Friday, September 04, 2009

Are there Virtues of Ignorance?

Julia Driver argues that modesty essentially involves ignorance (underestimation) of one's self-worth. Intuitively, modesty is a virtue. So this would count against traditional accounts of virtue (as involving moral perception or an internal orientation towards the good), and in favour of her instrumental account. But there are reasons to doubt whether modesty essentially involves ignorance after all.

Driver suggests that an adequate account of modesty must meet at least two desiderata. Firstly, it must explain the oddity of asserting:
(1) I am modest.
Second, it must leave room for a distinction between genuine and false modesty; hence the account cannot be purely behavioural.

Driver's solution, as noted, is that modesty is a matter of systematically underestimating one's self-worth. Someone with coherent beliefs will cease to underestimate something once they become aware of their error, and so one cannot coherently affirm one's own modesty. And one can act with "false modesty" if one does not in fact have the false beliefs that one's seemingly modest behaviour suggests.

But I think there is a better solution, on which modesty is a kind of moral knowledge rather than personal ignorance. The modest person, I suggest, is one who has fully internalized the fact that they are just one person, surrounded by moral equals. The modest person is thus disposed not to dwell on her own achievements, or to see any reason to try to put herself forwards as 'superior'. If you really pressed her on it (say you rig things up so that an innocent person will be hurt unless she gives the correct answer), you might be able to get the modest person to admit - albeit with some hesitation - that she is indeed modest. So there's no real ignorance here. But in ordinary situations, the modest person will not consider this autobiographical fact particularly significant or worth dwelling on. They are disposed to attend to things more important than their own status, after all. And this suffices to explain the oddity of asserting (1).

As for the second desideratum, there's obviously a difference between genuinely internalizing this kind of moral perspective and merely acting as though one has (when in fact one feels the same enflamed amour propre as any egotist).

This characterization (or something along these lines) better captures my own concept of 'modesty', at least. But more importantly, it also seems to be a much more appealing character trait than the (merely instrumentally valuable) state of ignorance that Driver describes. More generally, for any proposed 'virtue of ignorance', I expect that it could be better understood as a virtue of salience, i.e. of attending to the right sorts of things -- things that actually merit attention.


  1. I don't know. Are you both assuming that false modesty isn't a kind of modesty? Then the account could be entirely behavioural, with the distinction between false and non-false modesty being that of whether one intends to profit by the behaviour.

    The behaviour in question could be that of 'not blowing one's own trumpet'. As modesty is a virtue, saying 'I am modest' is saying one is virtuous in that way, and so is blowing one's own trumpet.

  2. Right, we're both assuming that false modesty isn't modesty. As most people use the term, it's possible to be immodest without behaving immodestly, for example if one has an internal attitude of smug superiority.

    Also, it's worth noting that false modesty need not stem from selfish motivations. As Driver notes, one may simply consider bragging to be in poor taste. Or you might even have altruistic motivations, and the patronizing belief that everyone around you is too weak to handle the fact of your superiority. Again, it would seem a mistake to describe a person with this psychology as a modest person. We have a deeper character trait in mind; mere behaviour is not enough.

  3. I'm not at all convinced of the claim that "As most people use the term, it's possible to be immodest without behaving immodestly"; it seems to me that people closely associate, and often identify, false modesty with deliberate overmodesty, i.e., modesty that is excessive for the circumstances. (But it seems there are many different things called modesty -- modesty of demeanor, modesty of dress, modesty of speech; if they're all the same attribute, then modesty is neither a kind of moral knowledge nor a kind of ignorance -- suggesting that modesty of dress is a form of moral knoweldge would be baffling; and if they're not, then we have to be careful that the modesty we take to be a virtue is actually the same as the modesty we are talking about.)

    But I agree that, however those points may be, your accoutn is a much better one than Driver's; I've always been a bit mystified by her account. Here's a question for clarification, though; if we take your account to be the right one, is there anything that differentiates modesty from humility, or are they then simply synonyms?

