Ethical Reflections: Pride cometh before a fall

Ethical Reflections: Pride cometh before a fall


This famous text from Proverbs 16 is at the heart of Christian theology. The fall is preceded by pride. Two ancient Christian myths – and myth is simply a poetic vehicle to capture truth that transcends the scientific or historical – embody this claim: the first is the fall of Lucifer. Lucifer was the chief of angels who wanted divine authority; and as a result of his pride, he fell from heaven to hell to become Satan.

The second is the fall of Adam and Eve. Through an act of disobedience, they wanted to be as God – know- ing both good and evil – and out of that assertion of pride, they found themselves cast out of the garden.

Pride is an assertion of self that assumes an excessive sense of self and with it an entitlement that is inappropriate. This was the sin of Lucifer and the sin of Adam; and it is the continuing temptation of anyone with even a modicum of power. The fall is the consequence of that uncontrolled pride: you imagine that you can get away with anything and then you discover that this is not the case.

Other religious traditions have a similar idea. In Hinduism, for example, the doctrine of karma is a moral law of cause and effect. Bad actions have bad consequences, which are inescapable. In the end, life catches up with us either in this life or the life to come.

From the business traveler who claims inappropriate expenses to the per- son who totally embellishes their resume to get elected to Congress, the Christian claim is that pride is at work here.

The ethical rules that apply to those who are less significant in the system do not apply to me. I am allowed to live differently because of who I am. Power is a temptation; it is also, often, an illusion. The powerful have less power than they realize. And the fall, or karma, finally comes about.

Jeffrey Epstein, the sex trafficker and financier, was finally arrested and jailed. Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul, despite appearing untouchable for decades, is now serving a 23-year jail term. Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, the blood testing startup, is now in prison for fraud. Now granted Russian dictator

Joseph Stalin managed to get away with his many sins; and of course, following Immanuel Kant and our Hindu friends, one trusts in the life to come there will be some accountability for his actions.

In Britain, the fall of Boris Johnson has been dramatic. He became Prime Minister in 2019 and delivered the largest General Election win for the Tories since 1987.

Then, during the COVID pandemic, his government created a set of COVID-19 rules that he ignored. “Partygate,” as it became known, evolved into lying to the House of Commons, which culminated in his resignation from the House of Commons. Pride really did come before the fall; his assumption that the rules did not apply to him led to an unfolding saga that culminated in humiliation.

America is following closely the saga of the former president’s legal travails, and that of the current president’s son. A person is innocent until proven guilty; so, we must wait until the courts have done their work.

But the Christian mythos has a reso- nance even here. Anyone with any power needs to tread carefully. Power is given for a season; it is never a lifetime appointment. Even in places where lifetime language is used, one must still tread carefully. Please note Supreme Court Justices.

Rules do apply to us all. To be a morally serious person is the safeguard. Such a person should think long and hard about why they are an exception to this or that rule that others are required to follow. And almost always, such a person should decide that they are not an exception to that rule.

For truly, pride really does come before a fall.