Is Modesty Still a Virtue?

Modesty and humility are two concepts often used interchangeably but in fact both represent very different phenomenon. Generally speaking, modesty involves a recognition of one’s endowments and possessions. It also entails respecting the boundaries which govern one’s interactions with others, particularly when it comes to displaying one’s body or dress.

Historically, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not modesty and humility are actually virtues. Some theorists have argued that they are, while others have disputed this. This article examines some of the key theories that have shaped views about modesty and humility.

Accuracy Accounts

A number of accounts have aimed to remove any tension between epistemic and moral virtue and so explain modesty by appeal to beliefs that are epistemically good. These include ‘ignorance’ and ‘accuracy’ accounts (see Hare 1996, Raterman 2006).

Ignorance Accounts

On these accounts modesty requires ignorance of certain states that are incompatible with modesty; for example, the person might have false beliefs about their own goodness or they might underrate themselves to some extent. These accounts, like weak accuracy ones, leave it open as to whether moral virtue is compatible with epistemic vices.

Strong Accuracy Accounts

Some strong accuracy accounts make modesty incompatible with ignorance and thereby root it in the accurate recognition of one’s own or another’s moral worth. These views are sometimes called ‘egalitarian’ or ‘equitable’ views and draw on Kantian ideas about the equal moral status of rational agents.

The main difference between these accounts is that on the ‘egalitarian’ view, modesty is rooted in attitudes that apply to everyone rather than just to those who are morally good or not. These attitudes might involve things like gift-giving and receiving compliments.

These accounts also usually deny that modesty is a dependent virtue since one can have the relevant knowledge without having any good qualities themselves; see Ben-Ze’ev 1993, Nuyen 1998, Statman 1992, and Um (forthcoming).

Attention Accounts

Finally, there are a number of attentional or motivated accounts of modesty. These views root modesty in patterns of motivated conscious attention to good qualities and other factors that bring them about, like luck or supportive circumstances.

For instance, Bommarito (2013) argues that modest people tend to pay attention to external factors that brought about their good qualities, such as luck or support from others.

This attentional account explains why modest people don’t think much about their own good qualities, even though they might be aware of them from time to time. They also tend to emphasize the role of other, situational factors in bringing about their good qualities and avoid thinking about them too much.

For many modern theorists, however, modesty is still a virtue. This is because it has positive effects that promote the ends of other virtues, such as courage and honesty. It also has a negative effect, limiting people’s inclinations towards immodest behavior.