  4. Hi Brandon, I think it's probably synonymous with humility. (Though I'd be interested to hear if others can identify a difference between that and the sense of 'modesty' I'm gesturing towards here. I may well be overlooking something!)

  5. My 2008 APA minutes have Nicholas D. Smith (not to be confused with various other Nick Smiths in philosophy) discussing a very similar account of modesty in his presidential address.

    He cites Daniel Statman ("Modesty, Pride, and Realistic Self-Assessment" 1992 APQ) as giving an argument against this view. I'll just give you the Statman quote. Suppose we have the sort of person I would call a real mensch:

    ...a person who is pleasant, benevolent, clever, sensitive, good-looking, brave, assertive, a good father, etc.; a person who is blessed with many natural qualities, and who has also achieved striking gains thanks to his will-power, courage, and hard work. Now what exactly would it mean for such a person to keep his qualities and achievements 'in perspective'? Whose perspective? From the perspective of all ordinary people this person is an extraordinary character; and indeed, he is.

    Here's the most compelling example of virtuous ignorance I can find: I have a highly attractive friend who makes (very funny) self-deprecating jokes about her own level of attractiveness. This somehow comes off as winsome rather than creepy, though I would recommend proceeding with caution if you aim to it at home. My friend is treating her own level of attractiveness as salient, so I think it must be her ignorance that's charming. I'm not entirely sure whether this is really a case of pretense rather than ignorance. Still, it seems much more compelling than the usual "childhood innocence" example, which is just unduly patronizing toward children.

  6. *if you aim to try it at home, rather.

  7. Hi, Richard,

    One reason I asked is that I think if we do take it to be synonymous with humility this would increase the plausibility of your own account; traditional accounts of humility treat it as a form of moral knowledge, a sort of just regard for the truth about oneself.

    I think one might be able to see 'modesty' as an external term that has worked its way inward. The Latin modestia overwhelming concerns self-restraint with regard to externals (it's where we get phrases like 'modest dress' 'modest demeanor' 'modest lifestyle' &c.); but one of the externals was modest speech, and from there it began to be applied to the states of mind that cause modest speech, etc., and thus becomes more and more a matter of internal disposition.

  8. Hi, sorry to join late. I did feel the need to defend my views. I don't think that it is plausible to view *immodesty* as necessarily involving the view that one is superior, as a person, to others. It may involve this, it may not. The modest person, likewise, may or may not view herself as just the same, as a person, as others -- the key is that she regards herself as less worthy, via her accomplishments, than the evidence supports, to some small degree (to distinguish modesty from self-deprecation). She also may just not be disposed to think about this at all, which is ignorance as well. But the larger task in "Virtues of Ignorance" is to argue against the really strong claim that virtue never involves ignorance. One needn't agree with the strong account of modesty for this, one can agree that just some cases (technically, even just one case), is like this. That modesty can rest on ignorance, ans still be a virtue. My favorite case to illustrate is Eistein who, apparently, viewed himself as quite talented, but also regarded others as more talented physicists -- they were talented, but not as talented as Einstein. This was an appealing quality. If you don't think Einstein was actually like this, view it as a thought experiment.

    I actually thought I had a fairly easy task -- the view that virtue never rests on ignorance just seems implausibly strong to me. I'm puzzled by those who think that moral excellence requires intellectual excellence, and that a wedge just cannot be driven between the two. But they are different, and it should not be surprising that some cases -- like at least some modesty cases -- bring this out. This accords with our common sense views that someone can be morally good, even though not that bright.

  9. Hi, Julia,

    Believing that moral excellence does not require intellectual excellence itself does not require that any moral excellence is consistent with intellectual vice, and I think this is where people get off the tram: if modesty involves ignorance, cultivation of modesty involves cultivation of ignorance; then, since deliberately cultivating ignorance seems to be vice, it would seem that cultivating modesty is a vice; and it is difficult to see how something can be a virtue if cultivating it is a vice. On the other hand, if we can't deliberately cultivate ignorance, and ignorance is part of modesty, then it would seem that modesty is not a virtue but simply a matter of temperament: you either have it or you don't.

