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Vainglories Are Like Ogres — Part III: The Layer Problem

photograph of buskers celebrating child's donation

In this series of posts, we’ve been talking about a particular challenge with the vice of vainglory. In this particular post, I’m going to talk about the fact that vainglory comes in layers, and about how, even when one attempts to combat vainglory, one immediately becomes vainglorious about that very attempt.

If you are not already familiar with the concept of vainglory, you should first look back at the first and second post in this series.

  • In the first post, I defined vainglory and explained how it differs from the vice of vanity. The vice of vainglory is, in essence, the disordered desire for the acclaim and recognition of others.
  • In the second post, I explained why vainglory is such a big deal. I argued that there are many dangers of vainglory, but the perhaps greatest is that our desire for the approval of others often tempts us away from doing good and even tempts us to doing evil.

A Bit of Auto-Biography

To introduce this problem of vainglory, it will be useful to give a bit of biography. I was first introduced to the vice of vainglory in the Sermon on the Mount. In Chapter 6 of the book of Matthew (you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate this passage as a profound bit of moral psychology), Jesus says:

“‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. . . . So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. . . .

‘When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’”

Here, there is a warning against doing good things just for the reputational advantage, and a suggestion that to combat that temptation you do good works in secret.

I took this to heart, not in the sense that I always did my good deeds in secret, but I often would. For example, when donating to a cause I almost always make sure the donation is anonymous. I do this, because each and every time I donate, I’m still hopeful that people will notice and be impressed by my generosity. To put this in more contemporary parlance, I try extremely hard to avoid virtue signaling, because I want to make sure I’m doing these things for the right reasons. Or, at least, that is what I’ve told myself. But here is the problem that I have noticed. If I really look at my own behavior, it becomes clear that at least part of my motivation for doing these things in secret is because I don’t want people to think I’m vainglorious or virtue signaling.

Most of my Facebook friends are either Christians who know the Sermon on the Mount, philosophers familiar with the vice of vainglory, or debaters familiar with the concept of virtue signaling. So, when I donate to a cause and don’t share it on Facebook, am I really doing that to help the poor, or am I doing so because I care about my reputation as not being vainglorious?

Sometimes I’ll donate to a cause and it will say that if I post about it on Facebook others are likely to donate. I would increase the help I give to the poor by bragging a little bit. When I refuse to do so, what is my real motive there? Is it my concern for the poor, or is it instead that I’m too embarrassed others will think that I’m trying to show off?

Rebecca DeYoung, in her book Glittering Vices, says that the best way to combat vainglory is by the practices of “silence and solitude.” That is, we are to do good things alone and then keep silent about them. This does seem to be the best way to train yourself out of vainglory, and yet the vice is so pernicious that I become vainglorious even about that practice itself.

The General Problem: Layers

I am not the first person to notice this problem about vainglory. The problem was put particularly well by John Cassian, the great fourth century mystic:

“Our elders admirably describe the nature of [vainglory] as like that of an onion, and of those bulbs which when stripped of one covering you find to be sheathed in another; and as often as you strip them, you find them still protected. . . . [T]his one when it is beaten rises again keener than ever for the struggle; and when we think that it is destroyed, it revives again, the stronger for its death. The other kinds of vices usually only attack those whom they have overcome in the conflict; but this one pursues its victors only the more keenly; and the more thoroughly it has been resisted, so much the more vigorously does it attack the man who is elated by his victory over it.”

Cassian gives us particular examples. I hate this passage, because it is far to easy to recognize myself in it (note, the point is a good one even without employing the notion of an anthropomorphic devil):

“For where the devil cannot create vainglory in a man by means of his well-fitting and neat dress, he tries to introduce it by means of a dirty, cheap, and uncared-for style. If he cannot drag a man down by honour, he overthrows him by humility. If he cannot make him puffed up by the grace of knowledge and eloquence, he pulls him down by the weight of silence. If a man fasts openly, he is attacked by the pride of vanity. If he conceals it for the sake of despising the glory of it, he is assailed by the same sin of pride.”

For a long time, I thought I had done well in not caring about frivolities like clothing. I did not care about my reputation. Except, further reflection revealed that I did care a lot about what people thought about what I wear. I would have been embarrassed if people thought I was the sort of person who cared about something as frivolous as style. My disregard of style was a style all its own, a style I could be proud of without recognizing the vice.

