Thursday, April 12, 2007

Humility and Arrogance

I had an interesting discussion last month with a fellow prospective student, trying to figure out the nature of humility. But it may be easier to start with arrogance. The basic definition might be something like thinking that you're better than other people. But this needs finessing. No doubt you are better than many others at various particular things, and it could hardly be blameworthy to recognize this fact. So I take it that arrogance essentially involves some kind of distorted (read: inflated) self-evaluation.

There are two ways this distortion might go. The most obvious is a simple factual over-estimation, i.e. you think you're more talented than you really are. Alternatively, one might distort the normative significance of their particular talents, perhaps thinking that it makes them an intrinsically superior person. (This must be a distortion if we hold that all people are of equal intrinsic value.)

But I think it's broader than this. Couldn't someone be arrogant in particular respects -- e.g. dismissing the ideas of untrained students in their field (to adapt an example from Siris) -- without any presumption of overall superiority? There seems a close link between arrogance and disrespect, and I assume the latter can be 'particular' in this sense.

Turning it around, then, could we say that humility is simply the disposition to treat others with respect (take them seriously, etc.)? One advantage of this over "self-evaluation"-based analyses is that it doesn't risk conflating humility with low self-esteem. Plus, it doesn't require the humble person to avoid self-knowledge (regarding their talents). Any objections?


  1. I can't remember where exactly I read or heard it but the best definition of humility I have come across is "honesty," not having a too high or too low but accurate account and knowledge of oneself in regards to everything else. This obviously will have consequences elsewhere, such as in how one treats others. If, for instance, I don't think myself superior to others then I won't act as such.

    So I do think the self-evaluation approach is the way to go. Obviously there are dangers of evaluating oneself (or others) wrongly; but then that just wouldn't be true humility. Moreover, can't one treat others with respect and still be arrogant, that is, not humble?

  2. I'm not sure... how would the arrogance show through, if not some manner of disrespecting (e.g. dismissing) others?

    My worry about the "honest self-evaluation" approach is that it seems like an expert could accurately judge themselves to be superior to others (in a particular context), and nevertheless still be arrogant in virtue of dismissing others' views out of hand. But perhaps you could respond that this is because they are making the further, inaccurate, judgment that they have nothing to learn from others, and it's this distorted self-evaluation that's the fundamental problem?

  3. Well, it doesn't have to "show through," I don't think, to still be there. Some even might think themselves better because of their respectful treating of others. "How kind I am to these wretched fools! Clearly I am better than they." Or, "If only people knew how kind I am, how much better than others I am, they would give me the praise I deserve." These aren't humble thoughts, in my opinion; and they don't necessarily have to show through, in any outwardly visible manner.

    In regards to your worry, it is surely the case that any person will most likely be superior to others in a particular context. You are a superior student than me. I may be a superior student than another. That's that; but it's not much. It makes me in no meaningful way better than the other individual. I don't acquire more worth as a person because of it. I may disregard what he has to say about being a good student (and instead listen to you) but I should in way no disregard him. The arrogance arises, at least in part (I believe), in thinking that being superior in something makes one superior in being.

  4. Richard,

    I should add that when it's all said and done I do think humility is more than either honest self-evaluation or being respectful. But I tend to think that honest self-evaluation is closer to the "nature of humility" (for reasons already mentioned).

  5. I'm think we're largely in agreement here, but let me try to clarify my concerns.

    Firstly, there seems something pretty disrespectful about thinking of others as "wretched fools". So I think the link between arrogance and disrespect is still there. But I'm not sure which is more fundamental. (Perhaps the disrespect I'm worried about is simply a consequence of the distorted evaluation, and 'arrogance' properly consists in the latter?)

    Your second paragraph is a nice characterization of the "normative distortion" discussed in my original post, i.e. thinking that particular talents make one a superior person. I agree that this seems paradigmatic of arrogance. But I wonder if there might also be other, additional cases. In particular, I thought there might be something "arrogant" about dismissing/disrespecting others within a particular context, even if one is modest overall (and so doesn't conceive of oneself as "superior in being"). This strikes me as a possibility. What do you think?

  6. Richard,

    Yes, it does seem like we are largely in agreement here. (Is there anybody out there that is largely in disagreement? Please chime in!) After some reflection, I cannot honestly be certain which is (if one is) more fundamental, honest self-evaluation or being respectful, since they both seem to be contained in the idea of humility. The realization of one over the other might depend on the person. For myself, I have to deliberately remind myself to take an honest self-evaluation (in some instances) so that I don't treat another in an unjust manner. It might be the opposite for other people.

    I would agree that it would be arrogant to disrespect another or dismiss them as not valuable. But not all (seeming) disrespect is arrogance. Remember that many of the most virtuous and humble persons, generally recognized as such, were also thought by some to be highly arrogant--Socrates and Jesus, for example.

