Volume 23, Issue 2, Fall 2009
What Is Modesty?
This paper examines the virtue of modesty and provides an account of what it means to be modest. A good account should not only delimit the proper application of the concept, but should also capture why it is that we think that modesty is a virtue. Recent work has yielded several interesting, but flawed, accounts of modesty. Julia Driver has argued that it consists in underestimating one’s self-worth, while Owen Flanagan has argued that modesty must entail an accurate—as opposed to underestimated or inflated—conception of one’s self worth. Neither of these accounts provides a satisfactory characterization of modesty as a virtue. Driver leaves us wondering why modesty, understood, at least in part, as misunderstanding one’s merits, should earn the status of virtue, whereas Flanagan’s characterization does not adequately and uniquely pick out the concept of modesty. These criticisms have been presented by G. F. Schueler who goes on to defend the doctrine that modesty is, roughly, the lack of one’s desire for other people to be impressed by one’s accomplishments. My goal is to provide an account of modesty that improves upon those currently before us. My own positive account will draw off of Schueler’s account as well as work done by Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriele Taylor on the moral emotion of shame.