When we contemplate a virtue, two big questions that we ask about it are, What is it? and What makes it a virtue, that is, a human excellence? The answers to these questions are intertwined, since what makes a trait a virtue will always depend on what that trait is. In this short piece, I want to focus mostly on what makes humility a virtue, and argue that it is a virtue, in part, because it is a kind of freedom.
But first, let me say a little bit about the preliminary question — what humility is. David Hume says that humility is “a dissatisfaction with ourselves, on account of some defect or infirmity,” and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees when it says that humility is “having a lowly opinion of oneself.” Some people may use the word ‘humility’ in this way, but most of us wouldn’t think that low self-esteem or disliking oneself is a virtue.
One idea that’s popular among philosophers, and perhaps connects a bit with the idea of low self-esteem, is the proposal that humility is a kind of serenity about, or acceptance of, one’s limitations. Such thinkers point out that intellectual humility, for example, is characteristic of good scientists. They’re aware of the difficulty of scientific questions and don’t presumptuously think they know all the answers, or that they have nothing to learn from other scientists who have rival theories.
Such persons are open to criticisms of their views; they’re always ready to learn, and alert to the possibility of making mistakes. This isn’t exactly dissatisfaction with oneself, but it is a contrary and corrective of “self-satisfaction.” And it’s easy to see how this trait, unlike low self-esteem, is a human excellence. Intellectual humility makes a person a better scientist, and acceptance of our limitations in other domains, such as athletics or friendship or some craft, is likely to make for better athletics, friendships, and craftsmanship. We are limited in various ways, and we’ll be better off if we recognize that fact and take it seriously, yet without falling into despair about it. This is one of the fruits of humility that give it the status of a virtue.
But humility may manifest itself in other ways than attentiveness to one’s weaknesses and mistakes. It might enable a person to forsake a high profile job that is less productive of good, and accept a low profile job that involves a greater contribution to the civic good. It might enable somebody to work usefully behind the scenes at a job for which other people get most of the credit. It might enable a person of great talents to exercise those talents in a way that doesn’t show others up to be inferior. So the acceptance of limitations view is probably not an adequately general account of humility.
I think a more encompassing understanding of humility is that it is the absence of what I call the “vices of pride” — such vices as snobbishness, invidious pride and its obverse twin envy, pretentiousness, vanity, arrogance, presumptuousness, self-righteousness, hyper-autonomy, and domination. These vices are various kinds of concern for what I call “self-importance.” For example, vain people seek a kind of empty importance by being admired, feared, or envied by others, or by striking awe into others. My view is that if you’re completely without any of these kinds of concern for self-importance, then you are humble, and if you have a noteworthy dearth of them, then you are unusually humble.
Why think that lacking, or falling short of, these concerns is virtuous? I think it offers many advantages in living a good human life, but I’d like to argue here for just one, and give just one example: humility is a kind of freedom.
Think of the pain and degradation of envy. Someone close to you has an impressive success in some domain that you would like to succeed in. Perhaps she lands a wonderful job, or receives some honor, or has some financial success. And to make the case more challenging, let’s say she kind of rubs it in, talking a little too much about her success and subtly suggesting juxtapositions of it with your own more modest successes. You find yourself feeling bitter about her success and hostile towards her; you wish she weren’t so lucky, or maybe you even wish something bad would happen to her, for once. You see her as a rival, and your defenses are up.
In letting these emotions have sway, you’re morally damaging yourself and your relationship with this person who is close to you. You’re degrading your life and hers by turning what ought to be a matter of celebration for both of you into a nasty contest for individual self-importance. Instead of suffering from envy and degrading yourself and the other into something unworthy of human beings, instead of cutting yourself off from one another in this unspoken defensiveness and isolation, how much better it would be to rejoice together in this person’s success!
In doing so, you would not only avoid your own envy, but would cut through and dissolve and sooth the unworthy invidiousness in the other’s suggestions. You would dissipate the unhealthy and destructive dynamic of envy and invidious pride that covertly pollutes your selves and your relationship.
The dialectic of envy is a bondage and corruption of the human soul and its relationships. As a lack of concern for self-importance, the virtue of humility makes room for love and respect, for happier emotions and genuine soul-to-soul communion and deep friendship. Thus, one of humility’s many functions is to free us to be what we were created to be. Humility is a kind of freedom.
Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues; a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy