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How Does Humility Contribute to Strength?

The question of how humility contributes to strength might seem premature. Shouldn’t we first consider whether it can do so? There are, in any case, influential ways of thinking about humility that suggest as much.

One thinks, for instance, of Friedrich Nietzsche’s stinging indictment of humility as a cornerstone of a weak and reactionary “slave morality.” Or of Dickens’s infamous Uriah Heep: “A person like myself had better not aspire. If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!”

But consider an alternative and equally plausible way of thinking about humility. On this view, to be humble is to be attentive to and disposed to “own” one’s limitations, weaknesses, and mistakes. A humble person does not ignore, avoid, or try to deny her limits or deficiencies. Rather, she maintains an accurate assessment of them; and this assessment remains “on her radar” as she traverses life’s various domains. This does not mean that she thinks obsessively about her limitations. Nor that they occupy an especially prominent role in her conscious awareness. On the contrary, a humble person’s awareness of her limitations is likely to remain implicit much of the time.

To the extent that we as human beings are disposed to deny or justify our vulnerabilities, such attentiveness is itself a significant achievement. It is not, however, sufficient for genuine humility.

To see why, consider how (mere) awareness of one’s limitations or deficiencies might trigger experiences or attitudes that are uncharacteristic of humility. Such awareness might be a source of intense anxiety. Or it might result in defensiveness or a tendency to rationalize one’s behavior. It might also manifest in a critical or disparaging attitude toward others as one seeks to build oneself up by tearing others down.

Humility requires, not just an awareness of, but also a willingness to honestly and appropriately acknowledge orown” one’s limitations, weaknesses, and mistakes. What exactly does such “ownership” involve? This depends on the limitation or deficiency in question.

Imagine that I am inherently slower than most of my peers at comprehending complex ideas. When exposed to a new theory or argument, I typically need to think, reflect, and seek clarification before achieving a good grasp of the ideas. Here, owning the relevant limitation will look like, among other things, not denying (to myself or others) that I have it. I will not pretend to understand something when I do not and will seek clarifications or restatements as needed.

Suppose, however, that the limitation or defect in question is characterological in nature, for example, a consistently impatient or judgmental attitude toward a colleague. In this case, “owning” will involve more than an honest acknowledgement of my unwarranted attitude. It will also include a disposition to do something about it—e.g. to apologize for unwarranted remarks, make amends, or take steps to try to change the attitude.

If humility is thought of in terms of attentiveness to and a disposition to “own” one’s limitations, weaknesses, and mistakes, the question of how humility contributes to strength makes much more sense. In the remainder of this brief essay, I describe three ways in which humility can be empowering. Specifically, I explain how it can lead to strength in the moral life, the intellectual life, and the civic life.

Humility As a Moral Strength

How might humility understood in the foregoing way contribute to strength in a moral context? How, for instance, might it enhance the moral quality of one’s relationships?

An impressive body of psychological and neuroscientific research suggests that we are hardwired for “connection,” that is, for mutually loving and respectful interpersonal relationships. In the absence of such relationships, our capacity to engage with others in morally appropriate ways becomes significantly diminished.

Humility contributes to moral strength by fostering vulnerability and human connection. To see how, suppose that in my interactions with others I tend be standoffish, critical, and defensive (qualities opposite of humility). Clearly, this orientation will inhibit my ability to connect. It may even trigger a vicious cycle: if I am consistently defensive about my mistakes or limitations with my children or spouse, say, then they will be more likely to adopt a similar posture, which in turn is likely to reinforce my own defensiveness.

By contrast, imagine that I am aware of and can genuinely own my mistakes and limitations as a parent, spouse, neighbor, or colleague. This will signal a disarming vulnerability on my part. It will also open up the possibility of genuine connection. In the context of such connection, it will be much easier for all parties to act, think, and feel in ways that are respectful, compassionate, generous, honest, and otherwise morally good. Humility, then, has a way of generating moral resources, both for the humble person and for those with whom she interacts.

Here as well Dickens offers an apt illustration. Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold, tightfisted, and misanthropic protagonist of A Christmas Carol, is visited by three “spirits” who reveal to him the long litany of his moral failures, their bitter fruit, and his own impending death. His initial response to these revelations is defensive; eventually, however, he is brought to a place of genuine sorrow and contrition. Scrooge’s “ownership” of his moral failures manifests in a new moral outlook and disposition: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

Humility As an Intellectual Strength

In a recent book titled I Don’t Know (2013), Leah Hager Cohen relates a conversation with her students about a “well-read” and “incredibly smart” colleague named Mary. Mary routinely exhibits an unusual response when “she’s having a conversation and the other person mentions a book or author in that way that assumes she’s familiar with the work.” Cohen elaborates for her students:

“You know when you’re with people you want to impress, people you find a little intimidating? Maybe you’re feeling kind of dumb, like you don’t really belong with them. You’re worried you’ll be found out. And someone mentions a writer or the title of a book in this tone like, Naahh-turally you know what I’m talking about. And even though you have no clue, you do that little thing where you narrow your eyes and pursue your lips and give this thoughtful nod.” (10-11)

Mary’s response in such situations? “She says, ‘I don’t know that book.’ She says, ‘I’ve never heard of that person’” (11). Mary’s willingness to admit her ignorance is an illustration of intellectual courage. It is also a striking example of intellectual humility—of a willingness to own, rather than to deny or cover up, her cognitive limitations.