And so we reach the central lesson of this series: vainglories, like ogres, are like onions. They come in layers, and so even once you have peeled away one form of vainglory, it leaves vainglory of another form underneath. To combat run-of-the-mill vainglory, I ended up adopting a meta-vainglory. And indeed, a part of me is worried that in writing this series I’m actually engaged in a sort of meta-meta-vainglory — it really is hard at times to tell.

Does Peeling Away Layers At Least Make Progress?

How far can we take this analogy with onions? If we take it far enough, we might find something at least somewhat comforting in it. Perhaps, even as you peel away layers of vainglory there is yet new vainglory underneath, but just as an onion gets smaller each time a layer is peeled away, so too maybe the vainglory gets smaller and less troublesome the more times we work through the process.

But if Cassian is right, vainglory actually gets more dangerous as it moves from the more earthly to the more spiritual. According to Cassian, as vainglory gets mixed in with virtue, it becomes harder and harder to recognize and combat the vainglory that remains: “but this being interwoven with our virtues and entangled in the battle, fighting as it were under cover of the darkness of night, deceives the more dangerously those who are off their guard and not on the lookout.”

To make this concrete, let’s consider my own case again.

Part of the danger of vainglory, usually, is that we prioritize our own reputation over help we can give to those in need. We invest our time in energy, for example, in high-profile causes rather than ones where we can really make the biggest difference. Does my own meta-vainglory avoid that problem? No. After all, I chose not to post about the charity I donate to on Facebook, an act which would indeed help raise awareness and funds, because I don’t want to appear to be virtue signaling.

But not only does the same problem occur, Cassian also says that it deceives more dangerously as if under the cover of darkness. Is he right that this vainglory was harder to notice? Yes, I think so. First, I was able to trick myself not only into thinking I was acting just to help the poor, but I also thought I was specially avoiding a concern for my own reputation. Thus, there were two layers of self-deception I had to work through before I could see the truth. Second, it was much harder for others to point out my own vainglory, because it was precisely that vice that I was in the process of hiding from them. I have seen people called out and corrected for virtue signaling before. It is pretty easy to do when someone is engaged in run-of-the-mill vainglory. But no one has ever called me out for my meta-vainglory, because, of course, the whole point is no one sees that as what I’m doing. So, this meta-vainglory is not only still damaging, it is doubly hidden both from myself and from others.

So What Do We Do?

Honestly, I have no idea. John Cassian thought that vainglory could not just be treated, the root cause had to be weeded out as well. For Cassian, you have to get to the bottom of why we care about our reputation in the first place. To excise that vicious tendency in its entirety, you won’t be able to just counteract the various forms in which the vice arises in piecemeal fashion. The problem is that Cassian is not clear on how that excising is to be accomplished — and indeed he seems to agree with Augustine and Aquinas that the vice could in principle only be overcome with divine assistance.

As best I can tell, the most practical secular solution involves two discrete steps. First, one should engage in regular practices of silence and solitude. One should make sure that, when there is no reason for one’s good works to be known, that they are not known. However, one should also inculcate a greater concern for the poor and greater love for the common good. The only way to root out vainglory, in the end, is to be so absorbed looking outward at what is good, that one does not even attend to one’s own reputation (except where that reputation is important to the goods that one pursues). We return, perhaps, to the lesson of Augustine from Part I: to overcome vainglory, it is not really about coming to care less about our reputation, but coming to care about other things more.

Vainglories Are Like Ogres — Part II: Why is Vainglory Such a Big Deal?

photograph of winner's podium sketched on blackbaord with colored chalk

In this series of posts, I want to talk about a particular challenge with the vice of vainglory. This is a challenge I’ve been struggling with for years, and unfortunately it is not one that I have a good solution to. The challenge, in a nutshell, is that vainglory comes in layers.

However, it would be difficult to jump straight into that discussion, since vainglory is not a vice that people talk about a lot these days. So, I’m going to develop this discussion over the course of three posts.

  • In the previous post, I explained what vainglory is and how it differs from the vice of vanity.
  • In this second post, I explain why vainglory is such a big deal and worth combating in our own lives.
  • Finally, in the third post, I will talk about why the layered nature of vainglory has made it so difficult to combat in my own life.

Why It’s a Big Deal

There are two parts to showing why vainglory is a big deal. First, we need to show that vainglory is destructive. Second, we need to show that it is common. Ants are no big deal because though they are common, they are not destructive. And blackholes are no big deal, because while they are destructive, they are not common. But vainglory is both.

