Virtues for Civil Society: Humility

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on two prior entries: I began with civility and then toleration

As I start on this installment, I am not surprised that many of the comments are about the limits of tolerance and civility. I appreciate these issues, but inasmuch as I wrote this series because I believed there was too little virtue in civil discourse, I am not really that interested in matters pertaining to having too much of these virtues, though others may, pace Popper.

In fact, if we remember from Aristotle that virtue is the mean, as in the mean between extremes, then too little virtue or too much virtue is in itself often a tendency toward its contrary vice. Moreover, the virtue of prudence helps us to set the mean for a proper tolerance, a proper civility, etc.  

I am saving prudence for the end, because, after all, it helps us to set the mean for all the other virtues (except charity, of course). So while people are debating or practicing the limits of tolerance or civility, I am just interested in some civility, some tolerance, which I think is largely missing in our political climate.

I do want to add, however, that I don’t use toleration negatively, as many of the commentators do when talking about their limits of tolerance, as in tolerating climate change deniers. I am arguing that the virtue of tolerance is present not only in the face of positions that we might find absurd, but rather in every instance in civil discourse when we are open minded, magnanimous, or interested in other’s points of view. Still, toleration does not mean per se to accept another’s position,  but rather just an openness to another’s point of view.

Finally, I do not think that toleration and civility are adequate in themselves for civil discourse, whence I am offering a whole set of virtues.  So now to our third virtue, humility.

About forty-five years ago, as a high school student I taught CCD and I had a third grade class of boys to whom I was trying to teach virtues.  It was a class on humility and I asked them, “If you were the pitcher of the team, and you just pitched a truly great game and someone came up to you and said ‘Congratulations, that was awesome pitching,’ what would be the humble response?” Hands went up and one fellow said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.”  I said, “Hmm, the compliment was about your pitching, not about your team.  What happens if your team lost?  And he said, ‘awesome pitching,’ what’s the humble reply?”  “Oh, it was nothing,” another student replied.  “Nothing?” I said, “you just pitched a great game.  Are you now thinking that you need to lie in order to be humble?”  They were baffled.  I said, “The humble reply is to accept the compliment and say, ‘Thank you’.”  They got the point, eventually.

I define humility as knowing my place in God’s world.  It is, therefore, a recognition that I’m not in my world, but God’s.  (Can those without faith hold for humility?  Sure, humility is knowing my place in the world.)  In his The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, Lúcás Chan suggests that the Magnificat of Mary is itself a humble hymn of Mary acknowledging her place in God’s world. Many people think of humility as an assessment of one’s place.  Rightly so, we should know our place in God’s world.  

For this series, I want to suggest another way that humility assists us, what Lisa Fullam refers to as an epistemic humility. This is a humility not so much in our actual self-understanding, as it is a humility in our very way of thinking.  What happens when we think humbly?  When we think humbly we realize… there’s a lot more we need to understand?  True humble thinking belongs to persons whose way of thinking is marked not by what they already (might) know, but rather by a sense of what they still need to know.  Moreover, they believe that what they need to know, they could learn from others.  In other words, humble thinking depends on the insights of others.  Scholars like Lisa Fullam suggest, therefore, a certain “tentativeness” for some of our opinions.  

Fifteen years ago in a collection dedicated to Charles Curran, A Call to Fidelity, Margaret Farley expanded on epistemic humility and offered an essay entitled, “Ethics, Ecclesiology, and the Grace of Self-Doubt.” She described the grace of self doubt as “a grace for recognizing the contingencies of moral knowledge when we stretch toward the particular and the concrete. It allows us to listen to the experience of others, take seriously reasons that are alternative to our own, rethink our own last word.  It assumes a shared search for moral insight, and it promotes (though it does not guarantee) a shared conviction in the end. “  In short this grace, together with the virtue of humility, allows us a new place in the discourse, where we realize that we need one another in our quest to understand.  

Now have no doubt about it; I am making these suggestions in a prudential context.  Too much self-doubt is not a good thing, but if we are interested in allowing just some humility into our investigations and deliberations, then perhaps the grace of self-doubt is a grace worth asking for….

On that note, Happy Fourth of July.  I will post a fourth virtue on the fifth, but in the meantime, I hope your discourses are marked by civility, tolerance and humility, at least.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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