Notes on Humility

This post examines the virtue of humility. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is humility?

Humble people are aware of their fallibility and imperfection, and of the smallness and briefness of their lives, and act accordingly. They avoid flattering themselves, and are less vulnerable to the flattery of others. They know that while they may be particularly special to themselves, the rest of the universe does not have to go along with that assessment. They have the courage to occasionally empathize with the universal, objective point of view in which they are an ephemeral spark doomed to be extinguished into an eternal obscurity.

A humble person does not mistake confidence for accuracy, or the limits of what they know with the limits of what is knowable. Humble people do not become defensive or flustered when they discover they were mistaken, but take this as a matter of course, and adjust course accordingly. They are not so proud of their self image and opinions that they will refuse to trade them for better ones.

Humility is one of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Twelve Virtues of Rationality” — described there in this way:

To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans. Because this world contains many whose grasp of rationality is abysmal, beginning students of rationality win arguments and acquire an exaggerated view of their own abilities. But it is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple. There is no guarantee that adequacy is possible given your hardest effort; therefore spare no thought for whether others are doing worse. If you compare yourself to others you will not see the biases that all humans share. To be human is to make ten thousand errors. No one in this world achieves perfection.

Humility seems at first to conflict with the virtue of pride (or related self-aggrandizing virtues like honor, magnificence, boldness, or ambition). There is disagreement about whether pride even is a virtue; in the Christian tradition it is a vice. Maybe pride is best thought of as being at an Aristotelian golden mean between arrogance and poor self-esteem. You would tell an arrogant person to work on their humility, and an abased person to work on their pride — and these wouldn’t be contradictory, but would be context-appropriate ways of telling two differently-oriented people to aim for the same virtuous mean.

Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification suggests that the opposite of humility is not pride, but narcissism: a defensive obsession with an unrealistically grandiose self image.[1]

Humility is a component of some other virtues, quasi-virtues, and supposed virtues. For example, modesty is in part the proper social expression of humility. If you lack humility to the extent that you cannot acknowledge your own faults, you will also lack the quasi-virtue of shame. Humility can help you to decenter or deemphasize the ego, and can thereby help you with selflessness and empathy. If you don’t think of yourself as the measure of all things, you will be more likely to exhibit submission or obedience when these things are called for. And measuring yourself appropriately infinitesimally in reference to the divine can be a crucial ingredient of piety and awe.

What humility isn’t

“No doubt, when modesty was made a virtue, it was a very advantageous thing for the fools; for everybody is expected to speak of himself as if he were one.” ―Schopenhauer[2]

There are a number of non-virtuous things that sometimes get mistaken for the virtue of humility, such as:

  • false modesty and self-deprecation — insincerely speaking of yourself as being lowlier, worse, less able, etc. than you actually feel yourself to be (sometimes this is a culturally-learned convention of politeness, other times it is more of an unskillful variety of modesty)

  • poor self esteem or feelings of inferiority — sincerely feeling yourself to be lowlier, worse, less able, etc. than you are, and unable to improve or unworthy of being any better

  • obsequiousness — over-willingness to cede to another person’s opinions or agenda

  • sheepishness — a sort of chronic, cringing shame or embarrassment

  • humiliation/​debasedness — behaving in a way that seemingly is intended to demonstrate one’s lack of dignity and self-worth

What is it good for?

“Perfection is impossible without humility. ‘Why should I strive for perfection, if I am already good enough?’ ” ―Tolstoy[3]

Humility is an important ingredient in human thriving in part because it helps you gain a better understanding of what human thriving is. If you in your heart of hearts think of yourself as something of a god or as the crown of creation, you may try to thrive in a way appropriate to such an Olympian instead. If you acknowledge yourself to be the brief bag of bones that you are, your aspirations will better match your true condition.

Humility aids self improvement. A big disadvantage of a lack of humility is in thinking that you’ve already got all the answers: You fail to learn from others (what do they know?), you don’t try harder because you think you’ve already become as good as can be, and you don’t recognize your mistakes and so cannot learn from them. A humble person takes penetrating looks at the weakest points their theories; a proud person gazes fondly at the strongest and most impressive parts and sweeps the flaws under the rug.