    I'm not really sure I regard the Einstein case as involving an appealing quality, except in the purely incidental way that it would have appealing effects (e.g., making him easier to work with).

  10. [Thanks for commenting, Julia! If you have the time, I'd also be very interested to hear more about how you understand your project, as discussed in a previous post.]

    Hmm, I'm not so sure [as Brandon] that cultivating ignorance is necessarily vicious (it would seem to depend on one's motivations).

    More generally, it seems to me that [factual] ignorance lacks intrinsic moral valence, though in certain circumstances it may reveal something morally relevant about the agent's character. For example, racially discriminatory beliefs are not intrinsically vicious (we can imagine a person given sufficient misleading evidence as to come to such beliefs quite innocently). It is just that, in practice, such grossly inaccurate beliefs are typically a product of implicit malice -- i.e. motivated ignorance -- and it is these underlying motivations, rather than the surface ignorance, that ground our moral criticism of garden-variety racists.

    Similarly, I think, in the Einstein case. Einstein's misjudgment may be a result of motivated ignorance, in which case we can assess the underlying motivations. For example, if Einstein's ignorance was partly caused by his standing disposition to see the best in others, and not to inflate his own importance, etc., then it does indeed reveal something appealing about his character. But what's appealing is his underlying orientation towards the good, and not his ignorance - a mere symptom - per se. If his ignorance stems from a mere cognitive glitch (even a reliable glitch that will systematically produce biased beliefs of this kind), then -- like Brandon -- I don't see anything inherently appealing about this at all.

    P.S. It is compatible with my view that "someone can be morally good, even though not that bright." For someone can internalize moral truths (e.g. about the value and fundamental moral equality of persons), and hence be 'oriented towards the good' in their internal motivations, without being all that bright.

  11. Wizard - interesting cases.

    Do you think it matters whether your friend is genuinely ignorant or merely engaging in a playful pretense? It sounds like this may really just be a case of charming behaviour.

    The Statman case is trickier. One way to bring out the problem is to say that anyone else would rightly acknowledge the person as 'extraordinary', so why is it considered virtuous that he not do so himself? It seems that virtue here requires a kind of asymmetry -- e.g. being harder on oneself than others -- even when there is no moral asymmetry in fact. (Though I don't see any problem with holding this to still be a demand on prima facie salience rather than ultimate belief.) The only available explanation for the asymmetry seems to be a more pragmatic one: since people are typically at higher risk of inflating their own importance, we may consider the contrary, compensating disposition to be a virtue. This may be a case where a priori expected value diverges from an internal orientation/alignment with the good. (Cf. candidates #3 and #5 in my earlier post.)

  12. You're right. On the supposition that my has an accurate idea both of her own attractiveness, and of how little it matters to her value, her behavior is still charming.

    Your response to the Statman case sounds like a defense of Driver's view (modesty is a type of virtuous ignorance) rather than the alternative you originally put forth (modesty is a matter of moral knowledge about the proper perspective in which to view one's achievements). It sounds like your response is that modesty is a kind of ignorance that is virtuous because it prevents a more common and vicious type of ignorance.

  13. Ignorance is a matter of ultimate belief. The agent's ultimate beliefs don't strike me as especially relevant to the case in question. Their modesty instead consists in their initial dispositions to find some things more or less salient.

    As I wrote in the main post: "If you really pressed her on it (say you rig things up so that an innocent person will be hurt unless she gives the correct answer), you might be able to get the modest person to admit - albeit with some hesitation - that she is indeed modest [or unusually virtuous in other respects]. So there's no real ignorance here. But in ordinary situations, the modest person will not consider this autobiographical fact particularly significant or worth dwelling on."

    So I still insist that modesty is a matter of salience, not ignorance. My concession was instead that the right kind of salience here may be partly determined on pragmatic grounds (rather than solely being a matter of aligning with with objectively "proper" perspective) if we accept the asymmetry thesis: that it's virtuous for people to find their own virtue less striking or salient than they find others'.


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