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  • The Social Dimensions of Modesty
  • Scott Woodcock (bio)

Modesty is a surprisingly complicated character trait. Most of us feel that we intuitively understand what modesty is, and we feel confident that we can recognize modesty when it is exhibited in others. However, it is difficult to provide a detailed account of modesty without discovering that it is not nearly as simple as one initially presumes it to be. For example, in her recent book Uneasy Virtue, Julia Driver proposes a definition of modesty that seems uncomplicated until further reflection reveals it to be more intricate and contentious than it appears. Driver claims that modesty is the virtue of being disposed to persistently underestimate one's self-worth despite available evidence suggesting that this estimation is incorrect.1 There is something compelling about such a concise definition of modesty, but Driver's view implies that a modest agent is truly ignorant of her natural talents, accomplishments or other attributes that contribute to assessments of her self-worth. It is this feature of Driver's definition that has generated debate since she first presented her view of modesty in an influential article that preceded her book.2 Critics claim that it is counterintuitive to require modest agents to be ignorant of their natural talents and accomplishments, for it hardly seems virtuous to be disposed to make chronic errors of judgment [End Page 1] in spite of available evidence. Driver's underestimation definition of modesty endorses a kind of persistent epistemic defect, and this is not a quality ordinarily considered to be morally praiseworthy.3

What is most interesting about Driver's definition of modesty is the fact that there is no widely accepted analysis of the virtue according to which hers can be viewed as an unconventional alternative. Instead of entering the literature as a response to some well-established view regarding the nature of modesty, Driver's paper has become the starting point of the current debate over the definition and moral status of the virtue. There is at least some agreement among those involved in the debate, since most contributors agree that modesty ought to be considered a virtue — a less insipid accord than it seems, given modesty's potential connection to ignorance. However, the contributors disagree among themselves when it comes to pinpointing what modesty is and explaining why exactly it is a virtue. Some claim that modesty is simply the disposition to not overestimate one's self-worth.4 Others claim that modesty involves being an egalitarian who recognizes the equal worth of all human beings.5 Still others claim that modesty is a disposition to not care whether others are impressed with oneself for one's accomplishments.6

In this paper, I will argue that none of the definitions presented so far has been able to capture the elusive nature of modesty. Specifically, I argue that these attempts to define modesty fail because they are unable to adequately account for the virtue's social dimensions. Modesty is a valuable disposition for moral agents to possess because it alleviates some of the jealousy, bitterness and other caustic emotions that arise [End Page 2] in social contexts where the comparative merits of agents are publicly acknowledged. It serves a delicate social function by discouraging unhealthy forms of competitive ranking, and it promotes harmony among agents who perceive themselves to be unequal with respect to their natural talents and accomplishments. Of course, most contributors to the discussion recognize that modesty serves this social function. However, they all fail to adequately account for the social dimensions of modesty when formulating their definitions of the virtue. What is required is a definition of modesty that captures our considered intuitions about modest agents without failing to do justice to the social dimensions of the virtue's unique character.

The paper is structured as follows. In section one, I argue that so-called cognitive and evaluative definitions of modesty are destined to fail because they do not include conditions designed to mediate the way that agents present themselves to others. If the social function of modesty is an essential feature of the virtue, then it will not suffice to define modesty strictly in terms...


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