A humble person doesn’t embarrass so easily. If they screw up or are mistaken, they shrug and think “well, no surprise I’m not perfect,” and calmly learn from their mistake. Without humility, they might instead get flustered, or make excuses, or deny that anything went wrong in order to defend a faulty self-image.

A humble person knows that common human cognitive biases, foibles, and bad judgement calls aren’t just mistakes that other people make. Humble people seek accurate information about themselves; proud people seek information that confirms their greatness. The paper “Humility: Theology Meets Psychology” by David G. Myers has an amusing run-down of the many ways in which self-flattery gives people a ridiculous view of the world and their place in it.[4] For example: “In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, 0 percent rated themselves below average in ‘ability to get along with others’…”

The name “LessWrong” is a clever reminder to be intellectually humble as you try to improve your thinking. A similar approach might wisely be taken to improve your development in the other virtues: consider being “less bad”, “less dishonest”, or “less lazy” for example.

How can you develop humility?

“Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief — almost momentary — the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role.” ―Marcus Aurelius[5]

How do you bootstrap humility? If you begin by being ridiculously impressed with yourself, you may believe you have already reached the pinnacle of humility. There’s something of a paradox: the more you lack humility, the less you will be conscious of that lack or motivated to do anything about it.

Benjamin Franklin (see below) was astute enough to listen undefensively to a friend who told him that he was thought of as being conceited and overly concerned with winning arguments. The fact that he was able to listen to this criticism and then consider it gracefully and learn from it was key to his deciding to work on becoming more humble (or at least more modest).

Franklin’s experience suggests that confidence and self-esteem, which both make self-criticism less threatening, are important in this bootstrapping process. Grandiosity, braggadocio, and self-obsession seem often to be compensatory reactions to insecurity and poor self worth: You brag about yourself constantly because you’re trying to convince yourself; you don’t believe in yourself so you try to believe in your press releases instead.

People sometimes describe as “humbling” the experience of considering the briefness of human life in relation to the vastness of time, the smallness of the Earth’s thin ecoshell in the vast empty chasm of space, the meagerness of our knowledge in the face of all that remains unknown, and so forth. The poem Ozymandias is a fine meditation on the absurdity of delusions of grandiosity in these contexts.

Sometimes people will deliberately take on lowly tasks (e.g. cleaning latrines) as a way of chastening excessive pride. The Christian practice of washing another person’s feet (e.g. by the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church himself[6]) is an example of this.

Practicing gratitude can be a way of sharing credit with others that lessens the temptation to attribute one’s good fortune to one’s own marvelousness.

Ben Franklin’s experience

Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin launched a personal project of methodical improvement in the virtues. He picked a set of virtues that he thought were particularly important, and concentrated on each one in turn, doing a daily accounting of each virtue he was practicing. He created a notebook with a table for each week. The table had one column for each day of the week, and one row for each of his virtues. Each time he failed to fulfill a particular virtue on a certain day, he marked the table cell for that virtue/​day with “a little black spot” (or more than one if he screwed up multiple times). The plan was that when he achieved a week in which he successfully kept the row for Temperance blank, he would move on to concentrating on Silence (attending to Temperance as well). When he managed to keep both of those rows clear for a week, he would move on to Order, and so on.

“I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” He carried his book around for several years. “[T]ho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been…”

When Franklin first chose his virtues, he apparently bragged about his plan to a friend, for as he says in his autobiography:

My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with other to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

  1. ^

    Christopher Peterson & Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004), chapter 20

  2. ^

    Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life (Essays) chapter Ⅳ, section 2 “Pride”

  3. ^

    Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (1910), January 11

  4. ^

    David G. Myers, “Humility: Theology Meets Psychology” Reformed Review (1995)

  5. ^

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅴ.24

  6. ^

    Devin Watkins “Pope washes inmates’ feet at Mass of Lord’s Supper” Vatican News 18 April 2019