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The Table Video

Jason Baehr

The Scope of Humility

Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University
June 2, 2017

Many philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have embraced the idea that humility is comprised largely of a certain self-orientation. Some have held that to be humble is to possess a certain orientation toward one’s limitations and weaknesses, e.g., to be aware of and willing to “own” one’s limitations and weaknesses. Others have viewed the scope of humility in broader terms, e.g., as including a “right view” of one’s weaknesses and strengths. In this paper, I argue for the narrower conception of the scope of humility. The discussion sheds light on the fundamental structure and demands of humility. It also has certain practical and quasi-practical implications, which I discuss toward the end of the paper.


What better way to begin a conference on humility than with the Oxford English Dictionary definition, which says, or defines humility, in terms of “having a lowly opinion of oneself; “meekness, lowliness, humbleness.” This definition fits nicely with the call to humility issued by the 14th century English mystic, Walter Hilton. Hilton comments, “Thou shalt deem and hold thyself “more vile and more wretched “than any one creature that liveth, “insomuch that thou shalt hardly be able “to brook and endure thyself, “for the greatness and number of thy sins “and the filth which thou shall feel in thyself.” [laughter]

Well, for those of us who regard humility as a healthy and admirable trait, this characterization of it leaves something to be desired. It suggests that the humble among us are likely to be self-deprecating, have low self-esteem, even be revolted by their own moral status. That said, the definition does seem to get one thing right, namely that humility centrally involves a certain self-orientation. According to a long tradition of philosophical and theological thinking about humility, the humble person does not think too highly of herself. Rather, she possesses an honest and sober view of her limitations and defects.

Thomas Aquinas, for instance, remarks that, quote, “it belongs properly to humility that a man restrain himself “from being borne towards that which is above him. “For this purpose, he must know his disproportion “to that which surpasses his capacity. “Hence, knowledge of one’s deficiency belongs to humility “as a rule guiding the appetite.” To say that humility involves a form of self-knowledge is not to suggest that humble persons are especially self-focused. On the contrary, being free to admit their limitations and failures, they are in fact poised to look beyond themselves in ways that self-focused and self-involved persons are not.

While this conception of humility has a long and distinguished history, other thinkers have sought to broaden the scope of humility, contending that it includes not only a right or reasonable view of one’s weaknesses and limitations, but also of one’s strengths and abilities. Jeanine Grenberg, for example, describes humility as, quote, “a meta-attitude which constitutes “the agent’s proper perspective on herself “as a dependent and corrupt but also “capable and dignified rational agent.” Similarly, Ian Church says that intellectual humility can be understood as, quote, “the appropriate attention to and ownership of “intellectual limitations and intellectual strengths.”

We’ll call the first view, according to which humility involves an orientation towards one’s limitations and weaknesses, the narrow view of humility, and the second view, according to which it also involves an orientation towards one’s strengths and abilities, the wide view. My aim in this paper is to consider the comparative merits of these two ways of thinking about humility. Specifically, I’ll be arguing that the narrow view is to be preferred. Now I should say that I’m only interested in the relative merits of these two views here.

So there are other ways of thinking about broadening humility that I’m not speaking in favor of or against in this paper. While adopting a somewhat restricted focus, my hope is that the discussion will shed some worthwhile light on the deep structure of humility and on its relationship to other morally significant qualities, such as servility, arrogance, and proper pride. Before proceeding, it’s worth noting briefly that the difference between the narrow and wide views of humility is not without consequence. Suppose, for instance, that one is a psychologist interested in developing a valid measure of humility.

And I know that there are a number of you in the room who have been in this position or are in this position. It will make no small difference in this context. For example, in devising or assessing potential scale items, whether one is thinking of humility as demanding a certain attitude towards one’s limitations and weaknesses only, or also as demanding a certain awareness of or responsiveness to one’s abilities and strengths.

Alternatively, suppose one is interested in trying to become more humble oneself, or that one is attempting to help others, maybe one’s children, students, or parishioners, make progress in this virtue. Here as well, it is likely to matter in terms of the sorts of things one focuses on, or the activities one undertakes, whether humility is conceived of in narrower or broader terms. These reasons for caring about the distinction are in addition to a purely theoretical one.

