.” Even if there is no god, the essence of the sentiment is true. It leads to another eternal conundrum, between merit and luck. My own success might be ascribed to intelligence and character traits. But those were products of happenstances of genetics and life experiences — i.e., luck. Not some pre-existing aboriginal deservingness in me, compared to others less lucky. My luck does not render me superior.

Understanding this is an antidote to arrogance. It makes me a very humble person. Something I’m quite proud of.

2 Responses to “The deadliest sin: arrogance”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    No improvement possible…

  2. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    Frank, thank you for once again not only right on, but for expressing it so well.

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