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Theoretical Ethics

Self-Worth and Moral Knowledge:
A Moral Argument for a Moderate Moral Skepticism

Christopher W. Gowans
Fordham University

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ABSTRACT: I argue that persons are unlikely to have moral knowledge insofar as they lack certain moral virtues; that persons are commonly deficient in these virtues, and hence that they are regularly unlikely to have adequate moral knowledge. I propose a version of this argument that employs a broad conception of self-worth, a virtue found in a wide range of moral traditions that suppose a person would have an appropriate sense of self-worth in the face of tendencies both to overestimate and underestimate the value of one’s self. I begin by noting some distinctive features of this argument that distinguish it from more common arguments for moral skepticism. This is followed by an elucidation of the virtue of self-worth. I then consider some connections between self-worth and moral knowledge and, more briefly, the extent of self-worth among persons. Finally, I respond to the objection that the argument is incoherent because it presupposes moral knowledge that it later undermines.

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My aim is to offer a brief defense of an argument for a moderate moral skepticism that is rooted in morality itself as often understood. In general form, the argument is based on the contention that persons are unlikely to have moral knowledge insofar as they lack certain moral virtues; it continues with the claim that persons are commonly deficient in these virtues, and it concludes that they are regularly unlikely to have adequate moral knowledge. I will propose a version of this argument that employs a broad conception of self-worth, a virtue found in a wide range of moral traditions that suppose a person should have an appropriate sense of self-worth in the face of tendencies both to overestimate and underestimate the value of one's self.

I begin by noting some distinctive features of this argument that distinguish it from more common arguments for moral skepticism (section I). This is followed by an elucidation of the virtue of self-worth (section II). I then consider some connections between self-worth and moral knowledge (sections III and IV), and, more briefly, the extent of self-worth among persons (section V). Finally, I respond to an objection that may be made against this argument (section VI).


The argument I defend here is in several respects different than familiar arguments for moral skepticism. First, moral skeptics often purport to show that there is no moral knowledge and sometimes that there can be none. (1) The present argument claims only that persons commonly are likely to be deficient in moral knowledge and hence that there is less moral knowledge among persons than might be thought. This moderate moral skepticism does not make the stronger assertion that there is not or cannot be such knowledge. In fact, rooted as it is in prominent moral traditions, it should be taken as presupposing that moral knowledge is possible and may sometimes be found. The point is that it is difficult to attain.

Second, arguments for moral skepticism often apply principles that are alien to or independent of morality as understood by participants in many moral traditions. For example, the standard argument that there can only be knowledge of empirical facts and that moral values cannot be derived from these, applies a principle that is generally rejected by traditions that accept teleological theories. (2) By contrast, the argument here is drawn from considerations that are internal to many moral traditions, namely those that have reason to regard self-worth as a virtue, to think its absence tends to preclude moral knowledge, and to believe self-worth is difficult to achieve.

Third, discussions of moral skepticism often focus on whether moral statements could be true or supported by sound inferences. (3) The argument here focuses on the capacity of persons for moral understanding: it claims that a common inadequacy in persons inhibits this. Its approach is thus at odds with much contemporary philosophy but is congenial to the emphasis on persons in some virtue epistemologies.

Finally, the inadequacy in persons is a moral deficiency that has epistemic import. Aspects of self-worth such as humility and courage often appear as epistemic or intellectual virtues. (4) However, the argument here understands self-worth as a moral virtue, but one with the epistemic significance that its absence tends to preclude moral knowledge. Hence, epistemology and morality are closely linked. Linda Zagzebski has recently argued that intellectual virtues are moral virtues and that "epistemic evaluation just is a form of moral evaluation." (5) However, the argument here depends only on the weaker claim that the moral virtue of self-worth has important bearing on our capacity for moral knowledge.


The first step is to elucidate a broad concept of the virtue of self-worth that can be instantiated in various moral traditions. It has two aspects. The first is associated with humility, a traditional virtue in the west, albeit a contested one. It was not one of Aristotle's virtues and is sometimes thought incompatible with magnanimity. (6) In the modern era, it has been criticized by Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche and, more recently, some feminists. (7) The historical origin of humility is primarily Judaism and Christianity. But it would be incorrect to suppose the classical Greeks had no such notion, (8) and it does occasionally surface in secular moral contexts. (9)

Humility involves having a proper assessment of one's worth. But popular usage suggests that humility requires an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth, a view supported by some traditional sources. (10) This self-abnegation is the heart of the problem for the aforementioned modern disparagers. Though humility is indeed connected with the view that human beings tend to overevaluate their limited worth, more balanced accounts allow that human beings do have worth and sometimes tend to underevaluate it. (11) In any case, overestimation of self-worth is clearly an important moral phenomenon, as traditional accounts of humility emphasize, but so too is underestimation of self-worth, as modern writers stress. Since humility is so closely associated with counteracting the former phenomenon, it needs to be complemented by a trait that confronts the latter, namely, having a sufficiently high sense of self-worth.