A Destructive Vice

There are lots of reasons that vainglory is a destructive vice. The first, and probably simplest reason, is that vainglory often tempts us away from the pursuit of primary goods. Often the best action we can perform is not the action that will lead to the biggest boost to our reputation. I like how Steven Pinker puts the point when talking about effective altruism:

“[W]e have a large set of motives for why we’re altruistic and some of them are ulterior — such as appearing beneficent and generous, or earning friends and cooperation partners. Some of them may result in conspicuous sacrifices that indicate that we are generous and trustworthy people to our peers but don’t necessarily do anyone any good.”

Plato made this point long ago. Good things are often accompanied by the appearance of the good. And over time, we can come to care more and more about the appearance and less and less about the reality. We move from wanting to help the poor to wanting to look like we are helping the poor.

Of course, this is true only to the extent that I care about my reputation for its own sake, and not merely as a means to helping the poor. If I really do care about being thought generous merely so that others will be generous as well, then no such conflict can arise. This is why Aquinas thinks that the dangers of vainglory occur when one desires a reputation for the wrong reasons.

Not only can vainglory tempt us away from the good, it can also be a powerful temptation towards evil. The classic philosophical example here is from Augustine’s Confessions. In Book II, he describes a point in his adolescence where he vandalized another’s pear tree, not to eat the fruit, nor to sell it, but simply to act maliciously. Augustine considers this such a terrible act, not because the damage was that great, but because it was done for malice’s sake. What could drive him to such an action? According to Augustine it was vainglory, a desire to be approved of by one’s friends: “As soon as the words are spoken ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless.”

C.S. Lewis, that great popularizer of Augustine, says something similar. He argues that, of all desires, the desire to be approved of by those ‘in the inner ring’ is the “most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” (If you don’t believe this, just consider the results of the Milgram experiment where a majority of participants were willing to perform an action which they thought was delivering possibly fatal electric shocks just because they were told to by an authority figure.) Like Augustine, Lewis emphasizes that the temptation is not about what one will gain from being approved of. Instead, the temptation comes from the simple sweetness of being thought well of by one whose approval you desperately desire.

“And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which ‘we’—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something ‘we always do.’

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.”

Of course, this temptation can only occur to the extent that you desire approval, not for what is good, but simply as such. If I merely want to be approved for my honesty, then a desire for approval will not usually tempt me to join in a deception. This is one reason, then, why Aquinas thinks that the vice of vainglory involves a desire for mere approval, rather than approval for what is really good.

A second danger in vainglory is that the vainglorious lose control over their own happiness. You have much more control over how good you are than you do over what other people think of you. You can control what you do, but not what people think. Thus, the more your happiness depends on the approval of others, the fickler your happiness will be.

This point is made best, I think, by Dumbledore. In the fourth Harry Potter book, Hagrid is distressed that many dislike him simply because he is half-giant. To this worry Dumbledore replies: “Really, Hagrid, if you are holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.” Ultimately, there is nothing Hagrid can do about the prejudice and poor judgment of others. However, if he grows less vainglorious, he will come to realize that the mere unqualified approval of others is not ultimately that important and should not stand as a precondition to his happiness.

Of course, not all approval is equally fickle. If someone is a good judge of character, they are more likely to think well of you to the extent you are good. This is one reason, then, why we should care more about the approval of those who are wise; their approval is less fickle and so provides a more secure foundation for happiness.

A third, but by no means final, danger of vainglory is that it can lead to dishonesty. If I come to care just about my reputation, then what matters is not being good but being thought good. Thus, I will be tempted to get others to think me good by any means I can, and not merely by becoming a better person. The vainglorious person is always faced with a temptation to make themselves look better than they really are: to take more credit for a group project than they really deserve, to make one’s motives look more noble than they really were, to exaggerate just a little bit the quality of what one did.

Why do people cheat in friendly board games? It is not like you get anything when you win, and you have not even accomplished anything if you win by cheating. The answer, of course, is that we like to be thought the winner by others. In other words, vainglory is behind many of those everyday dishonesties which populate ordinary life. And just as with the other dangers, this helps us understand why certain desires for recognition are particularly vicious. If you just care about your reputation, rather than caring that people recognize what is actually good about you, you will be more strongly inclined towards dishonesty.

The Ubiquity of Vainglory

I expect that many of you already will agree that vainglory is ubiquitous. Hopefully, you already recognize that you personally are vainglorious. (Of course it’s possible that you lack this vice, however, I expect that most people who don’t believe they are vainglorious think that because they are self-deceived, and not because they have actually reached such lofty heights of virtue.) But it is still worth understanding just why we humans are so inclined to the vice of vainglory.

