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"People say I'm arrogant, but I know better."
-- John Sununu
What does Sununu know that the people who say he's arrogant don't? That he acts arrogant, but isn't really? That his behavior does not reflect arrogance, but merely self-confidence? That he has a high opinion of himself, but is nevertheless not arrogant? What sort of evidence could we have for or against any of these ideas? Like many of the concepts that designate virtues and vices, we are able to apply the concept of arrogance easily to central cases. Saying what is essential to arrogance and what is accidental is more difficult, however, as is saying what is wrong with arrogance.
This paper has three main parts. First, we will examine and reject several initially attractive ways of understanding the concept of arrogance. These accounts fail either because they do not distinguish arrogance from related but different concepts, such as vanity and self-confidence, or because they do not permit us to understand why arrogance might reasonably be thought to be a vice. Second, we will propose and defend our own positive account of what arrogance is. We will argue that the Sununu quote is more revealing about the nature of arrogance than Sununu himself was probably aware, for it points to the essentially interpersonal character of arrogance. Third, we will defend our account of arrogance by showing how it illuminates the conceptual and empirical connections between arrogance and related concepts, and also how it yields a plausible explanation of the reasons why arrogance is a vice. Ultimately, we will argue, the viciousness of arrogance is best understood in terms of Aristotelian views of friendship and self-knowledge.
II. BELIEF ACCOUNTS OF ARROGANCE
Arrogant people are full of themselves. They are, furthermore, necessarily full of themselves, for it does not seem possible to imagine an arrogant person who has a low-to-moderate opinion of his talents and abilities. But arrogance cannot just be a matter of having a high opinion of one's talents, for that would not distinguish arrogance from the warranted self-confidence of a person who does indeed have considerable abilities and is aware of that fact. It would also not enable us to explain why arrogance is considered a vice, because it is hard to see what could be wrong with a candid awareness of one's own talents.
Perhaps what distinguishes arrogance from self-confidence, then, is that the former is characterized by false beliefs about one's skills and talents. On this view, arrogance just consists in having too high an opinion of one's talents, skills, or accomplishments. If we focus on people of moderate abilities who are nonetheless arrogant, this account seems convincing.
But this cannot be right, because many arrogant people (in fact some of the most annoying ones) actually are very talented. If a professional athlete like Carl Lewis can be arrogant,(1) this is not because Lewis thinks he is a greater athlete than he is. He actually is a very great athlete, and there is not much room for his self-concept to overshoot the mark in this respect. Garry Kasparov appears to be arrogant as well,(2) and he is in fact the best (human) chessplayer in the world. Having an accurate awareness of one's level of ability is not in itself a vice at all, and it is not arrogance in particular.
A third try is this: perhaps arrogance is not a matter of having an inflated opinion of one's abilities, but rather of oneself. The idea would be that arrogance consists in making an unwarranted leap from the fact that one has certain (perhaps considerable) talents and skills to the incorrect conclusion that one is superior as a person. Even if Kasparov is very good at chess, this does not warrant his thinking that he is in general superior to others.
There is something right about this approach. Few things are clearer about arrogant people than that they are convinced of their own superiority. It is not immediately obvious, however, just what sense of superiority is at work here. There is no evidence that arrogant people regard themselves as exempt from the usual constraints of action-theoretic morality. They do not believe, for example, that others are subject to duties not to kill or harm, but that they are not.
What is true of the arrogant person, we believe, is that he regards himself as superior to others in a more virtue-theoretic sense. Arrogant people begin with a belief, which may be more or less accurate, in their considerable talents and abilities. They then infer that they are superior to most other people insofar as they manifest the excellences appropriate to human beings to an above-average degree. They take themselves to be more perfect instances of humanity.
This sense of superiority is part, but not all, of the story about arrogance. The problem is that there seem to be people who count as arrogant and who correctly believe that they surpass others in meeting the standards that they take to measure a good life. Consider that the sort of abilities some arrogant people possess are accorded central importance in most accounts of human excellence. Henry Kissinger, for instance, is by all accounts a highly arrogant person, but his intellectual talents are considerable, and all philosophical accounts of the good life for human beings assign such talents an important role.
To take another example, Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is thought arrogant by all the residents of Longbourn, although he has many of the qualities regarded by these same people as necessary for a good human life: he is intelligent, handsome, educated and wealthy. He is judged arrogant, proud, and conceited because of his reactions to village life and people. At a ball, when the host is encouraging him to dance with Eliza Bennett, he says, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at …