This second aspect of self-worth appears under various descriptions. Aquinas took Aristotle's magnanimity to supplement humility, and Kant supplemented it with moral self-esteem. (12) Nowadays philosophers have little to say directly about humility but much to say about such characteristics as autonomy, self-esteem, and self-respect. (13) These last are often intended to suggest various ways in which it is thought good or virtuous to think well of oneself—for example, of one's abilities, projects in life, moral standing, etc. These notions are linked to humility in that they are usually thought to address the tendency to underestimate rather than overestimate the value of oneself. Since these two tendencies are both important and interconnected (to compensate for one may be to succumb to the other), it makes sense to speak of a single virtue as the character trait of having an appropriate sense of self-worth, neither too high nor too low. (14) This is the virtue of self-worth. As understood here, it presupposes that (1) in some respect(s), each human being has worth, but limited worth, and (2) human beings tend in some cases to overestimate this worth and in other cases to underestimate it. Self-worth is esteemed as a virtue that corrects these tendencies. Those who lack this virtue are inclined to believe their selves are, in some respect(s), either more valuable than they are or less so just on account of being their own.

But what are the appropriate respects and standards for judging these? In Judaism and Christianity, humility is understood primarily by reference to God, (15) but current uses are more varied. For example, it is sometimes said that humility requires recognition that one is no more important morally than anyone else (16) and that we should have humility in the face of nature. (17) The complementary virtues of autonomy and the like usually refer to the moral standing of persons or the value of their capacities and activities.

In order to indicate the wide applicability of the skeptical argument, I will understand self-worth in broad and rather open-ended terms. Hence, it may refer to some overall evaluation of one's self (typically including moral standing) as well as to evaluations of particular aspects of one's self such as desires, beliefs, abilities, moral character, and the like; and these may be judged in terms of various standards such as the comparative worth of other persons, humanity, God, the moral law, the biosphere, and so on. In each case, self-worth requires proper recognition of the worth of one's self in some respect according to some standard. Various forms of self-worth may be expected to be a preeminent virtue, implicitly or explicitly, in many but not all moral traditions, religious and secular, Western and non-Western.


The idea that moral knowledge is impeded by improper self-worth is an ancient one. For example, in the Augustinian tradition, the will must be transformed from pride to humility before moral understanding can be acquired. (18) A similar theme is beneath the surface of recent suggestions that self-interest or class interests are obstacles to moral knowledge. (19) Moreover, the importance of sufficient self-worth for moral understanding is explicit in some discussions of autonomy and feminist critiques of humility. (20)

The skeptical argument says that persons are unlikely to have moral knowledge insofar as they lack an appropriate sense of self-worth. This is because there are different kinds and degrees of self-worth and because moral knowledge itself may have different forms and degrees. Thus this principle should be construed as stating variously that insofar as persons lack proper self-worth they tend to not understand the meaning or justification of basic moral concerns, to not appreciate the relative importance of these vis--vis other concerns, to not grasp their concrete implications for their lives, to not see morally salient features of situations, etc. Many moral traditions affirm epistemic claims such as these and for good reason. The thought is that, though these forms of moral knowledge are possible, they are very difficult to acquire insofar as persons in various respects value themselves too lowly or too highly. This is not to deny that moral knowledge depends on cognitive considerations, but that proper comprehension of these considerations is partly a function of the moral state of the person.

Arguments for this thesis may be divided into those emphasizing persons who overevaluate their self-worth and persons who underevaluate it. Persons in the first group tend to believe their selves and attributes of their selves are more valuable than they are just in virtue of being their own. For example: they often have an inflated conception of their moral standing; they are inclined to regard their desires and concerns as having more importance than they actually have; they are given to thinking their beliefs and ideas have greater worth (by being more true, important, interesting, original, etc.) than in fact they have; they tend to suppose their abilities and talents are either greater than they are or have more significance than they do; and they often believe their character and actions deserve greater moral praise than they really do.

First of all, moralities typically challenge such persons to change their lives in many important respects: to come to a more accurate and usually lower estimation of the worth of their selves in relationship to whatever else is important, and more specifically to reconsider the worth of their desires, to rethink the correctness of their beliefs, to reassess the significance of their abilities, and to reevaluate the extent of their moral merit. For example, such persons may be expected to change their vital concerns, to modify or reject some lifelong values, to view their talents from a perspective that diminishes their extent or importance, or to see their past lives as more complacent morally than they had supposed. For those with an excessive sense of self-worth, this challenge is likely to threaten ordinary activities and enjoyments, and to impose burdensome tasks of reorientation. More seriously, it may appear as an assault upon the worth of their selves. Facing this, such persons will have a strong motivation to not properly apprehend or appreciate these moral contentions, for example by refusing to consider them, rejecting them outright, misinterpreting them so as to diminish their import, etc. To the extent that persons have such motivation, moral knowledge will be difficult to acquire.