Humility, properly conceived, is a deep and admirable personal excellence. On this basis alone, a proper understanding of its essential or defining features will seem to many like a worthy pursuit. So the question and issue, I hope, is not strictly scholastic or technical. Okay. My first argument in support of the narrow view is that the wide view confuses a supposed dimension of humility with a complementary but distinct virtue.

In approach of this argument, it will be helpful first to consider the following principle, which applies generally to virtue, theoretic attempts to specify the defining character of individual virtue. So I’m gonna put in a formal way a principle that I think a lot of virtue theorists sometimes fail to attend to, to the detriment of their own theories. So here’s the principle. If, when considering a given activity A, excuse me, if, when considering whether a given activity A is a defining feature of some particular virtue V, we find that A is already a defining feature of some other virtue W, a virtue that’s distinct from V, then we should resist identifying A as a defining feature of V. So if we’re trying to figure out whether strengths-owning is a defining feature of humility, and we realize that, oh, strengths-owning is already a defining feature of some other virtue that’s different from humility, that should be a reason not to think of strengths-owning as definitive of humility.

Here’s another example. Suppose that someone defines curiosity, understood as an intellectual virtue, as a disposition to wonder, ask questions, and consider issues from multiple perspectives. This definition might elicit the following response. While curiosity does involve wondering and asking questions, the claim that it is also a matter of considering multiple perspectives packs too much into the concept. For considering multiple perspectives is the work of another related but distinct virtue, namely open-mindedness. While curious people might tend to be open-minded, we shouldn’t run these two virtues together. Wondering and asking questions is the business of curiosity, considering multiple perspectives is the business of open-mindedness. My contention, then, is that the wide view commits a similar error.

For a proper orientation toward one’s strengths and abilities is already the business of a virtue other than humility. Specifically, proper pride. Proper pride is widely regarded as involving an appropriate awareness and willingness to own one’s strengths, abilities, achievements, and the like. To illustrate, suppose an extremely capable student of mine comes to me expressing her doubt about her ability to do graduate-level work in philosophy. In response I’m likely to say something like the following. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re more than prepared to excel in a graduate program.

In fact, I think it’s time that you begin to acknowledge and own the remarkable abilities you’ve demonstrated throughout your undergraduate career. You ought to be proud of how capable you are and of how much you’ve accomplished. It would seem, then, that the wide view is guilty of trying to shoehorn a proper responsiveness to or ownership of one’s abilities and strengths into its conception of humility, thereby conflating this virtue with the distinct but no less important virtue of proper pride. I’ll return to this issue later in the paper. A second argument builds on the first. It is aimed at showing that the wide view has manifestly implausible implications when applied to particular cases.

If the wide view is correct, then when my capable but wavering student comes to me and registers her self-doubt, it should make sense for me to respond by saying something like, you’re being too hard on yourself, you should try to be a little more humble and start owning your strengths. For on the wide view, strengths-owning is a quality that a person needs a sufficient amount of in order to hit the mean or possess the virtue of humility. My student is clearly deficient in this quality. She fails to see or appreciate her strengths. Therefore, it follows from the wide view that she needs to become more humble.

However, this seems like exactly the wrong diagnosis. There would not appear to be any quality or quantity characteristic of humility in terms of which the student is deficient. Rather, her shortcoming is that she is excessively humble. The narrow view makes perfect sense of this. The student is ascribing limitations or weaknesses to herself that she doesn’t possess. She’s over-ascribing limitations to herself. Therefore, on the narrow view, she is being servile, not humble. To get a better sense of the problem, note that on the wide view humility exists along two primary dimensions, limitations-owning and strengths-owning.

A virtuously humble person on the wide view hits the mean between excess and deficiency along both of these dimensions. My student, while excessive in limitations-owning, is deficient in strengths-owning. Therefore, along one of the two main dimensions of humility, she needs to become more humble. But again, from an intuitive standpoint, there does not appear to be any sense in which her humility needs to increase. It’s excessive, period. What she needs is proper pride. Another way to come at this point is to compare the following two people, each of whom exhibits both a character strength and deficiency of one sort or another. They’re mirror opposites of each other.

