Reflections on Six Reflections on Radical Humility
Christian B. Miller
I am grateful for the chance to briefly reflect on these six rich essays, each of which engages with writings in the collection, Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts. As a philosopher reading these essays, I was especially interested in how the authors understand humility. And what struck me was how much agreement there seems to be. In what follows, I want to highlight four threads that seem to run through the essays, while being very clear that these are general observations and some authors may not accept all of them.
Problematic Conceptions of Humility
There are a variety of different ways of understanding humility, and some are seriously problematic and should be rejected if this is meant to be a character trait worth promoting. This includes seeing humility as involving a low valuing of oneself (Montgomery), as linked to weakness (Montgomery), as subservient and obedient (Valencia), and as knowing nothing (Ogunfemi), which can in turn lead to complacency, control, and oppression (Valencia).
Humility Is Partly Cognitive
In the philosophical literature on humility, and closely related traits like modesty, it is fair to say that much of the focus has been on how one cognitively thinks about oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s standing with respect to others. This emphasis shows up in these essays as well, such as with the idea that we all know something (Ogunfemi).
Humility Gives Rise of Positive Actions which are Other-Focused
While humility might be partially a matter of how we think about ourselves, these essays also stress that humility manifests in behavior as well. Not just any kind of behavior but behavior that is other-oriented or altruistic (Shipley), including humbly serving people (Shaw, Montgomery, Shipley). Such behavior can have good effects, like renewal, reconnection, and restoration (Van Wieren) and increase self-worth and belongingness (Shipley).
Humility Tends to Cluster with Other Virtues
Almost no one today accepts Aristotle’s doctrine of the unity of the virtues, whereby to have one of the virtues you need to have all of them. More plausible, though, is to say that certain virtues tend to cluster together, such that when you find one you tend to find others in the cluster. This clustering is clearly on display in these essays. We find mention of being open-minded towards those who disagree with us (Shaw), bravery and strength (Montgomery), generosity (Ogunfemi, Shipley, Valencia), making together and mutual dependence (Ogunfemi, Shipley, Valencia), love (Shipley), empathy and kindness (Shipley), and humaneness (Shipley).
By way of conclusion, I want to note that, as someone who has worked on character and virtue for twenty years now, I find all four of these threads to be compelling. Problematic forms of humility should be set aside, humility does involve how we think about ourselves and manifests in our outward behavior, and humility is closely connected with other virtues like compassion and generosity. These authors are to be commended for painting a picture of the virtue of humility that is worth celebrating and trying to promote in ourselves and others.