Why Humility is Not a Virtue

According to conventional morality, humility is a virtue. We are taught to think not too highly of ourselves or not to take credit for our achievements. Whatever we accomplish is due to collective effort or the grace of a higher power. A group of Executive MBA students once argued that humility means admitting your errors and not blaming others for them. However, that is not humility but consistency with two egoist virtues, rationality (recognizing facts, not evading them) and justice (not giving or taking the undeserved). Humility, commonly understood, means a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.” Humility is associated with the moral code of altruism: you should not elevate your interests above those of others but just the opposite—because others and their interests are more worthy, and it is your duty to serve them.

From the perspective of rational egoism humility most decidedly is not a virtue but a vice: in order to achieve your self-interest, you must be motivated to achieve your values and happiness. Putting others first will take away that motivation and undermine your ability to achieve your values. A humble person will think: “Who am I to assert my values and presume I deserve them? Who am I to think that it is more important to achieve my values than to give them up for the sake of others?” For example, a humble person would withdraw from the competition if someone else applies for the same job or pursues the same customer. Submitting to others will not lead to your self-interest in business or in any other realm.

Instead of humility, rational egoism holds pride as one its basic virtues—not in the sense of boastfulness, arrogance, or conceit—but as moral ambitiousness. Pride in the egoist sense is not a feeling but, as Tara Smith puts it, “the policy of doing one’s best.” This policy counsels you to do the best job you can in anything you undertake, within the context of the situation and your abilities.

Doing your best requires that you ambitiously strive for “moral perfection” by cultivating all the egoist virtues so that they become a second nature. You want to cultivate rationality so that you will base your choices and actions on facts rather than evade them. (This includes the recognition of the fact you may not be able to accomplish something without the collaboration or help of others.) You want to cultivate productiveness so that you can create the material values that living a successful, happy life requires. You want to cultivate independence so that you will make decisions based on your own assessment of facts as opposed to following others blindly. You want to cultivate integrity so that you will identify the correct principles for achieving rational values and apply them consistently. You want to cultivate honesty so that you will not attempt to fake reality in order to gain values (no deceiving your customers, investors, employees, or anyone else, including yourself). You want to cultivate justice so that you will assess people objectively (including yourself) and grant them what they deserve (such as recognition and payment for their contribution to your values). By striving to apply all the egoist virtues, you are practicing pride. If you succeed in developing these virtues into habits, your reward is the achievement of your values. The virtues are the means to your values—and pride reminds you of that fact.

Pride as a policy of doing one’s best is an important source of motivation, and thus crucially important in business. A business firm (its employees) must strive to do its best in creating value for its customers—if it does not, it will be outdone by its competitors. We have all seen firms where the employees don’t care about the quality of their work; they are not practicing pride. Such firms cannot achieve their self-interest—maximum returns to their owners—as customers, investors, and employees desert them.

If we want to be happy and profitable, we must reject humility as a deterrent to achieving values and embrace pride, alongside with the rest of the egoist virtues.

  • Chantal

    Humility questions. Pride asserts. Humility requires a willingness to question oneself. Pride in one’s work is achieved when a person humbles themselves to the task and grows stronger as a result.