So imagine Person A, this is like my student, who has an accurate view of and owns her limitations. She’s competent, reliable at doing that. But she struggles to see or appreciate her strengths. Compare Person A with Person B, who has an accurate view of and owns her strengths, no problem there, but struggles to appreciate or take responsibility for her limitations. See the difference. If the wide view is right, Person A and B are equally, if imperfectly, humble. Person A hits the mean along the limitations-owning but not the strengths-owning dimension of humility, whereas Person B hits the mean along the strengths-owning dimension but not the limitations-owning dimension.

However, I’ll submit that these people are not equally humble. Surely Person A, who has an accurate view of and owns her limitations, exhibits greater humility than Person B, who consistently fails to see and own her limitations. My third and fourth arguments take the form of error theories. They identify and then defuse some prospective, potentially appealing, motivations for embracing the wide view. The first begins with a familiar fact about character virtues, namely that one such virtue is often complemented by or balanced out by another. Courage is balanced by caution. Justice is tempered by mercy. Open-mindedness is constrained by intellectual perseverance or steadfastness. Some philosophers have held the stronger view that complementary virtues are unified. In the strong sense, that it is impossible to possess one virtue without possessing the other virtue. Note, all of this is perfectly consistent with complementary or unified virtues being conceptually distinct from each other.

It does nothing to suggest that we should define one such virtue in terms of the characteristic features of another. For example, that we should then define courage in terms of caution, or vice versa. Indeed, doing so would erase any meaningful distinction between the two virtues in question. My suggestion is that a failure to appreciate this point can make the wide view seem more plausible than it is. Here’s why.

The idea that humility is at least partly comprised of a disposition to own one’s limitations is plausible. Likewise for the idea that proper pride is at least partly a matter of appropriate strengths-owning. Moreover, it’s reasonable to think that appropriate limitations-owning is bound up with, it’s importantly related to appropriate strengths-owning, such that, for instance, if I am good at assessing and owning my strengths, I’ll be less likely to attribute to myself weaknesses that I don’t really possess, and if I reliably own my weaknesses and limitations, I’ll be more likely to make a proper estimation of my strengths. In light of this, it can be tempting to think that humility is a matter not just of appropriate limitations-owning, but also of appropriate strengths-owning.

But this again, or excuse me. But again, such would be a mistake in inference. While humility and proper pride complement and fortify each other, this does not warrant defining one in terms of the other or incorporating appropriate strengths-owning into the concept of humility. Another perhaps tempting but ultimately mistaken reason for accepting the wide view begins with conceptions of humility which, like the Oxford English Dictionary definition, skew negative, portraying humility as involving an overemphasis or exaggeration of one’s weaknesses or limitations. Again, at least traditionally, such conceptions of humility are far from uncommon. For someone who thinks of humility as a genuine virtue, a natural response to such views is to hold that humility requires an accurate, versus a skewed or overly negative, view of oneself.

In fact, in the philosophical, psychological, and theological literature on humility, accurate self-assessment is often identified as one of its central features, and apparently for something like this reason. June Tangney, who’s here, for instance, identifies as a key element of humility an, quote, “accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements, “not low self-esteem or self-deprecation.” Accordingly, someone might move from that observation to make the following argument. Someone might say, humility involves accurate self-assessment. A person’s self includes her limitations and weaknesses but also her abilities and strengths. Therefore, humility involves an accurate assessment of one’s abilities and strengths.

This way of thinking about humility averts the problems faced by objectionably negative accounts of humility, like the OED account. However, it also inherits the problem with the wide view identified above. Therefore, prior to accepting this view, we would do well to consider whether there might be a different way of building an accuracy requirement into one’s account of humility, a requirement that would make humility inconsistent with self-denigration and so forth, but without requiring an accurate assessment of abilities and strengths. The narrow view, suitably formulated, does precisely this.

