Self-Promotion: How Much is Too Much? (part 1 of 3)

self promotion lesboprof chronicle higher education truth falsity lie bragging disclosure virtue vice ethics moral colleagues academics virtuous vicious
A thought-provoking piece by the equally provocatively self-titled Lesboprof in the Chronicle of Higher Education today raised but did not resolve a question, one particularly intended for academics -- but by extension, others as well --to what degree ought one engage in self-promotion?  How much -- and how precisely -- ought one to bring to or even impress upon the attention of others one's own accomplishments, successes, projects, qualities?  She doesn't provide a hard-and-fast answer, writing that:
I discussed with my friends the issue of what counts as shameless self-promotion and what is wanting to share excitement and pride in one’s accomplishments. It is difficult to clearly delineate between the two.
 As I reflected upon the matter -- well supplied for rumination on this by experience of more than a decade in the academic racket, during which I've seen many cases that crossed the line into blatant, tasteless self-promotion, as well as many other people's achievements or contributions go unrecognized, held similar conversations about how to decide and determine cases and rules for this, and even had to gradually work out my own position and practice -- it struck me not only that this would in fact be precisely the kind of topic to which Virtue Ethics could bring some needed clarity and guidance, but that in point of fact, some of the classic proponents and developers of that moral approach in fact had written relevant passages bearing on the matter.

Aristotle's works and his Nicomachean Ethics, in particular, comes to mind, since he discussed virtues and vices having to deal with self-disclosure, the sense of shame, and the importance of honor.  While he never faced, nor imagined, the kind of situation about which Lesboprof writes -- and so many of us find ourselves in -- his texts do provide a considerable amount bearing upon the issue and the questions it opens up, both in the article and in our practices and institutions. 

Many members participating in the great Virtue Ethics tradition -- particularly, though not exclusively Christian thinkers -- would likely frame this in terms not so much of truthfulness, honor, or shame, but rather in terms of pride and humility -- two seemingly opposed moral concepts whose tenor, meaning, and evaluation changes considerably from one cultural context to another (as I discussed earlier this fall).  And at this point, on this issue, one has to adopt one vantage point or another, so instead of examining this matter through the lens of those religiously committed virtue ethicists who -- perhaps seeing yet more rightly -- would focus on the vicious pridefulness one risks indulging while proting oneself, I'm going to take the other path and stick just with what light Aristotle can shed on the matter.  Perhaps another post, fleshing out how Augustine, or John Cassian, or Anselm, or Thomas Aquinas (only a few of the Christian virtue ethicists whose thought one might explore on this issue) would approach this very topic would be wroth writing -- but I'll put that off for the present moment.

Aristotle does in fact write about a virtue with two opposed vices that bears directly upon the issue of self-promotion.  In both the Nicomachean and the Eudemian Ethics, he calls the virtue simply "truthfulness" (aletheia), since at least in his own time, this characteristic seemed to lack a definite, common, agreed-upon name (Aristotle also perhaps coins another term for such a person, authekastos, about whose translation commentators puzzle and dispute).  In the Eudemian Ethics, he associates this disposition of truthfulness with being simple or straightforward (haplos), and tells us that such a person is a "lover of truth" (philoalethes),  and contrasts him or her against the vicious who are "lovers of falsity" (philopseudeis).

In both texts, this virtue lies between the vices of boastfulness (alazoneia) and self-deprecation (eironeia, more familiar to us by its cognate, "irony").  It is to the Nichomachean Ethics that we have to turn to find fuller discussion of this sort of virtuous truthfulness and its two opposed vices, forms of falsity.  There he clarifies for us that the truthfulness that he has in mind is not the sort involved in matters of justice or injustice, right or wrong, nor that in agreements made with others, i.e. business being conducted between people -- rather, it is a matter of truthfulness "in word and in manner of life," a stance one adopts consistently even when there are no interests at stake, when nothing depends on it, when one gets nothing out of being truthful.  And, even though this virtuous disposition has its root in the person's love or affinity for the truth in general, the particular, specifying object Aristotle is interested in is the truth about oneself.

Before looking more closely at the vices he analyses,  let's pause and consider how -- indeed whether -- this Aristotelian understanding of a particular kind of identifiable human excellence, a shoot from an ancient branch, can be successfully inserted into our contemporary concerns and conversations about self-promotion, a graft fruitfully contributing insight and direction. One of the passages in the Chronicle post seems particularly rich and relevant for reflection in this Virtue Ethics vein:
No one wants to be around a person who is just interested in their own lives. There is something in academe, though, that requires a good bit of self-promotion. It starts when you are applying for jobs. Everyone has had to work through the weirdness of having to write a letter outlining your strengths, awards, and experiences for potential employers. It is a fine line to walk the balance between bragging (“I do groundbreaking work that has changed the face of research in this area”) and presenting your strengths (“I have explored X, a little understood phenomenon in this area, and challenged prevailing theories”). My work is important, you are saying, without implying that you are too self-important.
Virtue, Aristotle tells us, is not simply the goldilockian measure of "just right," finding the middle state, a mere mediocrity of passion, as Thomas Hobbes derisively quipped in Leviathan.  To be virtuous is not finding the median, remaining in the middle of the crowd, avoiding excess and deficiency -- so in this case, perhaps being only self-promoting this much, on these many occasions, in this number of venues, talking about oneself and ones projects just about this amount of time, looking all the while to one's peers and colleagues and their own self-promoting practices or lack thereof, in order to gauge how best to maintain the medium course.

