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Humilitys Nature

Jonathan L. Kvanvig

1 Introduction
The task of explaining the importance of humility requires attention to
the features of humility itself, rather than just intellectual humility, and
recent discussion of humility has occurred in tandem with discussions
of modesty. The traditional account of the virtues is Aristotelian, where
virtue requires (but is not to be identified with) knowledge, but this view
has been opposed in recent literature, which has emphasized the importance of ignorance in a proper account of both modesty and humility.1 The
dominant question in these discussions is whether these character traits
require a false opinion about oneself. Many have argued in favor of such
a view, but I will argue that it is mistaken. This ignorance picture of humility and modesty has been championed by Julia ?. According to Driver,
these character traits involve an essential kind of ignorance on the part of
those having them. So, for example,Driver holds that modesty involves
underestimating ones self-worth or abilities/accomplishments.2 Fritz ?
extends discussions of modesty along the same dimension for humility:
Humility differs from modesty in that the former is a Christian virtue that would not have been endorsed by the Ancients,
whereas modesty is one that I take to be more time-honored
and less culturally emergent. Nevertheless, it is interesting to
ask what the relation is between modesty and humility. I think
they are clearly similar, but, different in an important way. Humility entails having a low opinion of oneself whereas modesty
entails having a moderate opinion of oneself. (Modest comes
1 See,

e.g., ???????????, and ?.

?, p. 167 for this extension of the ignorance approach to include abilities and
2 See

from the Latin modestus which can be translated as moderate. Humility is derived from Old French humilite which in
turn came from Latin humilis which translates as low.) Thus,
it seems to me that the two could come apart if someone had
an excessively low opinion of oneself; in this case, he could be
humble but not modest. (?, p. 184)
Allhoff claims that modesty involves have a moderate opinion of oneself,
and humility involves having a low opinion of self. When combined with
Drivers emphasis on ignorance, the picture would be that both character
traits involve an incorrect, and perhaps epistemically unwarranted, underestimating of oneself, since both would thus require denying that our
abilities and accomplishments are sometimes extraordinary, splendid, or

2 Humility: Relational or Non-relational?

A full assessment of this view requires distinguishing two issues. One issue is internal to the individual. In the intellectual context, for example,
it is a matter of assessing ones attitude toward the possibility of having
currently mistaken opinions. In the more general context, it involves an
assessment of ones abilities and accomplishments, not in terms of comparison to other individuals, but in non-relational terms. It is an accomplishment to be a hunter-gatherer who is successful enough to feed a family,
3 There

are problems with the suggestion that humility is a more exaggerated form of
something of which modesty is a milder form. We can see that humility and modesty do
not lie on a continuum in the way claimed in the quote from Allhoff by noticing the relevant contrasts with each. The relevant contrast to humility is pride or arrogance, while
the relevant contrast to modesty is vanity. Vanity can involve an excessive confidence
in ones abilities but is more naturally thought of in terms of an excessive estimation of
ones attractiveness to others (which is compatible, of course, with that estimation being
correct). Such excess may, but need not, involve a high sense of status or any particular
type of assessment of ones own personality or character, intellectual or otherwise. Some
are vain concerning their looks while still thinking of their own attractiveness as the only
card they hold. So even if there are some instances of modesty and humility that fall on
points on a continuum from mild to worse, there is no point to be sustained in full generality about these character traits. I develop this argument in Humility and Modesty,
so will not pursue this issue any further here, focusing instead on the nature of humility
and leaving it an open question how humility and modesty relate to each other.

for example, and that assessment involves no comparison with others and
how good they are at the task in question. The other issue is relational.
If it is central to a proper attitudinal expression of humility to underestimate oneself, the crucial question is the standard against which one is
comparing oneself. Here two possibilities stand out. The stronger approach would counsel, in the intellectual context, for example, having an
opinion that one has lots and lots of false beliefs, perhaps more than most
people. The weaker approach would counsel having an opinion that one
has lots of false beliefs, at least more than ones intellectual superiors.4
No matter which approach is taken, however, there are problems with
this ignorance approach. When we think about the intellectual component of these character traits, both require, first, a reasonably accurate
non-comparative, understanding of ones abilities and accomplishments.
One cant be humble or modest about ones abilities when one is totally
clueless what they are or when they have been misidentified. In addition, a
full understanding of any ability or accomplishment involves a normative
dimensionone concerning the importance, the significance of that ability
or accomplishment. It is a tremendous accomplishment to have climbed
Mt. Everest, and it puts one in a truly elite group of people. But for those
who have done so, a full understanding of their accomplishment must
acknowledge that on the scale of significant human accomplishments, it
pales in comparison to saving the life of a drowning infant, for example,
even though the latter takes much less strength and endurance than the
former. There may be more glory in climbing the mountain, but it is in
large part vainglory too. The underestimating literature misses the significance of this evaluative dimension, which leads even the most highly
accomplished to understand (if they are suitably humble, that is) that attention and accolades are more worthily focused on other abilities and
accomplishment than the ones toward which the fickle spotlight of fame
turns. Moreover, an accurate self-assessment also contains an awareness
that any recognition, admiration, or celebration of ones successes is, by its
very nature, one which ignores the failures, weaknesses, and defects we all
possess. So accolades are, by their very nature, imbalancedthey do not
present an accurate picture, and to that extent, conflict with a full under4I

leave out in the text the probabilistss possibility of only having beliefs about the
likelihood of having false beliefs, since such beliefs under-report. It is a rarer thing than
they imagine to have beliefs whose content involves a probability judgment, even if it is
common to have gradeable degrees of belief in a content without a probability operator.

