Objection 1 – High Opinion
A first response which might be prompted by the modesty as kindness account is that it allows for the modest agent to have a high opinion of themselves. As long as an agent is disposed to present themselves in a way that is sensitive to the possible negative impact on the well-being of others, and as long as this disposition stems from a concern for that well-being, then the agent can think very highly of their own accomplishments or attributes and still be classed as modest. Consider a variation on the boastful scientist. A proud scientist may share with the boastful scientist the belief that their work is really very impressive indeed. But as long as they are motivated to downplay how they present their impressiveness whenever doing so would harm the well-being of others, the proud (but kind) scientist can be counted as modest. Do we really think that having such a high opinion of yourself is consistent with genuine modesty? I believe that it is, and that this is a matter of wide consensus within the literature on modesty. For example, Driver's underestimation account allows for a modest agent to have an extremely high opinion of their own worth as long as their assessment is slightly less positive than is actually deserved.12 And this is also a feature shared by a large number of the accounts put forward by rivals of Driver.13 Perhaps this is enough to show that it is not widely considered to be the case that having a high opinion of yourself is a barrier to possessing modesty. Some people do have genuinely impressive attributes or accomplishments, and awareness of this should not automatically render the agent immodest. The scientist who uncovers a cure for some significant illness does not lose the potential for modesty upon realising the greatness of their accomplishment. Roger Federer could perfectly well be modest despite correctly believing that he is more talented than almost anyone else who has ever played tennis. In short, an agent can recognise their own high level of accomplishment while still being genuinely modest. MK is no worse off in allowing for this possibility.
Objection 2 – Inaccurate Opinion
When responding to the first objection, I appealed to other accounts of modesty in order to show that MK is in line with the common consensus. In doing so, there was one important difference between MK and some of the other accounts that was obscured. MK allows for the modest agent to have a high opinion of themselves that is not an accurate reflection of their true level of accomplishment or ability. That is, not only can the modest agent evaluate themselves highly, the modest agent can even overestimate their own level of ability. There is no requirement within MK that a modest agent's self-evaluation be accurate. And this may appear to be a more worrying problem for my proposed account. There will be many (in the literature and beyond) who do not believe that a genuinely modest agent can go around overestimating themselves. To make matters worse, it is possible to generate a rival account which avoids this conclusion. All that would be required is to amend MK by adding a requirement that the modest agent have an accurate understanding of their attributes or accomplishments.14 Call the amended version of modesty as kindness which requires accurate self-assessment ‘intellectualised modesty as kindness’ (IMK). It seems clear that this approach will retain many of the benefits that I have claimed are provided by MK. Intellectualised modesty as kindness therefore looks like a strong contender. And if we have the intuition that overestimation of self is incompatible with genuine modesty then we will have every reason to accept IMK and to reject my proposed account. The challenge, then, is to show that genuine modesty is indeed compatible with overestimation and that, therefore, the amendment to MK is not necessary.
In order to meet this challenge, I want to consider two different types of case. First of all (and as with so many other issues), things can be made clearer by imagining a brain-in-a-vat. Such a being will receive all of the same kinds of experience as a normal person, but these experiences will be artificially created for them by scientists. In reality they are just a brain floating in a vat. In such a case, a great many of the beliefs held by the brain will be inaccurate. For example, the brain-in-a-vat may believe themselves to be an exceptionally skilled break-dancer, and their evidence may seem to back-up this self-assessment. But the truth of the matter, of course, is that the brain-in-a-vat is not able to break-dance – they are significantly overestimating their own abilities.15 And yet, it does not seem to be true to say that the brain-in-a-vat is incapable of modesty. It would be overly harsh (as well as incorrect) to inform the brain that not only can it not break-dance, but it could never have been modest about it either. As long as the brain is disposed to present their break-dancing ability in a way that is sensitive to the well-being of others, and the brain is motivated out of a concern for that well-being, then we have every reason to say that the brain is being genuinely modest about what it takes to be its ability to break-dance. Indeed, if it was revealed that we are all in fact brains-in-vats, this fact alone should not lead us to question the modesty of any of those people who were previously accepted as possessing that trait. If this case is convincing (and we believe that the brain could indeed be modest) then we ought to deny the claim that genuine modesty is incompatible with the overestimation of self. The proposed amendment should then be rejected and we ought to prefer MK to IMK.
The second type of case that I want to consider is one where the inaccuracy in the agent's beliefs is much less widespread. Instead we can consider a case where a simple miscalculation or misremembering leads an agent to overestimate their accomplishments. Imagine a restaurateur who believes herself to have played a major role in catering for a party of five hundred people and who is proud of having accomplished this feat. The restaurateur, however, is careful in how and when she advertises her accomplishment. She listens politely when others tell of having catered for three hundred people and does not feel the need to belittle that (lesser) achievement. When colleagues complain of having to deal with (a mere) two hundred customers she holds her tongue and refrains from phrases such as “You think two hundred is bad? I once catered for a party of five hundred!” And when she is pressed for details of the event, she is sure to acknowledge the contribution of others who were working on that fateful day. In short, the restaurateur is disposed to be sensitive to the well-being of others in how she presents her accomplishment, and is motivated by that well-being. The restaurateur is a paragon of modesty. And we should not change our assessment of her even if we find out that she has misremembered and the actual number of customers served was four hundred and fifty, or even four hundred. Her modesty lies in how she was disposed to act based on what she took her level of accomplishment to be, rather than in her accuracy when assessing that accomplishment. An agent can perfectly well be modest about what they take their level of accomplishment or ability to be, even if the true level is somewhat lower. The proposed account of modesty as kindness is no worse off in allowing for this possibility. Therefore, we ought to reject the proposed amendment to MK and resist the move to IMK.
