Explaining Apparent Features of Modesty

This post is one of two of excerpts from the paper “Modesty as an Executive Virtue,” forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly. Yesterday’s excerpt was “Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude.”


I have described the main features of the moderate evaluative attitude, which I claim to be central to modesty. Note that modesty’s operative requirement is a negative one. It serves to exclude various things (e.g., not having the stance that one is fundamentally worthier than others), rather than to positively require something (e.g., believing that all persons are equal). In this section, I show how my account can explain why a modest person has the apparent features of modesty, by which I roughly mean the patterns of behavior, desire, cognition, or attention that people commonly ascribe to a person they consider modest.
To begin, it is commonly said that a modest person tends not to be arrogant or
undervalue others even if she has superior qualities. This feature can be explained by the fact that the way she respects herself and others checks the possible temptation to think that her excellent qualities render her fundamentally worthier than others. Recall that my account does not require the modest person to evaluate herself as less worthy than she really is. Such an evaluative attitude would be more appropriate for self-deprecation or servility. Thus, my account does not ground modesty in any disposition to focus on one’s flaws or to underrate one’s own worth. I believe self-deprecation and servility are vices related to the way one evaluates oneself, just like arrogance and self-conceit. The reason modesty is commonly confused with self-deprecation or servility, while contrasted to arrogance or self-conceit, is because human beings are inclined to have higher opinion of themselves than they really deserve. This is analogous to the reason courage is often confused with recklessness while contrasted to cowardice, although both are vices associated with it. If human beings were naturally inclined to lower and efface themselves, modesty would have rarely been confused with self-deprecation or servility.


Another apparent feature of modesty is that a modest person tends to de-emphasize or downplay the worth attributed to herself for her good qualities (e.g., “Oh, stop it. I’m not that great!”). This is because, on my view, a modest person is committed to the evaluative stance that such excellences do not make her fundamentally worthier. Thus, she is less likely to accept and enjoy the praise that she thinks she does not deserve. Also, a modest person tends not to dwell on her superior qualities or show them off because she does not find the source of her self-esteem in possession of such qualities or others’ recognition of them.


The moderate evaluative attitude can also explain why a modest person tends not to care excessively about her rank or relative social position. This is because a modest person is disposed not to ground her self-esteem in the rank of her qualities among others’, and thus tends not to regard their comparative value as important. This point also explains why the modest person is less likely to overrank herself. This is because her evaluation is not easily biased by the self-centered incentive for higher rank. She is thus more likely to make an accurate assessment of her own qualities.


It is important to note that, on my account, these apparent features are not themselves constitutive of modesty. This has two implications. On the one hand, the apparent features of modesty mentioned above do not necessarily instantiate modesty; modesty is instantiated only when and to the extent that those apparent features express or are based on the underlying moderate evaluative attitude. On the other hand, the apparent features of immodesty may not actually instantiate immodesty. That is, as far as a person retains the moderate evaluative attitude, she would not be disqualified as a modest person just because she displays certain patterns of behavior, desire, cognition, or attention that appear inappropriate for or incompatible with modesty. For example, a modest person on my account may sometimes enjoy contemplating her good qualities or draw other people’s attention to them. Not all cases of ‘apparent immodesty’ instantiate a failure in modesty; some of them may be compatible with, though not particularly expressive of, modesty.


Then, how can we distinguish an instance of apparent immodesty that is compatible with modesty from one that is not? My suggestion is that apparent features of immodesty instantiate immodesty when they express some attitude incompatible with the modest evaluative attitude. To see this point more clearly, compare the following two cases. Suppose that Ben the gold medalist occasionally talks about the medal he won in the Olympics to enjoy the feeling of high self-esteem he takes from other people’s positive evaluation of his superior athletic ability. Ben’s act of mentioning his achievement in this case instantiates immodesty, since the attitude expressed here is incompatible with the moderate evaluative attitude. Now consider Sam the award-winning tutor. He mentions to his student that he has earned many teaching awards, but, unlike Ben, only to help the student learn better by building her trust in his ability as a teacher. (Suppose that there was no better way to earn her trust.) There is no intention to bathe in the student’s admiration or indulge in his past achievements. In this case, since Sam’s act of mentioning his achievements is not motivated by any attitude incompatible with the moderate evaluative attitude, it does not instantiate immodesty.


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.