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Can anyone be humble?

Sure, we can sometimes act humbly. But can we be truly humble people? To be dispositionally humble, a person would need to be, within practical limits, consistently humble across time and situations. To address the big question of whether humility can be a virtuous disposition, we need to know what humility is and whether it is one thing or many.

Definitional Difficulties

What humility is. Don Davis and his colleagues have described relational humility as conforming to three propositions.

  • Proposition 1: Relational humility is behavior within a particular relationship that demonstrates that the humble person has an accurate perception of the evaluation himself or herself, not thinking too much or too little of oneself—in that relationship. The same actions are unlikely to equally describe humility in relationships as divergent as disaster worker or game winner in a World Cup shoot-out.
  • Proposition 2: Humility requires other-orientation that considers the welfare of the other at least as much as one’s own welfare thus engendering trust in others.
  • Proposition 3: Humility is most likely observable in conditions when the ego is strained, such as during conflict or recognition for achievement. This is similar to most virtues, like compassion, which doesn’t show up until someone’s neediness challenges one to help.

What humility is not. Humility is similar to other qualities with which it could be confused. For example, humility is similar to, but different from, modesty, always giving in to others, compassion, or altruism. Humility is also not merely the lack of hubris, narcissism, egotism, or self-referential mental illness (i.e., delusions of grandeur)Each of these can disqualify a person from the ranks of the humble, but people can lack pride, narcissism, or egotism and still not manifest humility. Humility is something positive, not just the absence of something negative.

Humility is a virtue. The essence of most virtues is that they self-limit the rights or privileges of the self on behalf of the welfare of others. While not denying one’s ability to prosecute one’s general claims for recognition for achievement, being right, or bending the will of others to one’s own, humility sets those aside. Instead, humility engages in other-oriented acts that promote others’ welfare.

Self-control is required because humility must be exercised when the ego is strained, and that requires self-control. The ego is likely to be strained in at least four general situations: when one is (1) challenged in a conflict, (2) insecure, (3) recognized for achievement, and (4) negotiating relative contribution for some accomplishment. In each, one is threatened and needs to reassert one’s strengths to bolster the ego, is dealing with others’ ego-bolstering attention, or is receiving recognition that stimulates pride and preening. In fact, for humility to be clearly visible, the ego strain must be felt. Similar to other virtues, like courage that is evident only in the face of fear and not detectable in normal circumstances, humility is rarely detectable when one is not experiencing a challenge to the self-esteem or public esteem.

Types of Humility

Many types of humility pop up in different contexts. For example, intellectual humility might be manifest when we deal with people who have other ideas than our own. It does not treat all ideas as equal, but is, instead, open to modify ideas if contrary evidence and debate are persuasive enough. Political humility does not prioritize one’s national, state or office politics over others’ but, similar to intellectual humility, is open to contrary evidence and reasoning. Leadership humility might be willing to allow anyone to have any say that goes against his or her will for the direction of the organization—new hires, crafting a mission-vision-values statement, or work priorities, or daily activities. Religious or spiritual humility can involve strongly held opinions, beliefs, values, and practices and strong identification with a religious or spiritual community. In this case, the religiously humble person might actually believe that others might indeed be wrong theologically. However, the person still treats the other as a respected equal with important opinions and beliefs, and the person is willing to consider the possibility of error, and thus might learn from or be corrected by the religiously different person. Scientific humility is being humble about the likely implications of a discovery or achievement; it involves openness to empirical observation and theoretical reasoning that are different from one’s current view. Medical humility is humility in the face of human limitations and what medical practitioners and researchers can achieve. It scrutinizes potential unforeseen negative effects of medical advancements. It does not promise too much or too little to needy patients. Philosophical, theological, ethical, historical, and (yikes!) psychological humility assume that the human explanatory systems created and explored by thoughtful professional scholars in those fields are not absolute. Rather, they open thoughtful conversations with people. The humble scholar does not assume that he or she has arrived at truth for all time. Humility in the face of exemplary human performance (i.e., sport, arts, music) seems in general warranted. While one might be a Usain Bolt, head and shoulders ahead of other sprinters, one also knows that all records will fall. Thus one must not take oneself too seriously. And don’t get me started on sport-team humilitybecause my team really is better than yours.

In each case, people are tempted to not be humble when they identify with an object—a person, theory, team, organization, country, ideology, religion, or profession (or other things). We invest in and identify with that object. When our identity is threatened by direct challenge to ourselves or challenge to the identified object, we rise to the challenge. We might defend our investment in our identity. If that defense is at the cost of others’ welfare, humility is sacrificed. Therein is the essence of humility. It is other-oriented (protecting the welfare of others) while not denying self-protection. It is certainly fine to protect oneself, but not at the expense of others.

What if one’s welfare comes into direct and non-compromising conflict with the other’s welfare? Sometimes that happens. But far less often than we think. As Roger Fisher and William Ury (1981) wrote in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, seemingly intractable conflict usually occurs because people are locked into defending their “positions.” But people adopt “positions” because they are protecting complex interests. Ury and Fisher have shown that people can often agree on solutions that meet both people’s interests.

Humility in Roles and Relationships

Humility is different in different roles. The humble husband will not act the same as the humble parent. The humble teacher or student, physician or patient, employer or subordinate, co-worker or rival, group member or leader, community member or community leader are different. They not only differ from others within a particular setting—i.e., humble teachers are not like humble students in an educational setting—but they also differ from others even more across setting—i.e., a humble teacher differs from a humble physician or patient.

