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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Self-Perception and Humility: The Importance of an Accurate Self-Image

Robert C. Roberts

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
September 28, 2017

Hendrika accused her sister Silvia of a horrible domestic crime. Her evidence for the accusation was extremely weak, and some of the more insightful family members suspected that behind it was Hendrika’s envy of Silvia’s success as a performer. When they were younger, they were a musical duo and performed a bit around town, but then they went their separate ways and Silvia became a world-famous performer, while Hendrika never rose above a certain local renown. She made a decent living performing around town and giving music lessons. Silvia was extremely distressed by the accusation, and she begged Hendrika to help her understand its basis, but Hendrika said it was too painful to discuss. Nevertheless she continued to spread rumors about Silvia’s supposed delinquency, to the point of seriously tarnishing Silvia’s reputation. Seeing that she needed to rescue her reputation, and having by now the resources to hire a lawyer, Silvia sued Hendrika for libel, hoping that a short court case would bring the facts to light. But Hendrika dug in her heels and counter-sued Silvia for the horrible domestic crime. As family members suspected, the result of a drawn-out and expensive court case exposed the weakness of Hendrika’s case, and Silvia was declared innocent and awarded compensation for the affront to her reputation. But Hendrika never ceased to believe in Silvia’s guilt.

Saving Face

Psychologists who are interested in “measuring” humility use testing instruments to probe for marks of the trait. Marks are observable qualities that indicate the presence of humility—either because humility always exhibits the mark, or because the mark is typical for humility. Some of the marks that psychologists have used to investigate humility are accurate self-perception, other-orientation, openness, low self-focus, and modest self-presentation.

Accurate self-perception doesn’t guarantee humility. It’s not the same thing as humility, though we sometimes mistake the one for the other.

In our parable, the deeper Hendrika gets in her tug-of-war with Sylvia, the more “face” she has to lose if she admits being wrong. She seems to be in deep darkness about some things connected with herself. She has locked herself in a room of her own pride so dark that she can’t find her way out. And the lock is made of her own will: she doesn’t want to see what’s on the outside. She thinks she knows (wants it to be so) that Silvia committed the crime, but she doesn’t know that. She thought her evidence was strong enough (wanted it to be strong enough) to win the court case, contrary to what seemed immediately obvious to family members and to the judge after careful examination. She feels that she is the righteous one (wants to be the righteous one) in the scenario, but it seems obvious that she is guilty of libel. If accurate self-perception is a mark of humility, Hendrika seems to be short of humility.


Accurate Self-Perception

Accurate self-perception doesn’t guarantee humility. It’s not the same thing as humility, though we sometimes mistake the one for the other. Here’s an example. An athlete might realize that if she wants to dominate in Olympic skating competitions, she needs to be ruthlessly critical in evaluating her skating. To this end she decides to listen attentively and as objectively as possible to the coach’s criticisms, and to “swallow” any tendencies she may have to justify herself when he criticizes her, or deny the truth of his criticisms. We might also imagine that this strategy generalizes to other competitive areas of her life. She trains herself according to the rule, if you want to win, you’d better self-evaluate rigorously. Let us imagine that this athlete succeeds in evaluating herself accurately and, partly for this reason, becomes a very prominent skater, one of the very best. Is she therefore humble? Not with any certainty. We can easily imagine that she looks with contempt on less talented and less disciplined skaters, especially the ones that are closer to her skill-level, and brags and emotionally triumphs over lesser athletes, taking pleasure in their mistakes and moments of clumsiness. And let’s say she is arrogant. She takes her superiority as a skater as a justification for arrogating special privileges; she feels entitled to boss other skaters around disrespectfully. Seeing this, we see what was behind (or what came around behind) her intense ambition as an athlete. So it seems clear that a person might evaluate herself accurately without being humble. In fact, our skater undertook the discipline of accepting criticism and evaluating herself ruthlessly as a way of feeding some of her hungry vices of pride.

Fertile Soil for Humility

So: shall we say that accurate self-perception isn’t a mark of humility? This is not the right conclusion, I think, and I offer two considerations, which we can illustrate from our two examples. Looking at our skater, I said that when the coach criticized her, she had to “swallow” her tendency to justify herself or reject his corrections. She had to swallow it because the criticisms hurt her pride. But she knew that submitting was in her long-term interest, so she acted humble even though her spirit rebelled. And she learned the skills she needed to be a great skater. But we can see that someone whose pride wasn’t hurt by the coach’s corrections would have been in an even better position to profit from them. To such a person it would have come even more naturally to listen to the coach; she’d have had fewer obstacles to learning, in particular the obstacles presented by her vices of pride. This is why, though accurate self-perception doesn’t guarantee the presence of humility, it has a statistical tendency to make its presence more probable.

Envy perceives the other as a rival and the object of the rivalry as self-worth or importance as persons.

The second reason to accept that accurate self-perception indicates humility is that there is a kind of self-perception whose accuracy guarantees humility because it is essential to humility. Hendrika accused Sylvia out of envy, and then, when things went badly for the accusation, wouldn’t back down despite its costing her thousands of dollars, because she couldn’t stand to lose face. What sort of self-perception is hiding under these compulsions? Envy perceives the other as a rival and the object of the rivalry as self-worth or importance as persons. The envious one perceives himself as lacking in worth or importance because of the rival’s success or excellence. So Hendrika wants to bring Sylvia down a notch, off the pedestal that Hendrika’s envy has set her on. But this is a fundamental perceptual distortion: human worth doesn’t depend on comparisons in this way. Hendrika should be rejoicing in her sister’s success and excellence, not feeling herself diminished by it. So humility implies accurate self-perception in the sense that it rules out the deeply inaccurate self-perception characteristic of the vices of pride.

We can make the same point about Hendrika’s digging in her heels when the weakness of her argument becomes apparent. What is face, such that it seems a matter of life and death not to lose it? Your physical face is what other people see, and of the many parts of your body, the face is the center of others’ perception of your personhood. Unless we are blind, when we remember a person, what we are likely to remember most in connection with the essence of the person is his or her face. So face serves as a natural metaphor for how we are perceived by others. Each of us has a conception of our own “face” in this metaphorical sense—of how we are seen, in our personal essence, by others. And our conception varies among the people who know us: if we know or believe that a particular person knows something shameful about us, we are uneasy in our interactions with him or her, in a way that we are not with people who aren’t privy to that shameful fact about us. It’s because our metaphorical face has been spoiled with that person. It would have been embarrassing, and properly so, for Hendrika to admit that her accusation had been baseless; something in the neighborhood of vanity, or fear of Sylvia’s invidious public triumph over her, prevented her from coming clean, and from seeing the truth about herself. If she had seen and admitted the truth about herself, especially in this context in which embarrassment was the price of truthfulness, this accurate self-perception would have been a mark of humility.