Modesty and... Existentialist Freedom?

What does existentialism have to say about modesty?

Posted Dec 17, 2010

In the previous posts on modesty (here and here), we first discussed Irene McMullin's argument (from her paper "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty") that true modesty involves self-awareness with sensitivity to others, and then egalitarian accounts of how this can be done. In this third post, I will introduce McMullin's own theory regarding how this balance can be struck, based on the existentialist writings of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Like the egalitarian arguments (which held that modest people recognize their successes but at the same time realize that they do not matter in terms of the intrinsic moral worth of all persons), McMullin also argues that modesty arises from holding to two standards or perspectives of oneself at the same time. She categorizes these two different but related ways: as first-person and third-person viewpoints, and also by Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist concepts of facticity and freedom.

The third-person standpoint refers to the fact that, to some extent, whether we like or not or whether we care or not, we are all judged by other people's standards. Our successes and failures, skills and talents, beauty and brains, are all measured up against those of other people, and the expectations of others. As much as we may try to avoid these third-person assessments, we cannot completely escape them without being ascetics or hermits. The most we can do is disvalue them or ignore them, but this does not make them disappear, and insofar as we interact with other people, they will always come into play in some way.

But the existentialist insight is that facticity never defines us, for we are free to define ourselves: we can transcend our situation and remake ourselves, and we must do this in order to realize our true selves. And this freedom to create ourselves within our external situations is the first-person perspective, in which we define and measure ourselves by our own standards, making ourselves the persons we want to be. But this freedom is also a responsibility: you are the person you choose to be, but this implies that you must make a choice, even if that choice is to follow the crowd.

How does this relate to modesty? McMullin argues that true modesty involves recognizing both viewpoints, first-person/freedom and third-person/facticity, and balancing them properly. Under the third-person standpoint, based on external measures and her situation, a person may be judged as successful, talented, brilliant or beautiful, but under the first-person standpoint of freedom, she knows that this assessment does not define her—only she can do that. According to McMullin, "to be modest, I must recognize both that I am as others experience me and that the social roles and accomplishments by which other people understand and rank me are never entirely definitive of who I am" (p. 797). Therefore, "on this account modest agents continue to experience their success as such; they simply acknowledge that it is not entirely definitive of who they are" (p. 798).

Likewise, immodesty results from not balancing these two viewpoints and instead letting one or the other dominate. Focusing on the third-person viewpoint (and the external judgments it involves) tends to make a person arrogant, especially if she is praised highly and often, and then takes this to be a reflection of who she really is. (This also works the other way, taking criticism too seriously, which may lead to excessively negative thoughts, rumination, and depression.) But focusing on the first-person standpoint and one's freedom of self-creation may lead to perfectionism, believing that you ought to be held to high standards simply because you can be (another form of arrogance). We admire people who reach for high, even impossible goals, but sometimes this is a sign of arrogance, that only they can reach for such goals, while other people should settle for mediocrity. The first-person standpoint can also lead to obliviousness to the standards and feelings of others; again, we admire the confident, self-possessed person who flaunts conventions, but not those who are particularly haughty about it.

While I'm barely conversant in existentialist thought—I thank my friend Bill Irwin for comments on an early version of this post—I am partial to Sartre and his concept of freedom, given its similarity to Kantian autonomy, and I appreciate McMullin's theory of modesty based on it. Nonetheless, I do think a wholly Kantian version, combining her version with the egalitarian versions of the last post, is both descriptively better and morally preferable. In the next and final post on modesty, I'll present that view, and argue that it can serve the purposes that McMullin's version can (including the empirical evidence she gives it support of it), while also meeting her criticisms of the egalitarian accounts. Until then...

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References and suggested reading:

Thomas Flynn, "Jean-Paul Sartre." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Irene McMullin, "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty." The Philosophical Quarterly 60 (2010), pp. 783-807.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being And Nothingness. Citadel, 2001 (originally 1943).

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