standing of oneself and ones abilities and accomplishments. Finally, it is

the very nature of celebratory attention to ignore the dimensions of success that are not fully attributable to the person in question. Not only does
good luck play a significant role, but the basic capacities involved in success are products of nature, not effort. Hence, the agent-centered focus of
celebration, admiration, and recognition will seem distorted to one with
the accurate understanding of self that is central to modesty and humility.
So, from the completely internal components involved in an understanding of self, the proper conclusion to draw is that correctness of understanding and adequacy of self-assessment are central to both modesty
and humility, rather than taking some secondary position to more important elements of ignorance and underestimation. Hence, if elements of
ignorance or mis-estimation are central to these character traits, they will
have to be found in some relational component instead.
This second, relational aspect of humility requires there to be some
standard of comparison, relative to which one is underestimating ones
worth or abilities or accomplishments (or attractiveness). There are reasons for concern here. First, note that if the standard of comparison is
other people, and humility involves underestimating ones abilities and
accomplishments relative to ones contemporaries, it makes humility (and
modesty) more difficult to achieve, the greater ones disadvantages. If one
is dumb as dirt, it is hard to underestimate ones intelligence relative to
ones contemporaries. Such an underestimation view makes the possibility
of humility arise as splendor in a person emerges, since only the gifted can
underestimate their gifts relative to others. No such implication should be
tolerated. Moreover, if we give an account of the intellectual dimensions
of humility in terms of the internal dimensions noted above, no such untoward implication arises.
Second, if humility requires mis-estimation of some sort, we have strong
grounds, not easily overridden, for concluding that it is a character trait
best avoided. First, self-awareness and self-understanding is a good thing
in itself, something that a suitably reflective approach to life is prized for
fostering. Socrates claimed that an unreflective life is not worth living,
a claim best taken hyperbolically I expect, but the reflection needed as
corrective is surely the sober sort leading to a proper understanding of
oneself and ones place in the world, not some close relative leading to accurate understanding of the world but confusion about oneself. Moreover,
if humility were a virtue involving mis-estimation, how exactly does one

go about trying to acquire such a virtue? Are there 12-step programs that
make such self-deception easy or at least more likely to occur? I think we
should prefer the Aristotelian dictum that virtues are acquired by practicing acts of the correct type, but self-deception is something at which one
cannot aim: nobody can engage in an activity that expresses a direct and
immediate intention to self-deceive. We should find the idea implausible
that there are developed, virtuous character-traits for which there is no
adoptable plan for acquiring. Finally, about the only value one can find
for such a virtue of ignorance is a social valueit is much more fun to be
around humble and modest people than the proud, arrogant, and haughty.
But, as ?, obsequiousness will work just as well for such purposes, and no
one should think of it as a virtue.
We can distance our understanding of humility by noting also that the
kind of ignorance posited in such accounts isnt sufficient for humility
either. Of sinners the worst, to grace the least responsive can be both an
expression of humility but also one of pride: Oh no, good sir, you have
nothing on me there: no one is worse than I! Inverse competitiveness is
not humility, but an important contrast to it.
In light of these problems, I suggest there is a good diagnosis available
for how one comes to view underestimation as crucial for humility. The
internal account above focuses on both a descriptive and an evaluative
feature of ones view of oneself and ones abilities and accomplishments.
If we ignore the evaluative dimension here, then the descriptive feature
forces us to think of humble but splendid people in terms of a correct
recognition that, e.g., they are spendid in certain ways. That description
is jarring, however, and doesnt explain at all how humility is present in
light of that conception of self. But adding the evaluative dimension gives
the right tone: they recognize their own true giftedness, but also recognize that (i) good fortune played a role, (ii) the accomplishments pale in
comparison with others, and (iii) they have many other failures and weaknesses that are ignored by the accolades. Even those robed in splendor can
be humble in a way explained by these evaluative recognitions.
Moreover, this picture also explains why humility arises in Christian
and other religious contexts, for in such contexts people experience a deep
sense of their own fallenness and inadequacy, and an awe and respect for
something greater than oneself, yielding a context in which the evaluative
dimensions that underlie humility are pronounced. An Aristotelian magnanimous soul may involve a bit too much comparison with the general

lot of humanity, whereas religious foci bring a different set of comparisons

and evaluations to the fore, in a way that is good all-things-considered.
Note the reflective dimension involved in this account. Small children
and animals may have many virtues, but humility is not among them.
They may assume, in some sense, that they have adequate perceptual and
reasoning skills for coping with life, but that assumption or presupposition does not rise to the level of a reflective perspective needed for humility to be present. As children develop cognitively to the point where,
around ages 4 to 6, they make predictions of behavior that involve a recognition of the possibility of false beliefs in others, they are beginning to develop the capacity to see themselves in a way that makes humility possible.
Descriptions of younger children in terms of humility and its contrasts
must be taken as non-literal. Some small children are more demanding
of attention than others, some reveal more of a sense of entitlement than
others, but none of this implies that some small children are more humble
than others.

