Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude

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This post is one of two of excerpts from the paper “Modesty as an Executive Virtue,” forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly


Many accounts of modesty offer to capture the distinctive features of modesty and explain its admirability as a virtue. I believe many previous accounts mistakenly regard things that are either results of modesty or loosely associated features as central to modesty. The main problem is that they do not pay enough attention to the admirable evaluative attitude that is characteristic of a modest person, which I call the moderate evaluative attitude. In this paper, I argue that modesty is best understood as an executive virtue with the moderate evaluative attitude at its center. My aims are to describe the main features of this evaluative attitude and to distinguish it from other features that are only contingently associated with modesty. In particular, I argue that many features that people frequently attribute to a modest person instantiate modesty only to the extent that they express or are based on the moderate evaluative attitude. Then I show why it is appropriate to understand modesty as an executive virtue, which helps exercise other virtues without having its own characteristic end. Next, I examine some of existing accounts and show why they are inadequate. Finally, I finish with the claim that modesty as a virtue does not depend on possession of excellent qualities.

Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude

Before describing in detail what I mean by the moderate evaluative attitude, let me make a few preliminary points about my view on modesty. First, the modest person’s characteristic evaluative attitude is supposed to be related to herself. One can be either modest or immodest only about qualities that one recognizes as one’s own, or at least as closely related to oneself in a certain sense (e.g., the intelligence of one’s son). This implies that we would not be instantiating immodesty no matter how highly or frequently we praise the good qualities of someone else, as far as we do not think those qualities are related to ourselves in any way.  This self-other asymmetry shows that modesty is essentially related to the person whose modesty is in question.

The second point is that a modest person’s characteristic evaluative attitude is typically toward herself in relation to others. In most cases, the context of modesty is set in the situation where some others are involved in the evaluation, and the scope of the ‘others’ may vary according to particular contexts. Suppose, for example, that Pericles has an evaluative attitude characteristic of modesty only in relation to the citizens in Athens, but not in relation to non- citizens such as women, slaves, and foreigners. It would be inappropriate, I think, to say that he is not modest at all, just because his attitude fails to cover wider scope. It would be more reasonable to say that he is modest at least in relation to citizens, while not in relation to non- citizens. In this sense, the scope of ‘others’ in my characterization of modesty is open and can be fixed only in the given context. Now let me describe the main features of the evaluative attitude characteristic of a modest person, which I call the moderate evaluative attitude. First, a person with this attitude is committed to the evaluative stance that she deserves no more respect than others in a fundamental sense. She feels, thinks, and acts based on the (possibly implicit) evaluation that her worth is not fundamentally superior to others, whether her qualities are excellent or not. She tends not to treat others in a disrespectful manner or look down on them even if their qualities are inferior to hers.

Note that my view is to be distinguished from the ‘egalitarian’ view proposed by Daniel Statman (1992) and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (1993). According to the egalitarian view, modesty essentially involves the evaluative stance that all persons are fundamentally equal. First, what I impose on a modest person is the negative requirement that the agent does not take herself as fundamentally worthier than others. It implies that, unlike the egalitarian view, my view is compatible with ascribing at least some degree of modesty to a person who regards herself as less worthy of respect than others. Of course, such a person might be better described as self-deprecating or servile rather than as modest, and I don’t think such an attitude is required for modesty. However, it seems reasonable to say that she would be closer to being modest than a person who regards herself as more worthy of respect than others. My view can make this kind of distinction, while the egalitarian view cannot. Second, as I mentioned above, my account leaves it open in relation to whom one is modest. One can be modest or immodest in relation to many different entities including God, other compatriots, other persons, or even other animals. In contrast, the egalitarian view limits modesty to modesty in relation to persons.
Moreover, my view is neutral as to why a modest person would be committed to the evaluative stance that she is not worthy of more respect than others in a fundamental sense. The reason may be human beings’ shared vulnerability, shared rational agency, shared insignificance before God or something else. At least, my view of modesty does not rely on Kantian conception of equal respect for persons. The moderate evaluative attitude also involves a modest person’s characteristic way of holding herself in esteem. Respecting someone as a person is one thing, and holding her in high esteem is another. For example, although a virtuous figure like the Dalai Lama and a petty thief may deserve equal respect as human beings, hardly anyone would think that they are not different in any aspect of value. Let us say that to evaluate a person highly based on the worth of her qualities is to give her high esteem, rather than respect. A modest person tends not to find the source of her self-esteem in the mere superiority of her qualities compared to others’. Whether her qualities are superior or inferior to others is not in itself important to her.

Note that modesty understood in this way is compatible with having high self-esteem and does not essentially involve low self-esteem. Consider Sandri, a modest girl who is very smart and pretty. Although she happens to know that she is smarter and prettier than most other people, she does not take this fact as a reason to have higher esteem for herself or to have lower esteem for other people. As far as she finds the source of her self-esteem in her  outstanding intelligence and beauty as something good rather than as something better than others’, she may have high self-esteem without being immodest.


Moreover, a person with the moderate evaluative attitude tends not to take others’ positive evaluation on her qualities as itself a reason to have higher self-esteem. Although she may appreciate others’ praise on her, the real source of her self-esteem is not the praise itself, but what the praise indicates—that she has good qualities. Thus, if the modest person believes that the praised qualities are not her own or that they are not good enough, then she would not take the praise itself as a reason to have higher self-esteem. Consider Jimi the modest guitarist, for example. Suppose that people praise Jimi as they listen to a recorded guitar song that they believe he played. If Jimi believes that the song is in fact played by someone else, he would not have higher self-esteem based on this misdirected praise. Or if he believes that, although he did play the song, it is not good enough on his own standard, he would not hold himself in higher esteem merely because of people’s praise. In this sense, a modest person does not find the source of her self-esteem in mere comparative value or others’ praise. Ranking or reputation would serve merely as an imperfect indicator that one’s qualities are good.


Sungwoo Um is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department and the Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy (CCP) at Duke University. He holds philosophy degrees from Oxford University (BPhil) and Yonsei University (BA and MA). He works mainly in ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy. Um was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life “Virtue & Happiness” Summer Session in 2016.