While there are lots of explanations we can give for the ubiquity of vainglory, let’s just consider the explanation given by evolution. Human psychology evolved to help us survive and reproduce as a social creature within human community. And the thing is, our reputation was far more important to our reproductive success in early human communities than it is now.

There are two layers, then, to this evolutionary distortion. First, evolution selects traits important for reproductive fitness rather than goodness. Second, evolution optimized for a culture where reputation mattered in very different ways.

The Reproductive Fitness Distortion. Let’s take the point about reproductive fitness first. Often the good way to be is not going to be the same thing as the way that increases your chance at successful reproduction. The person who gives all their extra resources to the poor may be a morally better person, and do more for the common good, but they will not necessarily have lots of super successful offspring.

We can make the same point with other types of goods. For instance, the good proper to belief is truth. But even if it is good to believe true things, that does not always mean that believing true things best serves your reproductive fitness. Dan Kahan makes this point in explaining why scientific literacy correlates with partisan conformity more than with truth.

“Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will effect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about. Nothing she does as a consumer, as a voter, as a contributor to political campaigns and causes, or as a participant in public conversation will be of sufficient consequence on its own to have any impact. However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity—and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life—she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment. Because the cost to her of making a mistake on the science is zero and the cost of being out of synch with her peers potentially catastrophic, it is indeed individually rational for her to attend to information on climate change in a manner geared to conforming her position to that of others in her cultural group.”

Obviously, we don’t consciously try to believe whatever our social group approves of. We think that what we believe really tracks the truth. However, there is a disconnect between what we aim at in thinking and what our cognitive apparatus has evolved to secure. This point is easy to see in selfless terms; we can recognize why believing the truth or serving the poor might trade off with reproductive fitness. But this is also true of things like happiness. Someone who cares what other people think is likely to be both more reproductively fit and also less happy.

The reason we are inclined to be excessively concerned with reputation is because reputation has a bigger influence on reproductive fitness than it does on happiness or goodness. Thus, evolution has inclined us to overinvest in our reputation at the expense of other goods.

The Evolutionary Environment Distortion. Not only did evolution optimize for the wrong thing, it also optimized for the wrong environment. Most of human evolution occurred when we lived in small communities of thirty to a hundred people. But we now live in massive, globalized societies.

If you live in a small community of thirty people, then a single person not liking you is an issue, five people not liking you is a huge problem, and fifteen people not liking you is a disaster. You did not get to select amongst forty thousand undergraduates those five most like you to be friends with, you had to be friends with the only five people available. In this environment, it made a lot more sense to make sure that each and every person you came across was impressed by you. Not only that, it was also a lot easier to make sure that everyone was impressed by you, because to be the best at something you only needed to be better than a small group of people.

Nowadays, however, it is both harder to stand out, and far less important. Despite that, all our evolved impulses still think it is incredibly important to do whatever it takes to make sure that every single person we come across knows just how great we are.

Hopefully, you now have a sense both for what vainglory is, and why it is so dangerous. In the final post, I’ll talk about one reason I’ve had so much trouble combating my own vainglory.

Vainglories Are Like Ogres — Part I: Defining Vainglory

photograph of TV studio with actors displayed in camera viewfinder

In this series of posts, I want to talk about a particular challenge with the vice of vainglory. This is a challenge I’ve been struggling with for years, and unfortunately it is not one that I have a good solution to. The challenge, in a nutshell, is that vainglory comes in layers.

However, it would be difficult to jump straight into that discussion since vainglory is not a vice that people talk about a lot these days. So, I’m going to develop this discussion over the course of three posts.

  • In this first post I explain what vainglory is and identify how it differs from vanity.
  • Then in the second post, I will explain why vainglory is such a big deal and worth combating.
  • Finally, in the third post, I will talk about why the layered nature of vainglory has made it so difficult to combat in my own life.

What Is Vainglory

“Vainglory” is not a term that we hear very often. Indeed, if I were to describe myself as vainglorious, many would think I was describing myself as vain. But what we mean by vainglory, at least in its traditional sense, is quite different from what we now mean by the word vanity.