3 Intellectualist Accounts
Resistance to the virtues of ignorance approach to humility and modesty leads to replacement views that attempt to explain these virtues in
terms of accurate self-assessment (see, e.g., ???? and ?). While it is important to recognize that ignorance is not essential to these virtues, it is also
important to recognize that accurate self-assessment is neither necessary
for sufficient for them, either.
Lets consider the sufficiency claim first. The sufficiency claim suffers
at the thought of the greats. Michael Jordan may be the greatest basketball player ever, and if he recognizes this fact, it doesnt follow that he is
humble about it. He could be (though I doubt it), but more likely is that
he is not. When Muhammed Ali declared I am the greatest, it wasnt the
remark of a humble man honoring the sincerity or knowledge norms of
assertion, saying merely what he thought or knew to be true. The greatest
among us might also be humble, but if so, their humility is not found in
their recognition of their greatness.
What of necessity? Here things are more difficult, but we can begin
with the general recognition that humility doesnt involve thinking less of
yourself, but is more characteristically about focus: thinking of yourself

less.5 It is possible to generate recognition of excellence in a person for

the first time, and find out in doing so that the recognition is immediately
accompanied by humility with respect to that excellence. Oh, that? Ive
never thought of that as something I was good at, but its not really that big
a deal. Such a person was humble all along with respect to the excellence,
but never having reflected on the ability in question until prompted (Hey,
you are such a natural at that!), such humility could not be a function of
accurate self-assessment. Nick ? calls this quality inattention, and also
notes that there is value inattention, as in when a humble person remarks,
Yes, but its not really important enough to make a big deal about.
As stated, this point conflicts with the point made above that humility requires reflection. Reconciling the two ideas requires a bit of refining, and the way to restore coherence here is by noting the difference between the general capacity for reflection and specific instances of it. The
earlier point concerning the necessity of the general capacity for reflection, whereas the specific examples of such just noted can be present even
though not reflected on in virtue of being set against a backdrop of previous exercise of reflection in assessing ones capacities and evaluating various character traits. Against such a backdrop, one could be humble about
an ability one had never reflected on, because one already has a reflective
perspective on the kinds of abilities that are to be sought and encouraged.
The humility for abilities not explicitly reflected on is thus to be thought
of as a side-effect of this general perspective, and thus need not conflict
with the point that reflection is a prerequisite for developing humility in
the first place.
But what of errors in self-assessment? Are those compatible with humility and modesty as well? Michael ? emphasizes that such virtues are
dependent virtues, requiring some other good quality which the virtue is
about, but perhaps that is too strong. Couldnt one be modest about an
honor, for example, even if one didnt in fact receive it? Imagine a war veteran, at the end of life, being mistakenly told hed won the Congressional
Medal of Honor. His response could be humble, for sure, and perhaps that
is all we should say about the case. Perhaps he is not humble about winning the medal, but is nonetheless humble in the way he responds to the
5 Hear

C.S. Lewis on this point from ?: True humility is not thinking less of yourself;
it is thinking of yourself less.

This characterization gives a general strategy for dealing with cases in

which one mistakenly but rationally overestimates ones achievements or
accomplishments. In such cases, humility and perhaps modesty can be
present, but only when carefully circumscribed. To retain compatibility
with the Slote thesis that such virtues are dependent virtues, we must describe the kind of humility or modesty carefully. Note as well that there is
a straightforward argument for such carefulness: it is a jarring description
to be told, as in the war veteran case, that he is humble about his award,
since he has received none!
Others see a greater possibility for mistakes, however. Here is Nicolas Bommaritos explanation of why such mistakes are compatible with
humility and modesty:
What is relevant is why a person overestimates his or her good
quality. The attention of those who . . . overestimate because of
misleading evidence or unmotivated irrationality is different
from that of those who overestimate out of vanity. Vain desires
will likely result in attention to ones own role in success rather
than attention to the role of external factors and will also tend
to draw ones attention toward ones own good qualities and
the importance of such qualities. The patterns of attention associated with vain overestimation put pressure on the habits of
attention that . . . overestimation associated with misleading evidence and superstition does not, by drawing attention to ones
good qualities and ones own role in bringing them about. (?,
p. 106)
Bommaritos perspective is that mis-estimation can be motivated in a
purely cognitive way (involving misleading evidence or simple irrationality) or can involve cognitive penetration from non-cognitive sources, such
as vain desires.6 From this perspective, the line between the kinds of overestimation compatible with humility and the kinds not compatible with it
has to do with the source of the mis-estimation. When the source is purely
cognitive, there is no conflict; when the source involves cognitive penetration, there can be. In particular, if the overestimation is caused by a desire
to look good to others, the overestimation undermines the attribution of
6 The

language of cognitive penetration comes from the work of Susanna Siegel. See ?.

