The Paradox of Modesty

Does it make sense to claim to be modest?

Posted Dec 14, 2010

I think most people would agree that modesty is a virtue, a quality that we admire in people and that we try to emulate. But what exactly does modesty involve, and how exactly is it a virtue (in the sense of virtue ethics)?

A new article in The Philosophical Quarterly by Irene McMullin titled "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty" both summarizes and contributes to this ongoing debate, which was initiated in modern times by philosopher Julia Driver's article "The Virtues of Ignorance." Philosophers typically believe that the virtues, such as courage and kindness, involve being aware of the action which is virtuous. For instance, if I wander into a dangerous situation unaware of the danger, then I am not courageous--courage requires awareness that one is in danger (and then facing it). Also, kindness involves knowing that one has been kind, and so forth--helping someone without knowing it is fortunate for that person, but does not make you kind.

But Driver argues that modesty seems to require a certain degree of ignorance; as she points out, the statement "I am modest" seem to be contradictory, for claiming to be modest is itself immodest! In other words, modesty is unique among the virtues in that it demands the modest person underestimate his or her self-worth. This position of Driver's been criticized on several grounds, such as that one can underestimate his or her self-worth and still be immodest. Also, if you wish to emulate a modest person, can you choose to become ignorant, or learn to underestimate your self-worth? This comes dangerously close to self-deception, and there is something absurd about recommending such an action to someone who wishes to cultivate an attitude of modesty!

McMullin claims instead that modesty involves an accurate assessment of one's worth combined with sensitivity to the feelings of others that prevents you from talking about it too much. She argues that previous accounts of modesty ignore (or mischaracterize) this other-regarding aspect of modesty:

A fundamental characteristic of modesty, then, is the fact that it is not simply a self-regarding attitude, but is instead a profoundly other-regarding stance. Though it involves a heightened mode of self-awareness, it is a type of self-awareness which is accessible to me only through (a) recognition of how I am being experienced in the eyes of others, and (b) a desire to alleviate any suffering that this may cause. (p. 786)

In other words, if you don't realize that you surpass others in some way, you would not know to suppress that fact in the presence of others. If Sally is a virtuoso musician, for instance, but does not realize that she is exceptional in this way, she may talk endlessly about her skills and successes without realizing that it may make others feel bad about their lesser (or absent) musical abilities. But if she does realize this, then in the interest of modesty she can avoid talking about it to protect the feelings of others.

Therefore, whereas we may think that the modest person is one who thinks less of himself or herself than an objective person might, McMullin argues that, paradoxically, in order to be modest, you must realize in what ways you surpass others, so you can then act in such a way to shield them from that knowledge:

Modesty is not ignorance of the self or indifference to others but an orientation towards protecting another person from the hurtful lack or loss in feelings of self-worth that may arise from the experience of having a "lower rank." This orientation arises precisely in response to modest people's self-knowledge regarding where they stand in terms of social ranking. If one did not realize or care how one's accomplishments and successes might be painful to someone else, one would have no reason to seek to downplay them, but would, on the contrary, simply enjoy them. (p. 787)

There is much more in McMullin's paper to discuss, which I hope to do in future posts, including the relationship between your achievements and self-worth, and how you should assess both in order to be modest but not self-deprecating.


Julia Driver, "The Virtues of Ignorance." The Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), pp. 373-384.

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

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