In its most general form, this view identifies humility with an appropriate awareness of and responsiveness to one’s limitations and weaknesses. One natural way of fleshing out what it is for such an awareness to be appropriate is precisely in terms of accuracy. Indeed, according to one prominent conception, humility centrally involves having an accurate view of one’s limitations. Nancy Snow, for instance, argues as follows. “Humility can be defined as the disposition “to allow the awareness of and concern about “your limitations to have a realistic influence “on your attitudes and behavior. “At the heart of this realism is a perspective “gained through accurate appraisal of your limitations “and their implications for your circumstances, “attitudes and behavior.”

Similarly, Norvin Richards identifies humility with, quote, “having an accurate sense of oneself, “sufficiently firm to resist pressure “toward incorrect revisions,” adding that, “here the pressures are to think too much of oneself.” So the humble person, for him, resists thinking too much of himself and instead has an accurate perspective on his limitations. My claim, then, is that a possible motivation for embracing the wide view involves a kind of overcorrection.

In an attempt to avoid thinking of humility in servile or self-abasing terms, one might be led to conclude that humility requires having an accurate view of one’s limitations and strengths. However, as we have seen, the inclusion of strengths within the accurate perspective characteristic of humility is problematic and unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the narrow view already provides a way of escaping both the worry about servility and the difficulties that plague the wide view.

Okay, objections and replies. We’ve considered several reasons for, or really it could just as well be called, whoops, okay. Could just as well be called, well, I fell behind like I thought I would. It could just as well be called a counterargument. So we’ve considered several reasons for embracing the narrow view of humility over the wide view. We have also sought to explain away at least some of the initial motivation for the wide view. How, then, might a defender of the wide view respond? One short and sweet objection to the narrow view might go as follows. Overestimating or exaggerating one’s strengths or abilities can indicate a lack of humility.

Okay, think about that. Overestimating or exaggerating strengths or abilities can indicate a lack or absence of humility. Therefore, humility itself must range, not merely over limitations and weaknesses, but also over strengths and abilities, and therefore the wide view must be correct. I agree with the main premise of this argument, but deny that it favors the wide view over the narrow view. How, though, could the fact that a person can fail to be humble on account of overestimating or exaggerating her strengths and abilities be consistent with the narrow view. The answer is straightforward.

When a person overestimates or exaggerates her abilities, she thereby fails to acknowledge certain of her limitations, namely the limitations of her abilities. Limitations pervade our existence. We are limited morally, intellectually, physically, metaphysically, spiritually, and otherwise. Even our strengths and abilities are limited. Humility, according to the narrow view, is the virtue that equips us to be properly attentive to and accepting of these limitations. As such, it involves noting and owning even the limitations of our abilities. The humble athlete, for instance, while perhaps recognizing her extraordinary ability on the field, also recognizes that her physical or athletic dominance does not entail her moral superiority, and so does not view herself as better or more important than her peers or fans in any moral sense. There is, then, a limited respect in which, according to the narrow view, the scope of humility extends to our abilities.

It extends to our abilities as limited. Thus, the fact that an overestimation of abilities can indicate a failure of humility does not lend any special support to the wide view. A similar defense of the wide view might go as follows. Arrogance is a deficiency of humility. Nobody would disagree with that. Exaggerating one’s abilities can as such, not merely as a failure of limitations-owning, exaggerating one’s abilities can as such be an expression of arrogance. Therefore, humility requires, as such, not exaggerating one’s abilities. Even if this argument is cogent, note that it doesn’t quite support the wide view.

The wide view stipulates that humility requires a positive awareness of one’s abilities, and one that’s accurate. If successful, the present argument shows that not exaggerating one’s abilities is a requirement of humility. The problem is, one can avoid having an exaggerated or inflated view of one’s abilities, absent a positive awareness of them. For instance, by simply not paying attention to or forming beliefs about one’s abilities in the first place.

