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Modesty as Respect: You Think You're Better Than Me?

How does modesty relate to respect?

Continuing our discussion of modesty from my last post, inspired by Irene McMullin's article "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty," I want to introduce an understanding of modesty that McMullin calls "egalitarian" because it relies on recognizing the inherent equality of persons. Note that this meaning of egalitarianism is unrelated to how it's used in political philosophy when describing socieities that strive for equality of income, wealth, resources, and so forth. The sense of egalitarianism we are using here holds that all persons are equally worthy of respect based on an intrinsic worth or dignity (as Immanuel Kant would put it), and is the one that provides the foundation for most liberal societies today. Theories of modesty that rely on this egalitarian principle were proposed by (fellow Psychology Today blogger) Aaron Ben-zeév in his article "The Virtue of Modesty" (which he drew on last year in this blog post) and Daniel Statman in his article "Modesty, Pride, and Realistic Self-Assessment."

If you read the last post, you'll remember that McMullin criticizes ignorance-based views of modesty, which associate modesty with not being aware of one;s good qualities. She argues instead that a truly modest person has to know that he or she is extraordinarily successful or talented in order to know to suppress that knowledge from others from the sake of their feelings. Ben-zeév and Statman share this opinion, stressing the need for accurate self-assessment, and also agree with McMullin the importance of the other-regarding aspect of modesty. But what they all need to explain is: what keeps a person who is aware of his or her good qualities from openly proclaiming them and possibly hurting the feelings of others?

In egalitarian views, it is the realization of the equal worth of all persons, which is not affected by differences in achievement or talent. Just because someone is wealthy, successful, brilliant, or beautiful, does not make him or her a better person than the next man or woman, but merely better in some relatively superficial way, unrelated to their intrinsic worth as a person (or anyone else's for that matter). As Ben-zeév explains in his article:

The basic evaluative belief involved in modesty concerns the fundamental similar worth of all human beings. This evaluation rests on a belief in the common nature and fate of human beings and on a belief that this commonality dwarfs other differences. Modest people believe that (a) with regard to the fundamental aspects of human life, their worth as a human being is similar to that of other human beings, and (b) human beings have a positive worth which should be respected. (p. 237)

Statman puts it in terms of moral rights rather than worth:

The modest person indeed keeps his qualities "in perspective," not in the sense of believing they are not anything special, but rather in keeping a clear distinction between his superior qualities and achievements, on the one hand, and his moral status with regard to other human beings, on the other. (p. 434)

Or, as Ben-Zeév summarizes it:

Modesty thus requires a realization of the fundamentally similar worth of all human beings, and the evaluation of this similarity as more significant than the differences resulting from the accomplishments of different human beings. (p. 238)

McMullin realizes the points she shares with Ben-Zeév and Statman, but is skeptical of their account on several grounds. For instance, she argues that the egalitarian account makes personal achievements and successes meaningless (p. 790). I think this is too extreme: such things can and do have tremendous meaning for the person who enjoys them, as well as for others who may share in celebrating them. But that meaning must be realized in the proper context, and they are indeed meaningless when considering the essential worth of persons, for they do not make the person any better or more valuable a person than anyone else who lacks them.

She also claims that the egalitarian version of modesty "requires certain beliefs regarding the appropriate relationship between these conflicting evaluative frameworks" (p. 790), and argues that this is too much to ask of a person. But I do not think these are conflicting frameworks, so much as different contexts, between which people easily flow all the time. For instance, the accomplished surgeon can be completely aware of her status in the medical community, but still regard the vendor she buys her hot dog from as an equal, deserving of as much respect and consideration as do her esteemed colleagues. On one level she realizes the differences between her and the vendor—how could she not—but at the same time she knows that they are not important on the level of their equal intrinsic worth as persons. (As we shall see in the next post, McMullin proposes a similar, dual framework understanding of modesty, which I don't think is too different from the egalitarian approach, but seems to me more burdensome on the modest person himself or herself.)

As a proponent of Kantian dignity and the equal worth of all persons, the egalitarian approach speaks to me as not only descriptively correct but also morally attractive. (Though neither Ben-Zeév nor Statman relies on Kant explicitly—Statman glances at him when he refers to the "ultimate equality of human beings as 'ends in themselves'" on p. 434, and Ben-Zeév cites him briefly with respect to his writings on humility on p. 240—I think their conception of modesty translates very well into Kantian terms, based on their sense of equality of worth.) We should all enjoy our accomplishments and successes, but at the same time be mindful not to feel that they make us intrinsically better than anyone else. The truly modest person need not be unaware of his or her good qualities, but places them in the proper context: he or she may be smarter, stronger, or prettier than the next person, but that has no impact on their essential dignity or worth as persons.

In the next post, we'll delve into McMullin's own proposal, drawing on the existentialist insights of Jean-Paul Sartre, and compare it with the egalitarian and Kantian views.


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

Daniel Statman, "Modesty, Pride, and Realistic Self-Assessment." The Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1992), pp. 420-438.

Aaron Ben-zeév, "The Virtue of Modesty." American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (1993), pp. 235-246.


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