Also, people differ in humility across different relationships. Each two personalities calls forth different behaviors. Humility is relational at root, and humility from the same person looks different in different relationships.  The same woman can act humbly with her boss but arrogantly with her spouse.

Can a Person Be Humble?

It is easy to imagine that a person might be involved in many roles, varieties of relationships, and numerous settings drawing forth, in different contexts, intellectual, political, scientific, leadership, or sport-team humility. That person might be an exemplar of humility in virtually all of those roles, relationships, and contexts. Yet perhaps there is one role, person, or relationship that brings out the non-humble. Is that person a truly humble person?

With all of these conditions in which a person must exhibit humility across time, roles, relationships, and contexts, and do so under conditions of ego strain, it is reasonable to ask whether any person can have the virtue of humility—consistency across time and situations? No one is perfect. So the question becomes, What is good enough consistency for a person to be humble? This will differ by people, who are, in turn, influenced by communities and cultures. In social interactions, we make such judgments of others, and of ourselves, and we must live with the consequences if our judgment turns out to be wrong.

Are there humble people? Yes, there are “humble enough” people. There are Mother Teresas that most of us agree are humble. There are other champions of humility populating our individual halls of humility. If we want to build humility within our culture, we can first strive for more consistent humble behavior ourselves, and we can also reinforce norms of our culture and community to recognize, encourage, and train humility. This, I believe, is our duty. This is one of our contributions to a civil society.

Discussion Questions:

  1. I’ve argued that with many different types of humility necessitated by many different types of relationships and roles in relationships, it is very difficult for a person to be really humble in his or her personality. Perhaps you disagree. Would you be willing to argue the other side of that issue?
  2. One of the statements I made is really very tentative and I’d like to hear other thoughts on it. I suggested that religious humility might be different from intellectual humility. If you disagree–and probably many people will–then would you be willing to argue the side that religious humility is actually just a form of intellectual humility. Or, perhaps you want to take another position altogether?

Discussion Summary


In this essay posted from November 4-10, 2014, I identified humility as a relational virtue—one that is conditioned by the role (i.e., friend, romantic partner, employer), and relationship within the role (i.e., conflicted, satisfied), and topic area (relational humility in general, intellectual humility, political humility, religious humility, etc.). I defined humility as having three characteristics: (1) accurate self-assessment and modest, situationally sensitive self-portrayal; (2) practice of self-sacrificially laying one’s life and agenda down for others; and (3) subject to frequent testing by life or by the person attempting to build the virtue of humility through placing the ego under some degree of strain. In the end, I questioned whether it is possible to be dispositionally humble, but concluded that, while no one could be 100% dispositionally humble, it is possible to be “good enough” for practical and social purposes. Respondents raised several fundamental questions.

(1) What is humility? (Definition)

This question took several forms. Some questioned whether humility is an achievable status. Once humble, the person might feel no ego strain in meeting life’s tests. Some questioned whether people might ever agree on a definition, and most were pessimistic of universal agreement because of the community contexts that differed. All agreed that humility is, to a large degree, contextual—from Christian organizations, where it is particularly valued, to others where it might be seen as a weakness. Davis suggested that, in addition to merely reflecting norms of a community, labeling someone as humble (or arrogant) serves a community function of regulating that person’s and others’ behavior.

One very interesting thread suggested that humility might be related to cognitive complexity, though we agreed that just because one was cognitively complex regarding humility did not mean that the person practiced humility. Humility is a habit of the heart, not just an intellectual quality.

(2) Is humility the absence or does it additionally require the presence of something?

Questions arose about whether humility is the absence of something like self-serving bias or pride or arrogance, but I argued that one can be without pride or arrogance and yet not be humble. Humility involves a (additionally) a positive commitment to (a) presenting oneself modestly, (b) self-sacrificially elevating others, and (c) testing oneself in ego straining conditions to practice the virtue. To build up any virtue is like building physical strength—analogous to character strength. So, we need to glimpse the goal of wanting to be strong enough to avoid injury if a weight fell on us or to do productive work to bless others. To build this strength, we must practice by placing our muscles under strain consistently (like weight training). If we’ve become the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of humility (i.e., masters of humility), we probably feel less strain than mere mortals if lifting the same weight. The fact that our egos do not feel strained does not mean our egos are not strained—only that our strength exceeds the strain. Furthermore, if we stop putting our muscles under strain, they atrophy. Second, discussion centered on whether humility was a master virtue, or was it slave to other virtues like self-control, love, or compassion. I argued that it was one of several master virtues.

(3) How many different areas of humility are there?

People challenged the laundry-list approach to types of humility. Some thought my list was too fine-grained and advocated one type of humility, illustrated in different arenas. Others wanted more differentiation than I provided. How many categories we identify depends on how usefuleach categorical system is. It is not scientifically useful to say each person has his or her own type of humility, or even that each person has a different type in each of the many different roles, relationships, and situations he or she is in. While strictly speaking that might be true, it isn’t science, which seeks to find regularities and make generalities.

New Big Questions

1. How related to each other are the classic virtues? [Can one be virtuous in one area but not others? If one changes and becomes more virtuous in one area, will other virtues also be strengthened without focal attention to them?]

2. To what degree is well-developed cognitive complexity related to more virtuous behavior? [Clearly some degree of cognitive complexity is needed to think morally about complex issues, but do people who are more cognitively complex really act more morally than those less cognitively complex?]