(Cross-posted at the Intellectual Humility blog)
It’s not often that you see a revaluation of values, in which a new virtue is introduced (tolerance?), an old virtue dies (chastity?), a vice becomes a virtue (meekness?), or a virtue becomes a vice. This post is about the fourth kind of transformation. In Homeric Greek culture, and also in the Hellenistic culture of Plato and Aristotle, pride was a virtue. This is not to say that vanity or arrogance were virtues — they weren’t — but appropriate or due or fitting pride was a virtue.
In Aristotle this is especially clear, as for him every virtue is a mean between vices. Pride is thus the virtue of esteeming oneself to the extent one deserves; it falls between arrogance and humility. This version of pride is not like modern self-respect, insofar as in contemporary culture we take it for granted that everyone deserves respect simply in virtue of their humanity. It’s also not honor accorded because of one’s blood, rank, or birth. Pride in Aristotle’s ethics is an appropriate positive valuation of one’s one merits and accomplishments. It thus comes on a sliding scale, depending on the degree of one’s merits and accomplishments. Some people have little pride; some have little to be proud of.
Along comes Christianity. Pride becomes a sin, and humility is elevated to a virtue. Pride is an abomination, while self-abnegation is treasured. Jesus, ostensibly a god, washes the feet of his disciples and allows himself to be crucified like a common criminal. Pride’s star falls so low that it is eventually labeled the only unforgivable sin.
As Nietzsche was fond of pointing out, modern western morality is an incongruous patchwork — a veritable palimpsest — of ancient and christian moralities. For this reason, the modern concept of humility (including modern intellectual humility) is like a burlap sack with a rabid monkey and a hungry cobra sewn inside.
We, who are neither ancient nor christian, have to make something of this chaos. My and my colleagues’ approach in our current work is normatively guided, though we think we can operationalize intellectual humility well enough to test for it empirically. The normativity of our approach has two main aspects. First, we are only willing to call something intellectual humility if it would actually be generally useful in the search for truth. So, for instance, always thinking (or saying, or making as if to say) what others say is not intellectual humility, nor is studiously ignoring what others say. Second, we are willing to call something intellectual humility only if it is admirable. This allows that the person with intellectual humility might not admire or even notice her own intellectual humility, but that at least some of those who do notice it would be right to admire it. Our test of behavioral intellectual humility relies on both of these normative points. More later…