Posted 10/5/99

"Why IS Modesty a Virtue?", by G.F. Schueler (University of New Mexico), and "Modesty and Ignorance", by Julia Driver (City University of New York)
Ethics, July 1999, vol. 109, number 4, pp. 827-41

Reviewed by Scott Woodcock (University of Toronto)

I. The Debate over Modesty
i-drop.gif - 1.3 K n a recent Ethics discussion, Julia Driver and G.F. Schueler each provide revised articulations of their earlier contributions to the debate over modesty as a potential virtue. The debate is focused primarily on two key issues: (1) the question of what exactly modesty is, and (2) whether or not modesty so defined ought to be considered a virtue.1 On Driver's account, modesty is described as the disposition to "underestimate self-worth to some limited extent, even in spite of the available evidence" (p. 830). Driver is also careful to distinguish what she considers authentic modesty from 'false' modesty, which she sees as the disposition to publicly understate one's self worth knowing full well just how good one really is - a trait that she claims will likely be perceived as patronizing or condescending. The distinction highlights both the peculiar fact that, for Driver, true modesty requires that agents be genuinely ignorant of the nature of their talents (making it a strange sort of virtue), as well as the fact that Driver is particularly concerned with modesty's social consequences (since she believes these consequences are ultimately responsible for modesty's moral value).

Schueler, on the other hand, defines the modest agent as one who "does not care whether people are impressed with her for her accomplishments", yet he is now careful to note that this is a disposition to "not care at all" about the impressions of others as opposed to a disposition to not care about them after taking other factors (such as not respecting one's peers) into account (pp. 840-1). Schueler also backtracks on his earlier explanation of modesty's value being derived from the fact that a desire to be given credit for one's accomplishments would be illegitimate considering those genetic and cultural circumstances for which we are not responsible. Schueler's account now grounds modesty's value in what it reveals about the modest person, i.e. "that her goals and purposes come from herself, not from others." (p. 839)

In this short review I would like to suggest that Schueler is correct to seek an alternative to Driver's underestimation account of virtue, but that his own solution to the peculiar dilemma of praising ignorance as a virtue fails to capture our intuitions about modesty's uniquely social character.

II. Schueler's Insights
Without flatly assuming that requiring ignorance as a necessary condition for modesty constitutes a reductio of the underestimation approach2, Schueler correctly pinpoints two other important flaws in Driver's definition of modesty that make her account untenable in its current form. First, the example of Albert (the world's third best physicist who believes he is the world's fifth best physicist and brags to his colleagues about this underestimated ranking) seems to demonstrate that something is amiss within Driver's theory. Driver claims that Albert is modest but that he is an anomalous case where modesty is not "functioning normally" (p. 829). Yet it is easy to imagine that Albert ranks himself fifth only because he is careless at simple arithmetic, and that he is otherwise a complete braggart. Interpreted in this way, it is difficult to believe that Albert possesses a kind of 'non-functioning' modesty without rendering the example counterintuitive or distorting what we think the term modesty is supposed to mean. Thus, the underestimation account appears inadequate in this case, and Schueler is wise to point out that Albert represents a convincing counterexample.

The second flaw that Schueler correctly notices is that Driver's concern for the social consequences of modesty is out of sync with her rigid dismissal of false modesty as being morally worthless. Driver's criterion for authentic modesty is stringent: if the agent is at all aware of her true talents and simply downplays these talents in front of others then she displays mere 'false' modesty. But, as Schueler points out, it is not clear why undetected false modesty is not thought to be just as much a virtue as true modesty if it is social consequences that are at stake. If false modesty is allowed to "function normally", to use Driver's terminology, it clearly will not produce the undesirable results she so pessimistically ascribes to it.

III. Schueler's Mistakes
Schueler's criticism of the underestimation account is therefore on the mark, but in attempting to resolve the deficiencies in Driver's theory I think he moves in the wrong direction by presenting a more insulated interpretation of modesty instead of emphasizing the virtue's markedly social character. A full account of modesty is, of course, beyond the scope of this review, but I would like to suggest the direction such an account ought to take by noting two ways in which Schueler's definition of modesty falls short.

