Previously I have argued that pride is the proper identification of the self with whatever excellently expresses, manifests, reflects, results from, or causes one’s own excellence. It is only fitting that we feel that we love and admire that which is good and love and admire it more the better it is and less the worse it is. In judging our association with excellent things properly, rather than arrogantly too much or self-disparagingly too little, we recognize ourselves as something admirable and worthy of love to the extent to which we are genuinely associable with excellences.
In this post, I want to explore the virtue of humility, which is often seen to be in tension with pride, maybe even to oppose it as a virtue opposes a vice or as a vice opposes a virtue, depending on one’s view of which is more important. As should be clear by the end of this post, I think neither is more or less important than the other and I think that when properly understood and realized in people, there is no genuine conflict between proper pride and proper humility. Rather they harmonize and balance each other so that we can live both as truthfully and affirmatively as possible, respecting and loving both ourselves and others as much as we and they deserve.
Humility is the virtue of properly recognizing not one’s excellences but rather one’s limitations, one’s deficiencies, and, most importantly, one’s dependencies, whether they are material or spiritual. Where humility is clearly a valuable virtue is where it serves as a constructive power of caution, honesty, gratitude, and compassion.
We should feel humble when we objectively are humble, i.e., when we are objectively lacking in an excellence to a relevant degree for dealing with a situation in which we find ourselves. I should be humble and recognize that if I am not an experienced mountain climber, Mount Everest is too much of a challenge for me and not something I should attempt. When I engage someone far more knowledgeable about a certain topic than I myself am, being aware of my comparative ignorance contributes to my ability to properly respect my interlocutor. This means that if I am going to debate her, I will pay proper attention to the fact that if I challenge her in certain ways her far more impressive degree of learning will inevitably overwhelm me. This humility warns me to humbly home in on what I am most competent to address so that I can hold my own.
But, less antagonistically, both in debate settings and outside of them, non-debate settings, humility should suppress any arrogant desires to believe I know more than I do, and instead remind me to listen to those who know more than I do, to make my first assumption when we disagree that I am more likely to be wrong or to be misunderstanding them than vice versa. Properly assessing my comparable excellence to someone else’s and being willing to concede when it is significantly inferior, is a valuable aid to submitting properly and the most successfully myself to vital training.
Humble recognition of my own limitations should also help me honestly assess and empathize with others’ comparable imperfections. When I do not overestimate my own abilities, either those I have in the present or those I had or likely will have in other circumstances, I am able to empathize much more honestly and fairly with the limitations of others and calibrate my expectations from them to standards I would myself think fair were my limitations the ones under the microscope.
Humility is also valuable insofar as it aids the development of certain key forms of gratitude. When I recognize the full extent to which my own excellence is a function of others’, I can properly respect my own limitations, properly delimit the amount of credit I take for my flourishing, and develop proper gratitude and sense of debt to those others. In this way, humility helps me also understand my obligations and responsibilities to those in whose debt I am.
Partially this realization is vital because of the way that it contributes to my own personal well-being and flourishing. When I humbly take stock of how much I depend upon a well-functioning society in order to pursue my own flourishing, I realize that it is unwise to carelessly, recklessly, arrogantly, and/or selfishly do things that undermine that functional order which is my own success’s precondition.
Humbly recognizing my dependence on other people’s skill teaches me to respect both those skills and their possessors. There are many abilities that I do not have, and in many cases either could not have or would not want to need to have. Many of these abilities contribute also to the well-functioning society which is the precondition of both my minimal well being and my maximal flourishing. Numerous of my pleasures and successes depend on the contributions of the talents of other people which I do not possess. And so I should humbly respect my relative dependence on those people and their contributions and treat my fellow human beings with respect based, at least in part, on a keen realization of the role that they play in making my successful, thriving life possible at all. And even where I am not respecting the exercises of excellences as much as the simple contribution of others’ labor to my well-being and flourishing, I should here too show a proper degree of humility and respect and treat them well. My full realization of my power in life depends on more people’s activity than I can ever count and proper humility means remembering that.
I should humbly respect the universe upon which my very existence and my every excellence utterly depends. I should humbly respect the planet, environmental conditions, and biological processes upon which I depend. When I respect my utter dependence on my physical body, my environment, my planet, etc., for my very existence, I may humbly recognize the limitations on what I can do with them or to them before I will damage myself irreparably.
Always to the precise extent that my personal excellences, successes, pleasures, and other sources of happiness, well-being, and flourishing objectively depend on particular people or types of people, things or types of things, social arrangements or types of social arrangements, etc., I should respect the fact of this dependence by not damaging those specific people or types of people, those things or types of things, those social arrangements or types of social arrangements, etc.
I should protect them not only as the necessary preconditions for my own good (and therefore, to some extent, for self-interested reasons) but also out of feelings of both gratitude for and obligation to one’s benefactors. I owe them for what I have, regardless of what they can yet give me. Humility is the ability to properly assess these debts and to properly respect the fact of one’s dependence and to act to discharge one’s obligations to repay debts and to prudentially look after those people, things, orders, values, and institutions, etc. which one vitally needs going forward. In short, humility is a form of gratitude which gives one a proper appreciation of one’s obligations to one’s benefactors.
To those who have shared their power with us and replicated their power in us such that our strength now compares with theirs, we can be both proud of their power to the extent that we realize their power is now also ours, and also humble to the extent that we recognize our dependency for this power. Pride is possible for us insofar as we objectively have an excellence. Properly identifying this fact of excellence within ourselves is sufficient to justify pride in it, regardless of how it came to be ours. But simultaneously humility is indispensably necessary once we recognize that this objective excellence, of which we may be rightfully proud, is simultaneously not something we could have created for ourselves without help. Our pride, therefore, should not be in our ability to be the cause of our own excellence but rather should be related to the excellence’s own desirability itself, independently of how we acquired it.
Our excellences are in certain fundamental respects natural and social gifts. Even where we develop our excellences for ourselves, we do so only using talents and virtues given to us by nature and culture in the first place. We can delight in them and rightfully identify with them as bound up with us. Our powers are those things through which we best express ourselves, manifest ourselves, and have excellent effects upon the world. We are natural and cultural marvels and our excellences are intrinsically loveable as intrinsically good things and we should love them for their intrinsic goodness and ourselves for being so tightly bound up with them for their existence our existence.
We can be proud of ourselves, even though our own excellences are understandable as part of a larger causal chain which makes no room for any cosmically, metaphysically free choices which are unconstrained by any other influences. We can recognize that to the extent that we manifest various objective excellences, we simply are those excellences and that is from there that our value derives and it is that in which we can take great pride. While on one level we may be an instrument of other causal factors in effectually bringing about certain good and admirable things, we can take pride that we are precisely that sort of instrument that brings about good and admirable things instead of bad and despicable ones. If what we produce is good, we are good for producing it, even if our ability to produce it is a function of other processes too.
Ultimately, we owe the universe our very being. We cannot control this. No matter how much effort we put into developing our human powers, we owe the universe (and, more proximately, evolution and our parents’ genes) the very fact that we have basic human powers at all that we could even perform characteristic human functions excellently and therein be excellent qua human.
We should show proper humility by admixing into all our self-love and pride, gratitude for all the contributors to our excellence. But humility does not mean denigrating ourselves as though we are not truly excellent in whatever ways we actually are and it does not mean refusing to feel joy in ourselves as excellent beings when we are just that. Humility should not be the pretension to seeing ourselves as of low station, no matter whether we deserve to. Humility should not be the false modesty that underestimates our own worth and denies our own moral rights before either a tyrannical oppressor or, even, a personification of the universe or its source which we imagine has the moral right to destroy us or make us suffer at whim simply because it created us.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.