But I think there’s a deeper problem with the argument. Recall that while arrogance is a deficiency of humility, it is also an excess of proper pride. The following diagram illustrates the relationship between pride, humility, arrogance, and servility. So on the top you have proper pride, which I’m suggesting covers strengths, and if you’re deficient in proper pride, you’re servile. On the other hand, if you’re excessive in proper pride, then you’re arrogant. Bottom half of the diagram, we have humility as concerned with limitations. If you’re excessively humble, then you’re servile, and if you’re deficiently humble, then you are arrogant. So what you have is two different virtues that terminate in a common pair of vices.

As the diagram makes clear, to explain the fact that exaggerating one’s abilities can, as such, be an expression of arrogance, we need not view such exaggeration as manifesting a deficiency of humility. Because not all forms of arrogance need to be understood as failures of humility, at least if this diagram is right. For the fact that exaggerating one’s abilities can manifest arrogance is fully explainable in terms of the fact that arrogance is also an excess of proper pride, where proper pride concerns abilities and humility concerns limitations. Okay. We turn now to a final and alternative way of trying to motivate the wide view. On one venerable and reasonably intuitive way of thinking about humility, it is a matter of occupying one’s proper place within the broader order of things.

This way of thinking about humility has enjoyed special resonance within the Jewish, Christian, theological, and intellectual traditions, with God at the top of the order of things and human beings somewhere down below, albeit not as far below as certain other creatures. Aquinas, for instance, says that humility, quote, “consists in keeping oneself within one’s bounds.” This conception of humility can be thought of as lending support to the wide view, provided that keeping oneself within one’s bounds involves acknowledging, say, that relative to certain points or locations within the broader order of things, one is limited and occupies a low position, while relative to other points or locations, one is capable and occupies a high position. I’m less exalted than the angels, but possess greater dignity than the lowly worm. It is doubtful, however, that many of the thinkers who have conceived of humility as a matter of occupying our proper place in the order of things have had in mind not merely a tendency to think too much of ourselves, but also a tendency to think too little of ourselves.

This is especially so within the Christian tradition, where humanity’s struggle with pride and a tendency to usurp God’s position are front and center in the dominant theological narrative. This suggests that the proper place account of humility does not really favor the wide view. On a more plausible interpretation of this account, humility is a matter of occupying one’s proper place in the broader order of things in the sense that it involves not attempting to occupy a higher place within this order than is fitting for one. In short, it’s a matter of keeping an eye on and resisting the impulse to transcend our limitations. Indeed, when Aquinas describes humility as keeping oneself within one’s bounds, he immediately qualifies this by saying that it involves not reaching out to things above.

He doesn’t say that it requires recognizing just how capable one is. None of this is to deny, of course, that it is a good thing for humans also to be mindful of their strengths. It’s important for us to own our dignity and to appreciate the fact that we are not relegated to the bottom rung of the metaphysical ladder. This mistake, the mistake is to think of such activity as definitive or expressive of humility rather than of some other virtue like proper pride. Plenty of other virtues to pick from, we don’t need to attribute this important quality or practice to humility. In keeping with this, we can imagine a person who fails to occupy his place within the broader order of things by regularly demoting himself.

That is, by thinking of himself as more limited and less capable than he really is. If humility is partly a matter of attending to and owning one’s strengths, if strengths-owning is one quantity of which the possession of humility requires having enough of but not too much, then it should make sense to say to this person, you need to become more humble, you need to own your strengths.

But again, this seems like precisely the wrong advice. What we should say to him is something like, you’re excessively humble, recognize, own, and be proud of your abilities. Nor is the problem merely with what it would be appropriate or inappropriate to say to such a person. Again, it seems wrong to think that this person is, in any interesting respect, deficient in humility, as a matter of fact, not just a matter of what it would be appropriate to say. To be sure, he is servile, and so lacks proper or virtuous humility, but this is very different from claiming that there is an aspect or ingredient of humility, a proper appreciation of one’s strengths, that he doesn’t have enough of.

But this, again, is precisely what the wide view of humility requires us to claim. We’ve considered and found wanting three arguments for accepting the wide view, together with a positive argument in support of the narrow view. The evident conclusion is that, while humility centrally involves a certain kind of self-knowledge or self-orientation, the scope of this orientation is restricted. It pertains to the humble agent’s limitations and weaknesses, not to her abilities and strengths. Thank you.