College of Charleston

Humility, Conviction, and Disagreement in Morality: An Interdisciplinary Investigation

Thomas Allen Nadelhoffer, Jen Wright



Intellectual humility is treated as a virtue in most areas. Yet, is humility specifically about moral beliefs, actions, and attributes a virtue? Here, the answer is less clear. We often treat as moral heroes people who confidently hold to their vision of moral rights and duties in the face of strong opposition. Is such steadfast conviction consistent with, or in tension with, humility? Answering this type of question requires a multi-pronged approach.

Our first goal is to clarify the nature of moral humility. In accomplishing this goal, we will explore humility as a psychological construct and examine the relationship between humility and other psychological constructs (e.g., conviction and arrogance), commitments/values (e.g., meta- ethical stance), and personality traits and the situational and socio-cultural factors that might influence its expression. We will achieve this by first constructing a robust scale for moral humility (along with other facets of humility). This will allow us to identify empirically the conceptual structure of humility and also examine its relationship to a variety of other characteristics of humble people. In addition, we will closely examine the “folk understanding” of moral humility in adults, along with the development of this understanding in children and adolescents.

Our second goal is to examine the behaviors and judgments associated with moral humility. That is, we seek to better understand what morally humble people do, how they behave, how they make judgments, etc. Are humble people more or less steadfast in their moral beliefs? Are they more or less tolerant of divergent beliefs and practices? Are they more or less open-minded to opposing arguments? Our goal is to use our new humility scale to explore these questions. We will also examine other people’s expectations of, and responses to, morally humble individuals. Do people expect morally humble people to behave differently than non-humble people—and, if so, in what ways? Do these expectations change with context and over time—e.g., are children’s expectations different from those of adults? Finally, do people respond differently to the behaviors, opinions, requests of people they view to be morally humble? We will explore these questions in a variety of ways (detailed in the objectives below).

Third, humility has been defined as “an inclination to keep one’s accomplishments, traits, and so on in unexaggerated perspective, even if stimulated to exaggerate” (Richards, 1992, pg. 8). So, another one of our goals is to test this assumption by investigating whether people who score high in moral humility are indeed inclined to downplay (relative to others) their accomplishments and traits and to avoid seeking public recognition and/or praise for their “good deeds.” In addition, we will examine people’s expectations in this regard. For instance, do people expect morally humble individuals to downplay their morally-relevant accomplishments and/or to shy away from receiving public recognition/praise for them? Once again, does this expectation change over time? These are questions to be explored.