Here is Bommaritos example of overestimation that leaves room for

Ben can overestimate his own skill and still seem modest. For
example, suppose he receives a very prestigious and influential
ranking of world-class architects and, because of a misprint,
sees his own name listed among the very best of the best. As
a result of this reliable but misleading evidence, he revises his
estimation of his own skill and takes himself to be a worldclass architect. In this case, Ben overestimates his own skill not
because he wants to puff up his own ego, but because he simply got misleading evidence and responded to it in a rational
way. Because he still attends the way Frank and David do, Ben
seems like a modest person who just happens to be misled into
overestimating his own skill level. (?, p. 105)
One must be careful, however, about the ascription being made. Is the
ascription that Ben is modest overall, or that he is modest about his architectural abilities, or that he is modest about being a world-class architect?
The latter is jarring, in the same way as the war veteran example given earlier. There can be humility and modesty in such cases, but the description
needs to move away from the error being made in order to be accurate.
The war veteran is humble in the face of the news he has received, and
Ben is modest when hearing hes a great architect. In each case, the cognitive error of overestimation is distanced from the ascription of humility or
modesty, in keeping with Slotes approach that such virtues are dependent
Bommarito also suggests that modesty is compatible with irrational
One might also be modest while overestimating in an irrational
way. Suppose Sean has the superstition that European cars are
more difficult to drive. He never reflects on this belief, but ever
since he was a child, he got the sense from his somewhat illinformed father that one had to be more skilled to drive cars
from Germany and Italy. Because he drives a German car, he
takes himself to be a better driver than he really is, though his
attention is as described abovehe rarely, if ever, reflects on his
driving skill at all. His superstition is not self-serving but a

case of unmotivated irrationalityfor example, he would have

the same superstition even if he happened to drive an American car, and he also overestimates the abilities of others, even
people he dislikes, who happen to drive European cars. In this
case, Sean does overestimate his own driving ability, but he
does so because he has an unmotivated superstition that makes
him a poor evaluator of driving skill in general. He seems like
a modest guy, a good driver who doesnt make a big deal of
it, whose unfortunate superstitions make him a bad judge of
driving skill. (?, p. 106)
The attribution of irrationality here is, however, a bit conflicted. If his
belief comes by testimony from his father, it begins to look like a rational belief, not an irrational superstition, whether or not the father was
ill-informed. (One doesnt need ones testimonial sources to have rational
beliefs in order for one to acquire rational beliefs based on their testimony;
one doesnt even need ones sources to know what they tell you in order
for one to acquire knowledge from what they say.7 ) But even if we grant
that the belief is simply an irrational superstition, we have the same issue
as before, one concerning the object of the modesty. If we are attributing
overall modesty to Sean, there is no problem since the particular irrational
belief doesnt require that he has an overall irrational assessment of himself; if we are attributing modesty with respect to his driving abilities,
we also encounter no difficulty since his generic assessment of his driving
abilities is again accurate and rational. But if we attribute modesty concerning the error being made, we encounter the same jarring experience
as before: Sean is not modest concerning his being a better driver than the
rest of us, because he isnt!
The point here is that accuracy of self-evaluation need not be present
across-the-board in order for these virtues to be present, but only that inaccuracy prevents a specific instance of the virtue from being present. A
generic attribution of such a virtue to a person is compatible with lack of
humility over a wide range of abilities and excellences: Willy can be humble and yet not humble about being from the South. In this respect, it isnt
surprising to find Sean to be modest even though he isnt modest about being a great driver. There is some other characteristic in the neighborhood
7 See,

e.g., ? and ?.


regarding which he is modest, and the overestimation is inessential to that

modesty, and also to the overall character assessment we make when we
say that he is a modest person.
There is thus no need that arises from these cases to investigate the
issue of cognitive penetration to determine what kinds of overestimation
are compatible with these virtues. Even so, the idea of an accuracy-based
account of humility is nowhere close to being adequate, since mere accuracy of self-assessment is compatible with both the presence and absence
of humility. So even if accuracy is important, understanding the nature of
humility requires determining what, beyond accuracy, is needed. On this
score, Bommaritos approach is helpful.

