Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Some Aspects of Interpersonal Humility

I'm working on an essay that distinguishes between "interpersonal humility" and "environmental humility" in order to try to make (better) sense of the charge that anthropocentrism falls prey to the vice of arrogance (in a way that is not question-begging). Currently I'm working out a sketch of interpersonal humility (humility understood in terms of our relations with other people) and have suggested the following. The interpersonally humble person:

1. Is mindful of his or her dependencies upon others, and thus is inclined, on the one hand, to acknowledge privately and publicly the role that others have played in his or her own successes, and on the other hand, to be receptive to assistance offered by others (i.e. is not “proud” in the sense that he or she refuses help or benefits from others);

2. Regards him or herself as one among others, and thus not deserving of special (inequitable) moral consideration (viz. is not arrogant); because of 1 & 2 the humble person;

3. Sees his or her own well-being as interconnected with the well-being of others; furthermore, he or she

4. Understands our psychological propensity to self-enhancing bias and egoism, and so strives to counteract this propensity by giving special attention to the well-being of others (that is, he or she does not think that the well-being of other matters more than her own well-being, impersonally considered, but recognizes the risk of personal bias);

5. Recognizes his or her own epistemic limitations, and thus that giving special attention to others, caring well for others, requires attending to the perspectives of others, learning from others and not merely about others; and,

6. Acts in ways that reflect these various recognitions and evaluations.

The ultimate goal is to use considerations flowing out of the fifth point (both the need and the value of learning from others) to ground an understanding of "environmental humility" as a virtue, too. Roughly, we can learn from nature, too, but this requires a kind of attention and openness and absence of self-absorption that go along with interpersonal humility, too. In addition, our dependency upon the natural world makes the idea that we can coherently value human life as superior to that which sustains it seem a bit suspect; the achievements and abilities of humankind don't occur without the cooperation, as it were, of the natural world. Of course, some of the things we can learn from nature are scary and dreadful, and our dependence upon nature has a dark aspect, too (the natural world can crush us). So, I'm hoping to pull this off without being sentimental about "nature." I realize this may seem a bit messy at this point, but just as I was about to abandon the project, a path seemed to reveal itself. Thoughts?

(Apologies for the recent silence. Busy teaching.)


  1. This seems good to me. The point that people might most want to challenge, I suspect, is this: "our dependency upon the natural world makes the idea that we can coherently value human life as superior to that which sustains it seem a bit suspect; the achievements and abilities of humankind don't occur without the cooperation, as it were, of the natural world."

    I imagine this kind of objection: I might be sustained by something that has no interests, and hence no rights, or whose interests are less important than mine. Yet I have interests and rights, and so am rightly placed above these other, sustaining things. Anthropocentrism simply recognizes this fact.

    You've probably anticipated this objection already (unless I've misunderstood your argument), but it's not clear from what you've written here how you would respond to it. Not that you couldn't do so, just that I don't know what precise form your response would take.

  2. Right. Here's one kind of thought about that kind of objection: to say that I have certain rights or interests that something else does not means that how I should be treated (or what counts as treating me well) is different from whatever we might say of the other thing/being. But different means neither "above" nor "better" or "more important." At the same time, I get why someone would say that, "people are more important than carrots," or something to that effect, though the statement itself is rather peculiar and seems to beg for the kind of attention that a Wittgenstein (or Rhees) might give it. It's a peculiar sort of thing to say. When would one say that (outside of philosophy)? Perhaps to a carrot-farmer, or carrot activist, who seems to be putting the interests of carrots ahead of those of people?

    Furthermore, if I eat a carrot, does that act imply that I think myself, or my interests, to be more important than those of the carrot? (I guess Singer would say yes if the carrot were sentient!) The background seems to matter here, however. Certainly, if when I eat I am sometimes reminded that one day I will be eaten--by the worms and so forth--then there may be a sense in which I can see my own activities in the context of a kind of systemic reciprocity (which, of course, ain't always pretty at the individual level in nature).

    This isn't a very clear response; I'm toying around a little. But one route to explore, given the above, might be that appealing to rights could be a bit of a red herring. If there's no food, no bounty, our rights don't really matter. And rights claims are social--claimed against, or with reference to, other people/humans/persons. My right to life is nothing to a hungry bear.

    I guess one could say: precisely. Nature doesn't really care about me, so why should I care about nature? But this, too, doesn't seem like an entirely well-formulated thought. A failure to appreciate that which sustains us, which leads to increasingly unsustainable human practices, will ultimately lead, as it were, to our humiliation...(I hope you can bear with the looseness of all of this.)

  3. Looseness is fine with me, and this seems like a good kind of response to the kind of "people are more important than carrots" objection that I had in mind. One counter-response might be that this sounds like a strange thing to say only because it's so obvious. And to that, as you say, the best response would probably involve careful Wittgensteinian attention.