Second, those with too great a sense of self-worth may in various more general ways be in states of mind that are cognitively disruptive or less than ideal. For example, persons may lack the clarity and attentiveness of mind needed to gain moral knowledge when torn by greed, jealousy, revenge, and other passions often rooted in too great an estimation of the importance of one's own concerns. Again, excessive confidence in one's own moral accomplishments may result in a self-righteousness, and sometimes zeal and fanaticism, that renders sound moral judgment unlikely. More broadly, to the extent that persons judge too highly the value of their own beliefs, they are precluded from the open-mindedness and impartiality that is often required to gain moral knowledge. Finally, insofar as persons think too well of their abilities, they may believe their moral understanding needs no improvement, even in the face of credible contrary evidence. Such persons may have so much confidence in their cognitive capacities that they feel sure they could not be mistaken or learn from others.


Comparable considerations suggest that there are also obstacles to moral knowledge for persons with an insufficient sense of self-worth. These persons tend to believe their selves and attributes of their selves are less valuable than they are just in virtue of being their own. First, seeing little worth in themselves, such persons may see little worth in anything else, including other persons, and so resist the claims of moralities to the contrary. More specifically, such persons may not have much inclination to seriously try to understand a variety of moral claims. For example: tending to think their own desires are unimportant, they may fail to see that they have some morally legitimate interests or rights; being inclined to suppose their beliefs do not count for much, they may not realize that their moral beliefs are correct when they are; given to believing that nothing they do has any real value, they may incorrectly judge that they have no abilities that are worth developing; and tending to feel that nothing they do is ever right, they may not recognize that they are capable of morally worthy actions.

Second, those who have too little sense of self-worth may more generally be in states of mind that are epistemically disadvantageous. For example, they may suppose that none of their interests are really significant, and so lack the resolve and courage needed to attain knowledge concerning them. Or they may think that almost nothing they believe is ever right anyway, and hence see no point to trying to understand anything. Again, they may lack confidence in their cognitive abilities, and thus fail to be persuaded by what they are intellectually capable of recognizing as genuine epistemic considerations. Finally, they may regard themselves as so unworthy morally that they generally defer to the judgments of others rather than undertake self-directed activities to achieve understanding.


The extent to which these arguments imply moral skepticism depends on the extent to which persons lack an appropriate sense of self-worth. It is obviously a large and complex issue how much self-worth is to be found among persons. In my view, in many respects that bear on moral understanding, people are commonly and strongly drawn to either overevaluate or underevaluate their worth (sometimes both), and the difficulties of counteracting these tendencies without overcompensation are great. Hence, self-worth is in short supply in the world and moral knowledge is likely to be comparably limited.

The main point here, however, is that moralities emphasizing this virtue themselves suggest reasons for doubting widespread success in achieving it. (21) In some cases, this is because of an analysis of human nature that supposes that we are strongly prone to improperly value our selves (usually too highly, as discussions of humility urge). In other cases, it is said that entrenched cultural and institutional features of the world such as sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of oppression result in powerful tendencies in persons involved to improperly evaluate their selves (usually too lowly among the oppressed and too highly among the oppressors, though this oversimplifies). Of course, different views are still possible on the extent to which persons succeed in acquiring self-worth. It is usually denied both that it is easy to acquire and that it is impossible.

The most common view is that it is quite difficult and that achieving and maintaining an appropriate sense of self-worth must be considered an ongoing challenge throughout our lives: the danger of giving too much or too little importance to one's self is always present, and no one fully overcomes it. Insofar as this is true, our moral knowledge is similarly precarious.

It may be thought that, if this were correct, then moralities that stress self-worth would be more skeptical than they are. In fact, some proponents of these traditions have suggested that their own excessive or deficient sense of self-worth could endanger their moral understanding. (22) But the main response is that the point of the skeptical argument is in part that this should happen more than it does: advocates of these moral traditions should have a greater acknowledgment of skepticism about their own claims to moral knowledge than they ordinarily do.


It might be objected that adherents of the skeptical argument presuppose some moral knowledge—namely, that self-worth is a virtue—which is then undermined if the argument is sound (assuming no more appropriate self-worth among these persons than others).