4 The Virtues of Attention

This promising approach to humility treats it in terms of what a person
attends to when reflecting on ones accomplishments and achievements
rather than simply in terms of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the assessment itself. As Bommarito notes, there are virtues of attention:
The virtues of attention are virtues that are rooted in how we
direct our attention. These virtues are sometimes moral but not
always. It is an academic virtue of attention to be able to focus
ones attention on a long and technical lecture. It is an aesthetic
virtue of attention for one to pay attention to the relationship
between the narrative and shot composition in a film. Gratitude is a moral virtue of attention because it involves directing
ones attention to the value of what someone else has done for
us. (?, p. 100)
Bommaritos account then proceeds as follows:
[I]t is necessary to have a good quality to be modest about.
Contrary to most contemporary views, it is not necessary to underestimate the good quality nor is it necessary to have an accurate assessment. Instead, what is necessary is to direct ones
conscious attention in certain waysaway from the trait or its
value or toward the outside causes and conditions that played
a role in developing it.

Attending in these ways, however, is not sufficient for modesty;

it must happen for the right reasons. (?, p. 103)
The idea, then, is to view humility as a special kind of disposition,
one which, when displayed, has a characteristic profile reflected in that to
which the person in question attends. To have this disposition, there must
be an underlying good quality, and the account is neutral as to the kind of
accuracy involved in cognitive estimates regarding the quality in question.
Instead, what is central is how one direct[s] ones conscious attention.
Bommaritos suggestions are a good start toward an account of this
sort, though some of the details will need improvement. To see how the
account can be improved, we need some background on the notion of attention itself.

5 The Nature of Attention

Note also the analogy with perceptual attention, as in ?. issues: processfirst or adverbialcombustion vs. haste ?. voluntary vs. involuntary attention
counting backwards by 2s or by 7s and hearing a loud bang outside the
window. think of automatisms. Koralus wants sensitivity to success conditions for a task to be central to attentiveness, but I am sensitive to typographical errors in what I read without ever attentively looking for them.
Moles view is cognitive unison, which I dont quite get yet, but if the idea
is that attention is something involving executive control, then maybe this
account does better. (I think the rough idea is that attention to a task requires some background set of things that must be in cognitive unison for
the task to be performed attentively.)
From Wikipedia, Cocktail Party Effect This issue has developed into
the early versus late selection controversy. The basis for this controversy
can be found in the Cherry dichotic listening experiments. Participants
were able to notice physical changes, like pitch or change in gender of
the speaker, and stimuli, like their own name, in the unattended channel. This brought about the question of whether the meaning, semantics,
of the unattended message was processed before selection.[8] In an early
selection attention model very little information is processed before selection occurs. In late selection attention models more information, like
semantics, is processed before selection occurs.[15]

Daniel Kahneman also proposed a model of attention, but it differs

from previous models in that he describes attention not in terms of selection, but in terms of capacity. For Kahneman, attention is a resource
to be distributed among various stimuli,[24] a proposition which has received some support.[3][25][26] This model describes not when attention
is focused, but how it is focused. According to Kahneman, attention is
generally determined by arousal; a general state of physiological activity.
The Yerkes-Dodson law predicts that arousal will be optimal at moderate levels - performance will be poor when one is over- or under-aroused.
Of particular relevance, Narayan et al. discovered a sharp decline in the
ability to discriminate between auditory stimuli when background noises
were too numerous and complex - this is evidence of the negative effect
of overarousal on attention.[25] Thus, arousal determines our available
capacity for attention. Then, an allocation policy acts to distribute our
available attention among a variety of possible activities. Those deemed
most important by the allocation policy will have the most attention given
to them. The allocation policy is affected by enduring dispositions (automatic influences on attention) and momentary intentions (a conscious decision to attend to something). Momentary intentions requiring a focused
direction of attention rely on substantially more attention resources than
enduring dispositions.[27] Additionally, there is an ongoing evaluation of
the particular demands of certain activities on attention capacity.[24] That
is to say, activities that are particularly taxing on attention resources will
lower attention capacity and will influence the allocation policy - in this
case, if an activity is too draining on capacity, the allocation policy will
likely cease directing resources to it and instead focus on less taxing tasks.
Kahnemans model explains the cocktail party phenomenon in that momentary intentions might allow one to expressly focus on a particular auditory stimulus, but that enduring dispositions (which can include new
events, and perhaps words of particular semantic importance) can capture our attention. It is important to note that Kahnemans model doesnt
necessarily contradict selection models, and thus can be used to supplement them.
From ?, we can say that there is a task here that is attentively performed
(searching for the green triangle), and that the way in which it is done
involves focus marking on successive objects in the array. Is a display of
humility more like the attentive search or the focus marking? Looks like
the latter...?