To say I am ‘vain’ is to say that I think very highly of myself. The vain person thinks that they are great and deserving of esteem. If I think myself particularly good looking — which, of course, I am — then, I can rightly be described as vain. Vainglory, however, means something subtly different. Vainglory is defined by Rebecca DeYoung as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” Thus, vainglory is not about what I think of myself, but my concern for what others think of me.

Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose I donate fifty dollars to charity. It would be vain for me to think that because I donated that money, I must be a wonderful and generous person. It would be vainglorious, however, to post about the donation on Facebook in order to get the reputational boost of being thought generous by others.

You can have one vice without the other. Thus, I might be posturing out of a feeling of insecurity; perhaps the reason I work so hard to make myself look generous, is because I really think that deep down I’m a selfish person. Here I would be vainglorious, but not vain. On the other hand, I could also think that ‘since I’m such a good and generous person, it does not matter what other people think.’ Who cares what the hoi polloi thinks? I already have the approval of the only opinion I really respect, my own.  Here I would be vain, but not vainglorious.

What is essential to vainglory, then, is a concern for one’s own reputation. However, not just any concern for one’s own reputation is a problem. It is not vainglorious to check my resume for spelling errors, even if the only reason I am doing so is because spelling errors will lead people to think worse of me as a job candidate. If you do not care at all what other people think of you, then you are not going to be able to thrive and flourish as a social creature.

Just as vanity involves an unjustifiably high opinion of one’s self, and just as cowardice involves an unreasonable fear, so vainglory involves a concern for one’s reputation that has gone wrong in some way. And according to DeYoung, there are two vainglorious ways that a concern for reputation can go wrong.  First, the concern can be excessive. Second, the concern can be disordered.

Let’s use this contrast between excessive and disordered concern to suggest two different ways of thinking about vainglory — one way suggested by Augustine and one suggested by Aquinas.

Augustine on Vainglory as Excessive Concern

In Book XV, Section 22 of his book The City of God, Augustine defines virtue as the ‘ordo amoris’, or the ‘right ordering of loves.’ For Augustine, vice rarely consists in loving evil things, but rather in loving good things to the wrong degree:

“And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately. . . . So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love.”

Greed does not just involve caring about wealth, it involves caring about wealth more than I care about the poor. Thus, it is not a problem to care about my reputation, but it is a problem if I am concerned more with my reputation than I am concerned with others (or more than I am concerned with honesty etc.).

This is a helpful way to think about vainglory, and it encourages us to ask if our concern for our own reputation is leading us to neglect other things which we should care about more. But it is not the only useful way to think about vainglory.

Aquinas on Vainglory as Disordered Concern

When Aquinas talks about vainglory, he does not emphasize the relative degree to which we care about our own reputation (or what he calls glory). In the Secunda Secundæ (a fancy way of saying ‘the second part of the second part), Question 132, Article 1 of his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas identifies three ways that a concern for our reputation could go wrong:

“Now in one sense glory can be called vain on the part of the thing for which one seeks glory, when someone seeks glory for what does not exist or for what is not worthy of glory, as when someone seeks glory for what is frail and perishable.

In a second sense, glory can be called vain on the part of the one from whom someone seeks glory, e.g., a man whose judgment is not fixed.

In a third sense, glory can be called vain on the part of the one who is seeking the glory, viz., when he does not refer his desire for glory to an appropriate end, viz., to the honor of God or to the well-being of his neighbor (ad honorem Dei vel proximi salutem).” (From Alfred Freddoso’s wonderful translation)

For Aquinas, it is not a problem simply to want others to admire good things about you. But for this desire to be rightly ordered, it needs to satisfy certain conditions. First, you should want people to think well of you because of true things about you. It would be vainglorious to want people to admire your generosity if you are not actually generous. Second, you should want people to think well of you because of things about you that are really good. Having expensive and name-brand clothing is a frivolous good, and so you should not want people to admire you for having such clothing. Third, you should want to be approved by those who are actually good judges of such things. You want to be thought good by wise judges of character, not by just anybody irrespective of how discerning they are. Fourth, you should want to be thought good for the right sort of reason, not just because it feels good or because it will make you more popular than others.

Ultimately, both Aquinas and Augustine’s ways of thinking about vainglory are useful. I think both get at something really important, and both give us a useful model for thinking about vainglory in our ordinary life. In particular, the important thing that both accounts share is that they distinguish vainglory from the appropriate concern for one’s reputation. There is nothing wrong with wanting others to think well of you; the problem, like most problems, lies in the details.

Having identified what vainglory is, the question we will tackle in the next post is just why vainglory is such a serious vice.