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.

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.

Group photo: “Virtue & Happiness” Summer Seminar

This week on the Virtue Blog, I’ll post photos from our first summer seminar, “Virtue & Happiness”.

I took our group photo on the grounds of Moreau Seminary, the location for our week-long series of seminars, discussions, great food, and walks around the lakes.

Click the photo to make it larger!

~ Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications

From left: Darcia Narvaez, Chip Lockwood, Kristina Grob, Anne Baril, Jason Welle, Indra Liauw, Fr. Michael Sherwin, Wenqing Zhao, Santiago Mejia, Olivia Bailey, Ryan Darr, Gus Skorburg, Leland Saunders, Mihailis Diamantis, Sukaina Hirji, Jennifer A. Frey, Hollen Reisher, Candace Vogler, Owen Flanagan, Yuan Yuan, Amichai Amit, Brian Ballard, Parisa Moosavi, Sungwoo Um, Anselm Mueller, John Meinert, Samuel Baker, Tom Angier, Kate Phillips, Jaime Hovey, Matthew Dugandzic. Photo by Valerie Wallace.

Interview with Sungwoo Um, Summer Seminar Participant

Sungwoo Um.jpg

This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Sungwoo Um is a PhD Philosophy student and  Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at Duke University.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Sungwoo Um: I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. But I stayed in the UK for three years to get one of my two master’s degrees and have been studying in the US for about three years. I feel blessed to go through such diverse cultural and academic experiences, which are enriching my character as well as my study.


VW: Tell me about your current research.

SU: I’m mainly interested in ethics, understood as any serious attempt to answer the question, “How should we live?” I hope my life and my study enrich each other, forming something like a soaring double helix. I want be happy, but I need to be virtuous. My philosophical journey has been an endeavor to harmonize these two (seemingly conflicting) thoughts in a good human life. This is why I have focused on examining the relationship between them and investigating the nature of particular virtues such as modesty or trustfulness. My ultimate goal is to defend the thesis that the happiest life for human beings can be achieved when they live virtuously.

Now I am particularly interested in how to make sense of personal relationships in living a good human life. This reflects my personal belief that large part of my happiness comes from the intimate personal relationships I share with my family and friends. I believe such partial aspects of human life have irreplaceable ethical value and thus cannot be simply overridden by impartial morality. To solve the puzzle of partiality and personal relationships, I am now trying to develop a version of virtue ethics that puts relational aspects of human life at the center.


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?

SU:  The Virtue & Happiness summer seminar will be a perfect opportunity to enhance my research for two main reasons. First, the topics addressed in the seminar, especially self-transcendence and moral development, are closely relevant to my current and future research. I expect the discussion of self-transcendence will help me to give a better account of how virtue and happiness of the agent herself can be harmonized with morality, which are often considered as mainly other-regarding. The discussion of moral development will also help me to explain how to cultivate the ethical virtues that are essential for human happiness in a diachronic manner.

The second reason for my interest in this seminar is its interdisciplinary approach. Joint work among researchers from philosophy, psychology, and theology/religious studies will create a great platform to gain new insights on the topic of virtue and happiness. I believe any plausible ethical theory should adequately respect the facts about what kind of creatures we are. Interaction with psychologists will help me to have a clearer idea about what kind of happiness is possible to us and how are we to cultivate what sort of virtues. Views from religious background would also be important for broadening my perspective because many people have been, and still are, seeking their source of virtue and happiness in the religions they endorse.



VW: What are your non-academic interests?

SUWhen I don’t study, I spend most of my time with my wife and my baby boy. They are the inspiration and the source of motivation for both my life and study.