Table 1: Find the Green Triangle












Related to the distinction between endogenous (top-down) and exogenous (bottom-up) attention, as described in ?.
Back to Bommarito and the virtues of attention. But the general approach is on the right track: a proper expression of humility involves
putting the focus of attention elsewhere than on ones successes or abilities, and a humble person adopts a stance, and reinforces it, involving
such re-direction of focus. But the primary language Bommarito uses is to
require of humility (or modesty, as he calls it) that what is central is how
one direct[s] ones conscious attention. We are now in position to see
why this point isnt quite right.
In particular, note that exogenous attention is not best described in
terms of the conscious directing of attention. The latter phenomenon
is clearly top-down, while the former (endogenous attention) is bottomup. Moreover, if we are inquiring about the character trait rather than
an explicit expression of it, a more bottom-up account would seem to be
preferable. The character trait of humility leads to various expressions of
it that display attentiveness to certain features surrounding ones accomplishments and abilities, and such displayed attentiveness will involve the
kind of executive control that is distinctive of endogenous attention. But
the explanation of this attentive display will be some underlying character
trait, one whose characteristic profile involves a disposition toward exogenous attention to the very features in question, just as our visual system
is disposed toward attention-capturing by feature singletons (such as a
single red flower in a green landscape).
If we remind ourselves of the details of Bommaritos account, we can
see the confusion between the underlying cause of overt attention (the
disposition and its exogenous profile) and the features of the attention
itself (the expressions of the disposition and its endogenous features):
[I]t is necessary to have a good quality to be modest about.

Contrary to most contemporary views, it is not necessary to underestimate the good quality nor is it necessary to have an accurate assessment. Instead, what is necessary is to direct ones
conscious attention in certain waysaway from the trait or its
value or toward the outside causes and conditions that played
a role in developing it.
Attending in these ways, however, is not sufficient for modesty;
it must happen for the right reasons. (?, p. 103)
Notice that the attention under discussion is the attention involved in
a display of humility, not the attentional profile of the disposition itself.
As such, it fails to be an account of humility itself as a virtue of attention,
but rather an account of expressions of humility as displays of a virtue.
We can, however, develop a unified account of both the virtue and
expressions of it in terms of the distinction between exogenous and endogenous attention, explaining the virtue itself in terms of the former and
expressions of the virtue in terms of the latter.

6 The Connection to Openmindedness

Its excesses and deficiencies.
Involves an attitude(?) toward a future self of the sort that a future self
should not be indoctrinated. We thus get an analogy to the social situation
involving pedagogy and here there are two problems with indoctrination,
the problems from the side of the learner (it teaches closemindedness???)
and from the side of the teacher (it fails to recognize the effects of our fallibility and fails to distinguish between different types of warranted closure
of inquiry, ones that are warranted for us and ones that others ought to
treat as closed as well; plus a lack of intellectual humility is present).
So, plan: first reject the metaphysical in favor of the epistemological
ground of the importance of the virtue. Then try to discern its nature
and scope, the latter falling short of pretending that closure on further
inquiry is never legitimate, and yet not overestimating the scope of such
legitimate closure. Here two types of warranted closure, the stronger and
weaker, where the stronger is the kind involved in knowledge, and the


weaker is the kind involved in mere justified belief. Use the distinction
here from justified inconsistent beliefs discussion.
Openmindedness is a virtue, but one which is easily exploited for rhetorical purposes in the absence of a clear understanding of it. It is a commonplace defense of whacked-out absurdities to ask that the view be approached with an open mind. Such defenses can be responded to by pointing out that virtues are means between extremes. Having no settled convictions, no place that is closed to further inquiry, is an extreme, not a
How about meta-dogmatism. Following the evidence where it leads.
Absence of convictions, the identification of openmindedness with nonbelief, or willingness to suspend belief about anything, etc. Whats the
good here????
Think of cases where openmindedness interacts with other dispositions, and is defeated by them. The person isnt closeminded as a result.

7 The nature and scope of openmindedness

Standard discussions of openmindedness occur in arguments for skepticism, lauding it as the appropriate contrast attitude to that of dogmatism,
the attitude the skeptic rejects. Here Peter Ungers discussion is a paradigm
example. He says,
I think that any reflection at all makes it pretty plain that, no
matter how certain things may seem, this attitude is always
dogmatic. (?, p. 48)
He holds that it is never alright to be absolutely certain of anything. His
argument for this claim involves two premises. First, he holds that if
someone is certain of something, then that thing is not at all doubtful so
far as he is concerned (?, p. 47). He further holds that the absence of
doubt is incompatible with openmindedness:
One thing which must be entirely absent, and which is, I think,
implicit in the absence of all doubt, is this: any openness on
the part of the man to consider new experience or information
as seriously relevant to the truth or falsity of the thing. (?, p.

Unger characterizes this lack of openness to new experience or information a dogmatic attitude. Such lack of openness, he holds, is always wrong,
for it is always possible for new experience or information to arise which
deserves serious thought, regardless of what opinion is in consideration.
Such openness is surely part of what is involved in the virtue of openmindedness, so absence of doubt is incompatible with openmindedness,
on Ungers view.
Ungers opposition to dogmatism is in service of skepticism, but the
argument here is suspect. We should note that the dogmatic attitude is
thus: the attitude that I will not allow anything at all to count as evidence against my present view of the matter (?, p. 48). If this is dogmatic
closemindedness, then openmindedness is simply a willingness to consider anything that is relevant to the truth or falsity of ones beliefs. If
one views ones evidence as conclusive on a certain matter, one will hold
that nothing will arise that will cast doubt on that issue. That attitude,
however, is far from the attitude of refusing to consider anything at all as
evidence against ones present view. It is merely the conviction that nothing of the sort will arise; that there is no realistic possibility of finding
such evidence.
Ungers position raises interesting questions even for those of us who
reject his conclusions.
Openmindedness involves a certain receptivity to new evidence, whether
with respect to what one actually accepts or how one actually behaves or
in consideration of matters on which one has as yet formed no opinion
or plan of action. It is a willingness to consider options which do not at
present constitute part of ones approach to life, whether in the form of
beliefs one might adopt or in terms of actions in which one might engage.
Yet, it is not an unconditional willingness to consider, to weigh such
options. One does not need to consider or weigh the option that one does
not exist or that one is distinct from the number nine. Instead, the willingness to consider and weigh options is a conditional willingness. It is a
willingness to consider such options when, ceteris paribus, pursuing that
option is backed by arguments, reasons or plausibility considerations (or
could be if one devoted sufficient reflection to the issue). In this way, the
characteristic feature of openmindedness is the contrast between free and
open debate of issues, and force or coercion. There is no hint here that
the openminded must be free of doxastic commitments, or that skeptical neutrality is required on any and every subject in order for one to be

The ceteris paribus clause is important, however. Seriously considering
the torture of innocent children is not an example of openmindedness; it
is an example of a sullied mind, a tainted, contaminated intellect. If such
consideration is motivated in any way by a concern for openmindedness,
it reveals the individual to be intellectually promiscuous, an individual
like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind, unstable in all his or
her ways.
Peter Unger disagrees
Let me point out quickly that I do not intend these remarks as a sufficient response to Ungers argument for skepticism. His argument is much
more subtle than would succumb this easily. All I aim to do is to make a
point about openmindedness, to wit, that lack of doubt regarding a certain
subject matter need not rule out openmindedness regarding that subject
Openmindedness is not incompatible with treating an issue as settled,
as beyond the need for further investigation. As such, it is not incompatible with a lack of doubt, for viewing something as beyond the need for
further investigation involves a certain kind of closure with respect to that
issue, the kind of closure pragmatically involved in ascriptions of knowledge.
What is dogmatism? To dogmatize is to speak or write authoritatively
or imperiously without giving arguments or evidence, according to OED,
so at the heart of dogmatism is some inattention to evidence. But what
sort of inattention? Suppose one is fully convinced of a claim and has no
good argument or evidence for it. Is that dogmatism? Not necessarily. Nor
is it a matter of what Well, is dogmatism found in a present attitude
My goal here is not that of a precise account of openmindedness, so I
will not pursue the important issues that would need to be addressed to
achieve that goal. What I wish to explore, instead, is why openmindedness should be considered a virtue. In particular, I want to address the
question, Is openmindedness unqualifiedly a virtue, a virtue regardless of
ones cognitive capacities and independent of the environment in which
one happens to find oneself? I will argue that the answer to this question
is no, and this answer raises a further question whether it is something
special about our cognitive capacities or our environment which explains
why openmindedness is a virtue for us in our unique situation. Openmindedness is a virtue primarily because of our cognitive limits and not

because of our environment, but we shall see that the kind of environment we find ourselves in does have some role to play in accounting for
the degree of importance to be attached to the virtue of openmindedness.
The most important view contrary to the one I wish to defend proposes
a metaphysical account of the importance of the virtues. According to this
account, it is the special character of the environment we find ourselves
in that explains why openmindedness is a virtue. Our universe is one that
is characterized in large part by change. Contrary to the ancients, an adequate understanding of nature does not reveal to us things that fixed, immutable or unchanging. Much closer to the truth is the Heraclitean image
of trying cognitively to step into the same river twice, trying to elicit some
semblance of order from the blooming, buzzing confusion presented to
our senses. In such an environment, and because of it, being open to new
ways of viewing and interacting with the world is important. It is because
the world is ever changing that we need to be open to new ideas and modes
of acting; it is because we cannot count on what worked yesterday to work
tomorrow that we must not be rigid in our patterns of thought and action.
We can begin to see the truth of the thesis I maintain by coming to appreciate what is wrong with this metaphysical account of the importance
of openmindedness. The above account, we may grant, looks promising
initially, but it is important to realize that this initial appearance rests
heavily on assumptions about the kind of cognitive beings that interact
with various possible environments.
Some ideas: Gil Harman: you can know p and yet have no right to be
certain of p.
Another idea: you can know p and be certain of it and still be openminded toward p because you know that it is a general truth about human
beings that they are fallible and that they are so even in the face of certainty. It is these facts on which ones attitude is based, even though one is
also certain of p and certain that no further learning would change ones
mind about p.
Just as one can be tempted by basing ones insecure feeling in the face of
a stimulus on general facts about human nature even though one also has
beliefs that one is not susceptible to doing wrong in the case in question.
Feelings and attitudes can respond to partial information.
Worry here is that there is a kind of doublemindedness to this situation.


