Humility is a trait worth having.
Posted June 27, 2012
Recent studies show that humility is connected with many forms of prosocial behavior. While some misunderstand humility as low self-esteem or self-denigration, a proper conception of this virtue has both self-regarding and other-regarding components. The humble person keeps her accomplishments, gifts, and talents in a proper perspective. She has self-knowledge, and is aware of her limitations as an individual and as a human being. But humble individuals are also oriented towards others, they value the welfare of other people and have the ability to "forget themselves" as well, when appropriate.
Interestingly, the empirical research on humility shows that this trait has great value. Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership. Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative. A recent set of studies also shows that humility is a consistent predictor of generosity.1 People who are humble tend to be more generous with both their time and their money.
Some philosophers historically have not been impressed with humility. Aristotle leaves it out of his catalogue of virtues, while both David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are critical of this trait.
Hume, for example, says:
"Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices"2
However, the empirical evidence seems to show that this sort of criticism of humility is mistaken. Humility can advance one's fortune in the world, as it is a distinguishing trait of CEO's of successful organizations. The connection between humility and generosity shows that it does render one a more valuable member of society. Others see humble individuals as well-adjusted and kind. It looks like the empirical evidence about the value of humility shows us that Hume's rejection of it was a mistake.
Given its appropriateness for us as limited and fallible human beings, and its value for both individual flourishing and social welfare, humility is a trait worth cultivating.
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1 Julie Exline and Peter Hill, "Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity," The Journal of Positive Psychology (May 2012): 208-218. This article contains the references related to the other empirical findings related to humility discussed above.
2 An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), pp. 73-74.
*The violet is a symbol for humility, in some traditions.