Sorting through some of my papers I cam across a copy of Julia Driver's 1999 article "Modesty and Ignorance", along with G. F. Schueler's response. Driver argues for an underestimation account of modesty: modesty involves underestimating self-worth in some respect to a limited degree. Both Driver and Schueler understand this to be underestimation involving ignorance; and both consider modesty to be a virtue. The difference is that Schueler has a different account of modesty: for Schueler, modesty involves not caring about whether people are impressed with you. Now, I don't think the term 'modesty' in English is used for just one thing; but I think that for the things for which we use it most, both these accounts are false to the point of absurdity, as, indeed, I think it false to say modesty is a virtue - modesty is a behavioral thing and therefore may be either virtuous or vicious. But I won't argue these here, in part because I think it is absurd to think one can discuss any particular virtue or vice without an immense amount of context - certainly more than can be had in a journal article or a blog post. There are just too many factors; although I suppose it can be done when everyone's already on the same page, or if you can at least potentially get them on the same page. I just have a thought or two about issues that come up in the arguments.
Driver considers the objection that ignorance seems to be something on which we place considerable disvalue. To this she replies:
This is too quick. We sometimes do value ignorance. For example, ignorance of one's own beauty is often said to enhance it. The term "unaffected" is used as a compliment and refers to a person's lack of awareness, or ignorance, of their own personal charm. In addition, we certainly value innocence in children, which is a form of ignorance. So the general principle that ignorance is always bad seems to be violated by a number of counterexamples. My account of modesty as a virtue would constitute simply another counterexample.
Some points. (1) 'Unaffected' does mean 'lack of awareness'; but neither is synonymous with ignorance. In fact, a beautiful woman who knows quite well that she is beautiful can be unaffected in her beauty if she's just the sort of person who doesn't worry about her looks at all. The childhood innocence is stronger; but there really needs to be much more argument that it is "a form of ignorance." For one thing, occasionally adults do display childlike innocence despite not being ignorant in the matters about which they are innocent. I suspect that Driver is just playing on an equivocation in the usage of the terms here; sometimes we do use 'innocence' as a synonym for 'ignorance' - but this does not mean that we are valuing it, or that we are right to value it, when we do.
(2) The objector does not need to say that ignorance is bad but that what involves ignorance is not a virtue insofar as it involves ignorance. These examples (and any analogous ones) are not really counterexamples to this position; at least, they would need considerably more elaboration and argument. Driver considers the possibility that someone would say that her own arguments show only that we value something which happens to be correlated with ignorance. She goes the whole hog and tries to argue that it is the ignorance itself that we value. She says:
Imagine someone who believes that he's the best, though he hasn't gone through a ranking exercise. He may know because God told him, or his mom told him, or he read it in the New York Times. It is correct, too. Thus, he knows he is the best. Any professions of inferiority on his account would constitute false modesty. If one were to find out that he knew and professed an even slight inferiority, one would be offended. I think this has to do with feeling as though one has been patronized or condescended to.
Thoughts: (2a) This is not an argument that we value the ignorance; it is an argument that we don't like professions of inferiority that seem condescending.
(2b) Driver seems to be assuming that the only expression of modesty is profession of inferiority. But this need not be the case. For instance, one can express modesty by giving the ultimate credit to something else, e.g., by pointing out that being the best is due to natural talents he didn't earn, or due to biology, or due in part to some lucky breaks. It's at least the intended point of the shout-outs to God athletes and actors are so fond of when they win something.
(2c) Driver assumes that false modesty is not modesty. But it could just as easily be accounted a form of modesty involving a certain falseness. If one were to take this line, Driver's example would be interpreted as a case of modesty that is not a virtue.
Driver goes on and tries to argue that self-deception and deception are sometimes virtuous. I won't discuss the examples she gives for this; but, again, they don't require that we see them as virtuous even if we don't consider them necessarily bad. Not every non-bad thing we do is virtuous. (Schueler makes this point.)
Schueler makes many of the same assumptions as Driver (e.g., that false modesty is not modesty involving falseness).
Schueler's arguments are both more odd and more complicated. Since both Driver and Schueler like giving examples without analyzing them very closely or very carefully, I'll do the same, and provide an example that I think neither of their accounts can handle at all.
Suppose I know that I am the most brilliant person alive; and when I say I know, I mean it is true and that I have good, relevant evidence for thinking it true. I do want people to be impressed with my accomplishments, and don't have any qualms about taking steps to make sure they are. However, I do have considerable respect for people around me, and I do know that a lot of what I rightly consider to be my brilliance is due to factors that were entirely out of my hands, so I don't think it needs to be rubbed in. Therefore I'm very subtle about how my accomplishments come up for people to be impressed at, and when the subject comes up, I downplay it, not by lying, but by pointing out true things that indicate that I can't take full credit for my brilliance, and by phrasing things in such a way that I don't really call attention to it. Essentially all I'm doing is putting my known brilliance out there for people to see, but going out of my way to do it so as not to hurt people's feelings, or make them feel bad in comparison, or make them feel stupid, or anything like that. Isn't this being modest?
Remember, I started the example with 'Suppose'. It is a supposition (although no one has ever called me modest - or immodest, for that matter)!