First, it is not clear that what Schueler calls immodesty - the disposition to care about others being impressed with one for one's accomplishments - is truly the "character flaw" that Schueler thinks it is. (p. 838) Quite the contrary, when we think of the virtuous agent existing within a realistic social context it seems natural to believe that she could care a great deal about how she is perceived by her peers in the community. It may be the case that caring too much about the opinions of others reveals a character flaw, but there is almost certainly an Aristotelian mean operating here where caring too little about the approval of others creates its own problems. Consider the characteristics of Schueler's modest agent. She is someone who is "utterly indifferent", "does not care at all", or is "not concerned at any level" (pp. 840-1, my emphasis) about what people think of her and her accomplishments. Is this really such a good thing? The severe nature of Schueler's position makes his virtuously modest agent look less virtuous than sociopathic. At best, the idea that one ought to live entirely free from caring about the esteem of others is a naive individualistic myth; at worst it is a recipe for what we ordinarily consider to be a serious personality disorder.

Furthermore, the general aim of Schueler's account still fails to capture what we mean when we use the term modesty. It is certainly virtuous to be the sort of person whose goals and purposes come from within oneself (even if they are appropriately qualified by the details of one's social context). But this trait is best described as "strength of character" or "suitable autonomy" rather than modesty. Schueler's theory nicely avoids the problem of requiring ignorance on the part of the virtuous agent, yet it seems to have done so at the cost of ending up with something that no longer looks like modesty at all.

The second reason Schueler's account falls short is that it prematurely dismisses Driver's suggestion that the value of modesty is derived from its social consequences. After perceptively noting that Driver cannot consistently rule out 'false' modesty, Schueler assumes that modesty must be an intrinsically virtuous trait and abandons the possibility that modesty's value can be defined by its social merits. Yet this soon leads Schueler to an excessively individualistic result. A more profitable option, I think, is to jettison the intuition that modesty must be valuable for its own sake in order to concentrate on modesty's complex social functions. This leads us back to the problem of 'false' modesty, but pace Driver I think that genuine instances of modesty often do involve delicate social situations where one is aware of one's talents without wanting to promote this knowledge at the expense of others. The dilemma facing Driver disappears if we scale back her account of false modesty, and this, I submit, is a more productive response than giving up on the connection between modesty's value and its social significance.

Thus, Schueler's (first) mistake is to interpret modest agents' lack of interest in promoting themselves as evidence that they fail to care at all about the opinions of others, and the assumption that modesty is intrinsically valuable only encourages this error by lending itself to an excessively atomistic analysis of modesty's moral worth. In fact, I think it may be almost impossible to construct a suitable explanation of modesty's value without appealing to its (instrumental) social consequences. Modesty may be closely related to internal facts about how agents perceive themselves and their achievements, but it is also inseparably linked to a social interest in avoiding situations where others are made to feel inferior, in alleviating jealousy and in refusing to promote unhealthy forms of ranking or competition. The fact that modesty's value is dependent on these social goods complicates matters greatly (and introduces problems of potential insincerity for modest agents unwilling to speak their mind about their accomplishments). But this is part of what makes modesty so very interesting and surprisingly difficult to define. To pretend otherwise - as Schueler has done by squeezing the social complexity of modesty into an intrinsically valuable individual trait - only creates confusion and ultimately fails to accommodate our intuitions about why we value this unique social virtue.


1. See Julia L. Driver, "The Virtues of Ignorance" Journal of Philosophy 86 (July 1989): 373-84, and G.F. Schueler, "Why Modestly Is a Virtue" Ethics 107 (April 1997): 467-85.

2. This argument is put forth by Owen Flanagan in "Virtue and Ignorance," Journal of Philosophy, 87, Ag 1990, pp. 420-28.

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