  7. The term 'arrogance' suggests the term 'arrogate', which is to to treat oneself as having a right one does not have; and one can see how this would fit with the account you suggest. Perhaps one really does need the notion of right in order to handle the problem Don suggests.

  8. How is this for a simple definition. X is arrogant iff X has an irrationally inflated self image ( in general or in a specific domain) relative to X's image of others.

    The definition may fail because the image has to be irrationally inflated for the right ( or rather wrong) reasons(1) or irrational in the right way but as a first approximation it seems acceptable.

    (1)- Jones believes in the power of oracles even though he has no evidence for this. He thinks that oracles are always truthful and accurate. Out of pure curiosity and with no inkiling of what the result will be Jones decides to ask the oracle who the wisest person of all is. The oracle says that he is the wisest person of all. While Jones now has an irrationally inflated self image relative to his image of other people I would not say that he is arrogant.

  9. It brings to mind a phrase I heard once, which went something like this: "Arrogance never asks the question, confidence is never afraid of the answer." I've always found that helpful.

  10. I don't think that arrogance has to be a social vice. A man who washes up alone on a deserted island could still be arrogant, say by lying on the beach all day confident that he'll be able to spear a few fish in the evening and then build a fire to cook them over. He also doesn't need to overestimate his ability relative to others. Maybe he really is better than most people at spear fishing and fire building, but that doesn't make him any less arrogant when he's stuck eating berries because he failed at an inherently difficult task.

    I think that Jamin may be right to identify the key to arrogance (or at least to one type of arrogance) as an unwillingness to question yourself. An arrogant person thinks that he has all of the talent that he needs - that his abilities will be enough to get by. He tends not to think about the challenges that he faces, the ways that he could fail, the ways he could improve himself to have a better chance at success, or the help that he could get from others.

    Richard's "arrogance as disrespect" definition seems to capture some cases better than this "arrogant as un-self-questioning" definition, like when someone has an accurate understanding of some task and his abilities at it but acts like a jerk to others who are worse at this task. I'm not sure how (or if) the two definitions fit together. I'm also not sure if it's right to say that all cases of disrespect count as arrogance. For instance, it's possible to disrespect someone who seems superior to you - say, by acting like a jerk to someone who gets on your nerves because he just seems so perfect - and I don't think I'd call that arrogance.

  11. Ah, that's helpful. I would initially have considered the arrogance exemplified in the desert island case to be a simple matter of over-estimating oneself (absolutely, than than relative to others). But now that you mention it, Jamin's "unwillingness to question" idea may get closer to the heart of it. (Though this seems to be another pairing that's hard to separate.)

    But now I wonder... what is there in common between the desert island and the disrespectful jerk cases that leads us to classify both as involving "arrogance"?

  12. [Um, "than than" should read "rather than".]

  13. Interesting examples, Blar. Richard's question (what is there in common between the desert island and the disrespectful jerk cases that leads us to classify both as involving "arrogance"?) causes me to think that arrogance need not be always be explicit. It could lie at the background. Take the previous example of treating others disrespectfully. This could be a consequence of one's being arrogant.

    The same may be the case for the desert island scenario. A man may delay certain tasks on a desert island due to sheer laziness, and not to arrogance. Or it may be that he has a certain "I'm the man" attitude, which is due to arrogance. It also seems arrogant to claim to know with certainty what one will be able to do in the future (when one can't possible know that). The humble person will either say, "I believe I can do this" or, "I am not sure, so I will prepare as best I can."

  14. Hi Richard,

    I find myself attracted to a behavior-based model of humility as well. But how do you distinguish between genuine and false humility in a behaviorist account?

    I am particularly sympathetic to Aquinas's view: humility is the disposition to refrain from setting goals which are beyond one's capacity to achieve. This is set against the virtue of magnanimity, or the disposition to set goals which fully employ one's abilities.

    This requires that we know the extent of our capacities (as well as the difficulty of our projects), not having too high or too low a view of them.

  15. Where do you stop..? where do we stop? Theres a line between humility and arrogance. There also a line between being positive and overly positive (that can quite result to pride or things such as) there's a line of being kind and superbly kind (just to say where humble enough in our actions - is not understanding not being humble?) Where is the line in the middle where in we should step upon?

  16. It's been ubiquitous in my readings that humility is accurate self-evaluation, like many of you have already stated. I think this understanding is functional: if you truly discern the weaknesses that temper your strengths, you will realize that though you may try harder, achieve more, or simply hold greater dispositions in some fields, the net person you are at the end of the day can't be compared to even one other person. To call a person superior as a whole is a superficial generalization that disregards the background and opportunities of the one in comparison. Also, in trying to sharpen one's intuition (the illogical sense of truth), I think you might find that true humility is simply being a conduit to those around you--to serve them as a non-assertive onlooker.


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