The above cases have hopefully shown that it is possible to possess genuine modesty despite having an inflated view of your own accomplishments or attributes. However, perhaps this is not enough. Even if we now accept that there are some cases where overestimation is compatible with genuine modesty, isn't there still something suspicious about other cases? What about the philosopher who always assumes that their own theories are superior, but who is nevertheless disposed to act in ways that conceal this? Can this agent be considered truly modest? In order to answer this question, more detail is required. First of all, we need to clarify the agent's motivation for concealing their belief that their own theories are generally superior to others. If the disposition stems from a desire to be well-regarded or to gain a promotion then MK can agree that this agent lacks modesty – they are being falsely modest. Genuine modesty requires that the agent be motivated by a concern for the well-being of others. Secondly, we need to confirm whether or not the agent is correct to think that their theories are generally superior. If so then we will have a case of high but accurate opinion and MK (as well as many other theories) will rightly tell us that the agent can indeed be modest. Thirdly, we ought to ask whether or not the agent has strong evidence for their belief, even if it is inaccurate. If so, then we will have a case similar to the two that were detailed above and I have already argued that we have good reason to accept those as cases of genuine modesty. Therefore, in order for this kind of case to be different from those previously discussed, it must have three features: the agent must be motivated by a concern for the well-being of others, the agent must be over-estimating the general superiority of their theories, and the agent must have less-than-convincing evidence for their belief in this superiority. With these features in place, we need to ask whether or not MK would class this agent as genuinely modest, and whether or not that verdict is acceptable.
It seems clear that MK is bound to classify the agent in this case as genuinely modest. They are disposed to be sensitive to the well-being of others when presenting what they take to be their level of accomplishment, and we have stipulated that they are motivated by a concern for that well-being. How then can we explain the suspicion that the philosopher (who wrongly and without good evidence believes their own theories to be superior) does not deserve to be classed as truly modest? One possibility is that the willingness to believe in one's own superiority without good evidence indicates that the agent is being unkind when they evaluate other people. As an account that views modesty as closely related to kindness (and possibly even as a restricted form of kindness), MK can agree that we are justified in being suspicious about the agent's modesty. Alternatively, it is possible that our suspicion is being caused by some other failing. The agent certainly appears to possess certain epistemic vices that would make us want to criticise their character, and it is possible that we simply misdiagnose their failing as a failing of modesty. Finally, it is possible that more work needs to be done to clarify the precise relationship between the trait of modesty and the trait of humility. It is often assumed that these two traits are one and the same, and this would explain why cases of a lack of humility (like the philosopher in our example) are assumed to be cases of a lack of modesty. If we instead reject the assumption that modesty is identical to humility, then we can accept the verdict of MK that the philosopher is being modest, while explaining the mistaken intuition to the contrary. As long as at least one of these explanations for our intuition in the case of the overestimating philosopher is plausible (appeal to evidence of a lack of kindness, appeal to an epistemic failing or appeal to a distinction between modesty and humility) then we can happily accept the judgement of MK in such a case. This fact, coupled with the points made above, should lead us to deny that MK faces any serious threat from cases of inaccurate opinion.
Objection 3 – Deception
A final objection that I will consider is that the proposed account attributes genuine modesty in cases where an agent is being purposely deceptive. I have suggested that modesty is compatible with the agent having a false view of their own level of ability (like the brain-in-a-vat), but it might be thought that modesty is incompatible with having an accurate view of such abilities. To know very well how impressive you are while sometimes presenting yourself as being less impressive is deceptive. The disposition to do so is therefore an unappealing one – even when motivated by a concern for the well-being of others. And if the disposition being described is unappealing, then it either cannot be the correct account of modesty, or it will have shown us that modesty must not be a virtue.
This objection can also be dismissed. First of all, it is not clear that the modest agent will necessarily have to be deceptive. As Ridge points out, ‘A person may fail to emphasize some fact, say that he is a world-famous philosopher, without making any effort to get those around him to reject the proposition corresponding to that fact.’16 All that might be required is that the agent not go out of their way to draw attention to their accomplishments (or positive attributes) in cases where doing so might have a negative impact on others. And this is not deceptive. Secondly, it is not clear that the disposition to deceive in cases where another's well-being is at stake is an unappealing one. Perhaps I should be disposed to lie or mislead when confronted with a situation where telling the truth will be (unnecessarily) harmful. This simply amounts to being tactful, and we intuitively think that this can be a perfectly nice, and perhaps even admirable, trait to possess. So even if modesty on the proposed account could involve deceit, it is not clear that this makes modesty unappealing. And, thirdly, it seems that if we did demand that the modest agent not have an accurate view of their own worth, then this might make it harder to support the idea that modesty is a virtue. A trait which is incompatible with self-knowledge looks to be far more unappealing than one which simply allows for (benevolent) deceit. In terms of allowing for the value of modesty to be explained, we would be better off supporting MK than to demand ignorance from the modest agent.
It seems, therefore, that the modesty as kindness account is able to respond to these possible objections. I believe that this, coupled with the benefits of MK that were highlighted above, makes a strong case for the acceptance of this account. Before concluding, I now want to take some time to consider whether or not the intense focus on the trait of modesty has been useful in the way that was originally hoped.