First, the argument does not conclude that there is no moral knowledge, only that it is less common and more difficult to achieve than is often thought. Hence, it does not preclude knowing that self-worth is a virtue. Second, and more importantly, the argument is addressed primarily to those moral traditions that have reason to think that self-worth is a virtue and that lack of self-worth tends to preclude moral knowledge. As just noted, its point is partly to suggest that these traditions have more reason to be skeptical about their moral understanding than they commonly believe. If the argument is sound, then insofar as there is a problem of coherence, it is a problem for persons in these traditions, and of course for us assuming we are among them. But it is not a problem with the argument that warrants our dismissing it.

One of the tasks of philosophy in "educating humanity" is to draw attention to the implications of the beliefs and values people hold. I have argued that persons in many moral traditions have commitments that should incline them to a moderate moral skepticism. This outcome should not be seen as destructive in its impact. To the contrary, in the tradition of Socrates it counteracts both the dogmatism and subservience associated with pretensions to moral knowledge that are a source of many of the conflicts in the world today, and by emphasizing the epistemic importance of self-worth, it points toward what may be done to increase genuine moral understanding and thus to alleviate these conflicts.

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(1) For example, see The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism, tr. by Benson Mates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 200-210, and J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1977), ch. 1.

(2) Other arguments that invoke considerations that I believe are not part of the self-understanding of many participants in moral practices include Mackie's argument from queerness, op. cit., pp. 38-42, and Gilbert Harman's observation argument in The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pt. I.

(3) For example, see Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, "Moral Skepticism and Justification," in Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology, ed. by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 3-48, and Harman, op. cit.

(4) For example, see Neil Cooper, "The Intellectual Virtues," Philosophy, vol. 69 (1994), 459-469.

(5) Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 256 (see also pp. xiv-xv).

(6) See Nicomachean Ethics, tr. by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), IV, 3.

(7) See Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and tr. by Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), IV, prop. LIII; David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 598-600; and Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, tr. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), sec. 260. Feminist critiques of humility have been more prominent among theologians than philosophers; for example, see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press), 1983), p. 185-186.

(8) Witness Haimon's speech to his father urging him to learn from others in Sophocles's Antigone. For this reason, I think Alasdair MacIntyre is mistaken in saying "humility...could appear in no Greek list of the virtues" [After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981], p. 127).

(9) For example, see Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 221-222.

(10) Bernard of Clairvaux depicts a humble person as recognizing "his own unworthiness" ["On Humility and Pride," in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, tr. by G. R. Evans (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 103].

(11) See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947), II-II, Q. 161) and, more recently, Norvin Richards, Humility (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992), ch. 1 and Nancy E. Snow, "Humility," The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 29 (1995), 203-216.

(12) See Aquinas, op. cit., and Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, tr. by Mary Gregor (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 230-231 (pp. 434-436 in the standard Preussische Akademie pagination).

(13) The influence of Kant is evident in many of these discussions, often mediated by Rawls. The literature is very large. Representative examples include: John Benson, "Who is the Autonomous Man?" Philosophy, vol. 58 (1983), 5-17; Thomas E. Hill, Jr., "Servility and Self-Respect," in Autonomy and Self-Respect (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 4-18; and David Sachs, "How to Distinguish Self-Respect from Self-Esteem," Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 10 (1981), 346-360.

(14) To this extent, my analysis of self-worth conforms to Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, but I do not intend to endorse this doctrine as a correct account of all moral virtues.

(15) Micah famously exhorts us "to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6: 8), and Aquinas is typical in saying that humility "regards chiefly the subjection of man to God" (op. cit., II-II, Q. 161, art. 1). On humility in the Jewish tradition, see Ronald Green, "Jewish Ethics and the Virtue of Humility," The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 1 (1973), 53-63 and Daniel M. Nelson, "The Virtue of Humility in Judaism: A Critique of Rationalist Hermeneutics," The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 13 (1985), 298-311.

(16) For example, see Nagel, op. cit.

(17) For example, see Thomas E. Hill, Jr., "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments," in Autonomy and Self-Respect, pp. 104-117.

(18) See Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp. 82, 84, and 91.

(19) For example, see: Richard Boyd, "How to be a Moral Realist," in Essays on Moral Realism, ed. by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 212; David Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 205; and Nagel, op. cit., p. 148.

(20) See Benson, op. cit. and Ruether, op. cit., p. 186. The connection between having a proper sense of self and acquiring knowledge is a theme in Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1986).

(21) For two very different examples, see Robin S. Dillon, "How to Lose Your Self-Respect," American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 29 (1992), 125-139, and Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1: Human Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964), pp. 186-219.

(22) For example, see Niebuhr, op. cit., pp. 200-202, and Ruether, op. cit., pp. 188-189. Though one might doubt the sincerity of such professions, I believe there are many important moral traditions in the world, both religious and secular, in which self-worth is taken seriously, and it is not unreasonable to think that some members of these traditions have reflected on the skeptical implications of their own views.

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