Think about this idea. There is a class of virtues that are virtues because we are less than ideal in certain respects. Openmindedness, humility,
temperance in the sense of an ability to control oneself; and its kinds
of chastity, abstinence, and modesty(because you are really not that goodlooking!? Or because...), cooperation (because not self-sufficient),
We are now in a position to see what is required for modesty
and what is not. Following Slote (1983, 61), it is necessary to
have a good quality to be modest about. Contrary to most contemporary views, it is not necessary to underestimate the good
quality nor is it necessary to have an accurate assessment. Instead, what is necessary is to direct ones conscious attention
in certain waysaway from the trait or its value or toward the
outside causes and conditions that played a role in developing
it. (?, p. 103)
Now we are in a position to see how an attention-based account of modesty can explain the important features of modesty discussed earlier. Modesty involves certain patterns of
conscious attention, which are characterized by an inattentiveness to good qualities that reflect well on oneself, the value
of such qualities, and ones own role in bringing them about.
This kind of inattention does not require a complete lack of
attention; isolated instances of attention will not spoil ones
modesty. It does, however, require that one not dwell on these
things. Modest patterns of attention also often involve a positive attentiveness to the role of external causes and conditions
in producing the good qualities. These patterns of attention
must happen for the right reasons (though such reasons may
well be unknown to the modest person). Though a specific
account of what the right reasons are is not essential to an
attention-based account, I have suggested that the modest person attends in this way because of a lack of selfish desires or
values (such as the desire to massage ones own ego) and a positive concern for goods unrelated to oneself. (?, p. 111)
Modesty versus humility. Some think same or treat same (e.g., ?) while
others take modesty to be something on the same scale as humility, but

less exaggerated (e.g., ?). Neither point of view seems correct. Modesty
in behavior is typically contrasted with ostentatiousness, and humility in
behavior to something else (?). As a character trait, humility contrasts primarily with pride and arrogance, whereas modesty contrasts with vanity.

8 other remarks
It seems to be true of the virtues generally (though there may be exceptions) that there is a conformity between outward behavior and inward
stance. The benevolent person, as the etymology suggests, does not merely
concern herself with good works: she genuinely cares about the needs and
sufferings of others. Without that inner orientation, she would be merely
beneficent. If humility is a virtue, it will conform to this pattern. It might
seem that modesty stands to humility as beneficence to benevolence. Modesty, we might think, is like politeness we can be polite whatever our private opinions of those we meet. (Eve Garrard and David McNaughton,
Humility: from sacred virtue to secular vice?)
The second framework from which vanity has been studies is more
heterogenous. It encompasses the more conventional conceptualizations
of vanity. The most broad definition of vanity would probably be in terms
of excessive pride for oneself (Webster 2001). Webster 2001 also proposed
that vain individuals may often incur important personal costs dues to
their excessive concern for their public self-image. Much earlier, Grau
1928 proposed that a vain person constantly uses external means to increase his sense of superiority. Modesty is also distinguished as the inhibition of self-expression due to the fear of descreasing ones self-confidence.
Later, Keller (1938) stated that vanity differs from pride in its need for
recognition and differs from ambition in its illusory satisfactions. Similarly, Pascal (1950) defined vanity as the desire to live an imaginary life
in the minds of others (p. 36).
needs to be separated from social anxiety and narcissism.
Vanity as Netemeyer, Burton, and Lichtenstein (1995) conceptualized
it is defined as an excessive conver or view of ones own physical appearance and personal achievements. They constructed a 21-853m scale that
measures the four distinct trait components of vanity: (1) physical concern, (2) inflated positive physical view, (3) achievement concern, and (4)
inflated positive achievement view.

In this paper, vanity is more broadly defined as over-emphasizing

ones positive self-perceptions and under-emphasizing ones negative selfperceptions. These self-perceptions can be based on social comparisons
made with others or pure gut feelings about ones competencies. Thus,
an individual can be vain not only of physical and achievement-based dimensions, but can be vain of any skills or abilities encountered in various
situations (e.g., athleticism, cleverness, conversationalist, etc.) pp. 6-7
Etienne P. LeBel, A Broader Conceptualization: The Vanity Construct
Re-examined, elebel/Papers/vanityResearchPaper.pdf
Webster, J.M. (2001) Image Concern and Personal Cost in the Experience of Vanity. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering, 62.
Grau, K. J. (1928) Vanity and the feeling of modesty. A study in social
psychology and the psychology of character. Oxford, England: Meiner.
Keller, F. (1938) Vanity and Delusion. Oxford, England: Francke.
Netemeyer, R. G., Burton, S., & Lichtenstein, D. R. (1995). Traits aspects of vanity: Measurement and relevance to consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 612626.8

8 This

project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and St. Louis University. The opinions expressed in this publication
are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of either organization.