Why is this sort of admission so difficult? And what are its epistemic effects? It is difficult, presumably, because of the embarrassment or shame we might experience when our ignorance is exposed. Such emotions, while familiar enough, often signal a lack of intellectual humility. They indicate a simultaneous awareness of but failure to own or accept some regrettable gap in our knowledge. The negative epistemic impact of concealing our ignorance is hard to miss. At a minimum, it includes a missed opportunity for epistemic growth. When Mary responds as she does, she is immediately presented with an opportunity to learn something new. Her epistemic position is strengthened.

Humility As a Civic Strength

One important aspect of civic life is the kind of public discourse and debate about various social and political issues that regularly occurs at town hall meetings, on university campuses, in blogs, magazines, and newspapers. How might humility function in these contexts?

A central feature of public discourse is the exchange of reasons or arguments in support of particular views or courses of action (e.g. that late-term abortions should be prohibited; that illegal immigrants should be allowed to get driver’s licenses; or that a community should forfeit resources for a proposed public work). Rarely are the arguments exchanged in these contexts unassailable. Accordingly, humility might call for being forthright about some of these limitations.

Here as well the effect can be disarming and even contagious. If my interlocutor in a discussion about a controversial political issue readily admits that some of the evidence tells against his position or that there are some prima facie plausible objections to his view or that there is room for reasonable disagreement, I am apt to see this as a sign that he is committed to good faith rational dialogue. This in turn is likely to prompt similar concessions from me.

This is significant given the rhetorical character of so much public debate. On honest reflection, it is hard not to believe that many of the issues debated in a public context are far more complicated than the prevailing positions or arguments let on. Humility can play a role in chipping away at this rhetoric. While this may complicate the terms of the debate, it is also likely to steer it in a more truthful direction.

The 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill shed valuable light on this dynamic in his classic essay “On Liberty.” Mill argues that reflection on our cognitive fallibility should prompt us to engage in good faith rational discussion with our intellectual opponents. He identifies several possible benefits of doing so: in some cases, our cognitive biases and blind spots will be exposed; in others, our initial conviction will be confirmed through a consideration of further evidence and perspectives. Mill contends that in the context of public debate, we ought to proceed by:

… condemning everyone, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side of which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honor to everyone, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favor.

This is a high but worthy ideal. Approximating it is sure to require a good deal of humility.

Mill’s remark highlights the epistemic value of humility in the context of public debate. But humility also makes important moral demands in this context. It is not uncommon for public discourse to reflect an unjust favoring of the interests of particular individuals or groups. This is often indicative of a failure to acknowledge certain moral limitations (e.g. that one’s own well-being is not inherently more important than the well-being of others). Humility, then, can facilitate an honest recognition and “ownership” of these limitations. It can prevent us, in good Kantian fashion, from treating ourselves as exceptions. In doing so, it will enhance, not just the epistemic, but also the moral quality of public discourse.

Discussion Questions:

1.     What are some historical or “real life” cases in which humility appears to have contributed to a person’s strength? Are there clear cases in which it failed to have this effect? What does this suggest about humility or its value?

2.     Does the account of humility sketched above really overcome Nietzsche’s worry about humility as a cornerstone of “slave morality”? Why or why not?

3.     The estimation of humility tends to vary from one cultural, philosophical, and religious outlook to another. Some esteem it highly; some don’t. To what extent, if any, is the account of humility sketched above “tradition-dependent”?

4.     How might humility contribute to strength in domains not discussed above: e.g. athletic, artistic, or spiritual domains?

5.     The present account of humility describes it as an orientation toward one’s limitations or weaknesses. Sometimes humility is described as also involving a willingness to “own” one’s strengths. Is this a good addition? Why or why not?

Discussion Summary

In this summary, I’d like to address two issues pertinent to the discussion. The first concerns whether humility, as I’m thinking of it, is too inwardly focused; the second concerns what can be done to cultivate humility.

Bob Roberts argues in the comments (as he has done in print) that humility consists of “a lack of concern for one’s glory, for the love of the good.” Thus a humble person is relatively unconcerned with things like status and prestige, and this lack of concern is rooted in a much deeper desire for or commitment to the good. On this way of thinking about humility, it is primarily outwardly focused.

