Table of Contents
Published 4:30 pm Thursday, September 14, 2023
By Jen Cole Wright
College of Charleston
The default psychological setting for human beings is an unavoidable self-centeredness. We each stand at the center of our own thoughts, feelings, and needs, experiencing them in a way that we cannot experience the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others. This self-centeredness can easily distort our ethical sensibilities and hinder our ability to pursue truth and change our beliefs. However, humility serves as a corrective to this self-centeredness, allowing us to shift our focus outward and engage with the world and others in a more meaningful way.
As writer David Foster Wallace once said, everything in our immediate experience supports our deep belief that we are the absolute center of the universe, the most important person in existence. This self-centeredness is a natural part of our human experience, but it can be problematic. It distorts our perception of reality and skews our ethical judgments, leading us to overinflate the value and importance of certain lives over others. Additionally, self-centeredness hinders our ability to change our beliefs and see things from different perspectives.
The Role of Humility
Initially, humility may seem like a relatively uninteresting virtue compared to courage, compassion, and generosity. However, as we delve deeper into the concept of humility, its importance becomes evident. Humility is the most foundational virtue of them all because it helps us overcome our self-centeredness and its negative effects.
The Experience of Self
When we experience hunger, it is a compelling and urgent sensation. However, when others are hungry, we do not experience their hunger in the same way. Our own emotions, thoughts, values, beliefs, and goals feel more compelling because they are ours. This self-centeredness creates a gravitational force that makes it difficult to reject or let go of our own perspectives. Humility tempers this self-centeredness, allowing us to hold our values and beliefs more loosely and evaluate them with greater objectivity.
The Corrective Function of Humility
Humility serves as a corrective to self-centeredness by quieting the distortions it causes. It reduces the gravitational pull of our values, beliefs, and goals, enabling us to hold them more loosely and be more open to revision. Humility also reduces the immediacy of our own feelings, needs, and goals, creating space for the importance of others’ experiences and perspectives. It allows us to recognize our interdependency and connection to others, acknowledging that we all have something valuable to offer.
Humility and Virtuous Living
Humility is foundational to other intellectual and moral virtues. Self-centeredness can hinder our ability to exercise virtues appropriately. It makes it difficult to be open-minded and curious when our own beliefs are threatened, and it hinders our capacity for compassion, generosity, and courage. Humility allows us to quiet the incessant push and pull of our own desires and needs, enabling us to prioritize the needs of others and cultivate virtues such as patience, honesty, generosity, and compassion.
Humility is not about solely focusing on others and neglecting ourselves. It is about occupying the right amount of space in any given situation. Humility helps us find the balance between asserting our own values, beliefs, and needs when appropriate and being open to the perspectives and needs of others. It serves as the foundation for our ability to thrive as individuals and as a society, fostering a sense of interconnectedness and promoting virtuous living.
Humility is a virtue that may seem uninteresting at first glance but holds immense importance in our lives. It serves as a corrective to our inherent self-centeredness, allowing us to transcend our limited perspectives and engage with the world and others in a more meaningful and ethical way. By cultivating humility, we can overcome the distortions caused by self-centeredness and embrace a virtuous life that values the needs and experiences of others.