Humility is the foundation to a virtuous life

The default psychological setting for human beings is an unavoidable self-centeredness. We each stand at the center of our own thoughts, feelings and needs, and thus experience them in a way that we cannot experience the thoughts, feelings and needs of others.

As writer David Foster Wallace put it in a 2005 commencement address:

“ … Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence … it’s pretty much the same for all of us.”

This self-centeredness comes as a part of the packaging – a natural part of our human experience. Yet it isn’t hard to see how it can be problematic. Take a step back from your own life to take in the whole of humanity, and you can see how this self-focus might easily distort your ethical sensibilities, leading you to overinflate the value and importance of certain lives over others and the “rightness” of your values and way of life over those of others.

You can also see how it might similarly interfere with your ability to change your beliefs in pursuit of the truth – it’s hard to let go of false beliefs when they feel true because you believe them. It’s hard to imagine things from perspectives that are not your own. It’s hard to accept that you are limited and fallible, prone to error.

This is where humility comes in.

When my colleagues and I first started studying humility more than a decade ago, I didn’t really think it would amount to much. It struck me as a relatively uninteresting virtue – if even a virtue at all. Nothing like courage, compassion or generosity – virtues that arguably play critical roles in the effort to live an admirable life.

But the more time I’ve spent with humility, the more I’ve come to appreciate it. And now, I see it as the most foundational virtue of them all.

view behind person on stage with spotlights aimed at them

Each person hogs the spotlight at center stage in their own life.
tunart/iStock via Getty Images Plus

You’re the star of your own life

When I’m hungry, it’s a compelling, full-body experience – complete with a gurgling stomach, an urge to consume food and so on. But when other people are hungry, I don’t experience any of this. I might hear someone’s stomach rumble, I might notice that they look peckish, but I don’t experience their hunger in the way I experience my own.

My hunger is more attention-grabbing and motivating – more urgent – to me. If someone I care about is hungry, then I might be motivated to ignore my own hunger and focus instead on theirs, but this takes an effort and self-control that ignoring their hunger and focusing instead on my own does not.

I experience my emotions. I can only react to yours. I hear my own thoughts. I can only infer yours. You may decide to share them with me, though I still won’t know if what you’ve shared has been edited.

My values, beliefs and goals feel more…

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