On my view, a humble person is one who is attentive to and willing to “own” her limitations, weaknesses, and mistakes. This makes humility more inwardly focused than it is on Roberts’s view. However, it would be a mistake to think that humility, understood in this way, is especially or objectionably inwardly focused.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, while there is no question that many of us tend to be too self-focused (selfish, self-involved, self-obsessed, egotistical, vain, etc.), it is not at all uncommon for these objectionable forms of self-focus to be the result of a failure to “own” our limitations and defects. A person might be obsessed with trying to appear attractive because he is in fact discontent or anxious about his average looks. Similarly, a person might, at one level, be preoccupied with how her colleagues perceive her because, at another level, she is insecure about her professional abilities. It stands to reason that if one is cognizant of but also “owns” (accepts, takes responsibility for, reconciles oneself to) one’s limitations, one will, in fact, have fewer reasons to think about or to focus on oneself.

The second reason fits together nicely with the first. Along with many other philosophers, I believe that for humility to count as a genuine character virtue (for it to make one a good or better person), it must be grounded in or flow from good motives. Roberts makes a similar point when he describes humility as arising from “a love of the good.” Accordingly, on my view, humility is a matter of attending to and owning one’s limitations out of a desire to pursue or respect some good. Suppose the good in question is scientific knowledge. In this case, while the immediate focus of humility will be inward, its ultimate focus will be outward. Suppose, for instance, that Smith is an intellectually humble scientist. In the context of scientific inquiry, Smith will be alert to and own (rather than be ignorant of or defensive about) her intellectual limitations and weaknesses; however, this concern will also point beyond itself: she’ll attend to and own her limitations and weaknesses because she sees that doing so is importantly related to her epistemic objective.

One question worthy of further thought concerns how exactly to understand the relationship between the foregoing two accounts of humility. Is one more accurate than the other? Or are they, perhaps, getting at two different but equally legitimate varieties of humility?

A second question that arose in the comments concerns the cultivation of humility. It can take many forms: How can I cultivate humility in myself? How can parents foster humility in their children? How can teachers foster humility in the classroom?

Because it connects with some of my current research in “applied virtue epistemology,” I’m going to focus on the last of these questions; and I’m going to limit my attention to intellectual humility in particular. Specifically, I’ll briefly describe five steps a teacher can take to foster intellectual humility in a classroom setting.

1. Connecting with students. Educating for growth in traits like intellectual humility is an attempt at personal formation or transformation—it is aimed shaping students’ fundamental beliefs, values, attitudes, and feelings. Such change occurs most readily in the context of caring and trusting relationships. Thus, teachers concerned with fostering intellectual humility in their students would do well to acquire and demonstrate a genuine interest in and concern for their students as individuals.

2. Direct instruction. If a student lacks the very concept of intellectual humility, then his attempts to identify, understand, practice, or grow in it will be limited. It is important, then, to equip students with a rich concept of intellectual humility, which can be done with clear and simple definitions accompanied by rich examples and stories that illustrate its substance and value.

3. Self-reflection. It is also important for students to apply this concept to themselves, that is, to make an honest and detailed inventory of their intellectual limitations, defects, and vulnerabilities. This can be done through self-reflection exercises given as homework or through an advisory program. Students’ willingness to engage in honest self-reflection will depend in part on whether the classroom is a “safe” place, that is, whether students feels connected to and cared for by their teachers.

4. A classroom culture that values risk-taking over being right. A student’s willingness to acknowledge her intellectual weakness or failures is also likely to depend on other aspects of the dominant classroom culture. One thing a teacher can do to align his classroom culture with the goal of fostering intellectual humility is to value (verbally but also in terms of the assignments he gives and how he grades) intellectual risk-taking and struggle over (or alongside) the ability to generate correct answers.

5. Modeling. In all areas of character education, modeling is an indispensable and powerful tool. If a teacher carefully conceals her ignorance or other intellectual limitations from her students, this is bound to rub off. On the other hand, any experienced instructor knows how much students relish stories about our personal limitations and failures. Such stories, while no doubt entertaining for students, can have the effect of making the students themselves more willing to admit (to themselves or others) their own foibles and mistakes.

These are but a few things teachers can do to facilitate intellectual humility in the classroom. What else can be added to this list? And how can the listed items be fleshed out in more detail?

New Big Questions:

1. Is humility more inwardly focused or outwardly focused? Is one more accurate than the other? Or are they, perhaps, getting at two different but equally legitimate varieties of humility?

2. Cultivation of humility: How can I cultivate humility in myself? How can parents foster humility in their children? How can teachers foster humility in the classroom?