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Until very recently, modern virtue ethics in the secular tradition was largely indifferent or even hostile to the character disposition of humility. The term for many denotes low self-regard or meekness, and it is hard to see what is beneficial to oneself or society as a whole in a tendency to dismiss whatever strengths one does have, especially if this is coupled with permissiveness towards contemptuous treatment at the hands of others. Of course, that such a quality is desirable may follow from theological assumptions about the existence of an omnipotent Creator and a hidden meaning in one's mortal existence. But without this sort of ground, humility thus understood seems at best a saving grace of the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.
A number of promising new attempts to give a more positive and central role to humility as a secular virtue reinterpret it as a quality of making accurate self-assessments, often with special emphasis on non-overestimation (as opposed to underestimation) of one's merits.(1) So regarded, humility becomes an excellence of character within anyone's reach but one that is especially fitting to the most accomplished and admired persons, in that they have the greatest temptation (wrongly) to think themselves superior to most because of their undeniable special personal gifts or distinctions. The way these proposals support the claim that it is proper not to overemphasize one's merits is by endorsing some explicit or implicit moral principle of basic equality of worth among persons.(2) This may be based on the universality of moral reason in a Kantian sense (Statman), on the most basic, shared features of lived experience (Ben Ze'ev), or is apparently simply given as an implicit axiom (Richards, Taylor). In whatever specific ways someone excels, if she grasps that her accomplishment makes no fundamental difference to her moral worth as a human being, then she will be right in not thinking that her assets warrant "putting on airs" or claiming different fundamental rights or status from that held by the many. The feature of nonoverestimation of one's merits is an aspect of the reconception of humility that makes it at least suggestive of the self-effacement more traditionally associated with the trait.(3)
The difficulty with this revised definition of the general notion of humility is that in one substitution instance it suggests a paradox. In the case of most kinds of achievements-running, painting, amassing a fortune, etc., it makes sense. But consider a special kind of achievement, moral achievement itself. Moral ability and attainment is certainly an admirable quality that admits of wide variation among individuals. Those people who accurately regard themselves to have exceptionally high moral concern and competence will now have to be acknowledged as a subclass of the humble. Perhaps, for example, they are people who show an outstanding level of adherence to the principle that all people have equal moral worth. Whatever form or forms their exceptional moral development takes, such people of humility, in accordance with the new conception of humility, will strongly affirm the equal moral worth of all, in spite of, indeed especially, knowing themselves morally superior to most. Yet it would seem there is some sense in which people who know they are morally superior cannot also believe that they are everyone else's moral equal. Conversely, it is difficult to see how people who are "humble" (even on the revised conception) could believe, even rightly, that they are morally superior.
This potential paradox is schematically demonstrated as follows. Consider the subject S, who excels in all the virtues (including, ex hypothesi, humility) and knows it. Let M stand for the moral principle that all people have equal moral worth, regardless of their special abilities and distinctions, which vary markedly among individuals. Now for S as for …