It's true that the braggart does talk too much about him- or herself,  promotes his or her own name, achievements, qualities, even perhaps (academics are always at risk of succumbing to the temptation of leveraging, of writing their own intellectual promissory notes) just possibilities or prospects.  They also overrate their own value.  The amount Aristotle appears most concerned with is not how often or with what insistence one calls attention to oneself, but rather whether one rates oneself more highly than one deserves, whether one claims greater things for oneself, more insight to one's work, greater importance for one's projects or publications -- in short, whether one makes oneself larger than real life.  The self-deprecatory type may not speak of him or herself less than one ought to -- that would seem to fall within the province of other character traits discussed by Aristotle elsewhere (and by myself in a follow-up blog post) , but certainly does speak of all those matters concerning the self in manner that -- at least on the surface -- undervalues them.

Virtue and vice is also a matter of motive, of the reason why one does what one does, the goods one is thereby pursuing, enjoying, consuming, producing, communicating, participating in -- the why. And these positive or negative moral qualities are also determinative of and determined by the manners in which one does the actions, feels the emotions, orders goods in relation to each other, selects the means for the ends one pursues -- the how.

It is notable that Aristotle centers his analyses of truthfulness, boastfulness, and self-deprecation on when, why, and how one speaks of or calls attention to oneself -- perhaps in ways that would make the kind of academic self-promotion discussed in Lesboprof's article inevitably and irretrievably braggadocious, and thus, if not in fact vicious, certainly out of accordance with virtue and at risk of solidifying over time into a vice.   When there's nothing at stake, no real interests at work -- that's the paradigm for truthfulness.  The braggart, on the other hand, may exaggerate his or her qualities for a variety of reasons -- and these reasons bear on the moral quality of the act and the attitude.

About someone who engages in this genre of untruth for no real reason, when nothing is at stake, nothing is gained thereby, Aristotle says two things.  First, he dismisses that person as contemptible, or as we might say in our parlance, pathetic, rather than as genuinely bad.  Second, he intimates that this person does really have a purpose -- they enjoy lying, stretching the truth, trying to get one over, telling a good tale.

He also considers two main reasons for boasting.  One does so for the sake of reputation or honor, and although there could be good Aristotelian grounds for reconsidering this, he does maintain that this object is both a better and a more understandable one than the other -- money, gain, or the sorts of things that lead to wealth.  We might easily add to this a few other common motives for such puffery -- desire for power, the need to maintain one's own self-image (not precisely the same as -- though certainly connected with reputation accorded by others), the wish to impress or attract possible sexual partners. . .

How does this all pan out for the kind of self-promotion academics engage in?  Well, why do academics feel they need to engage in it?  If one does not "sell oneself," as the saying goes (if one elects instead, just to "be oneself"), then quite likely one has to forgo some of these rewards in one's position, or perhaps not even get one's foot in the door.  Monetary motives seem to play a very significant role -- and to a lesser extent reputation and honor.  Does that make us academic hustlers, ostentatious office-hunters, vicious braggarts of the republic of letters?  If one engages in self-promotion, is one necessarily boastful?

Let's sharpen the question to an even more biting edge.  Aristotle does not equally condemn the two vices.  In fact, while he does reveal some of them -- those disclaim even small good qualities -- as secretly boastful,  he also says that those who understate matters are actually attractive, because they seem to be motivated by a desire not to make too much of things, not to call too much attention to themselves.  They actually seem similar to the truthful person.  Aristotle caps it by pointing out that it is the boastful person who is further from the truthful person.

Still, Aristotle notes that if a person is truthful when nothing is at stake -- genuinely truthful, virtuously so -- he or she is likely to carry that disposition forward when there is something at risk, when it's a matter of concerns that count.  Doesn't that suggest that this sort of truthfulness is possible, is desirable, even in matters of importance, one's livelihood, one's academic advancement, in the equally intense and opaque competition of the job market?

What such truthfulness would depend on, what form it would have to assume, would be determined by the why, the how, and the what value discussed above.  I think that these would in their turn be to some degree governed by and require some discussion of another virtue to which Aristotle gave even more attention -- justice.

In the intellectual culture and institutions we inhabit, it could be quite right for an academic to engage in vigorous self-promotion, given that for most of us that is about the only promotion one will get.  In a highly prestige-and pedigree-ridden, rather tier-stratified academic culture -- which affects hiring, fellowships, publication, access to information and all manners of opportunities -- I think an argument could even be made that those in lower-tier institutions, who not only lack the mantle of apparent quality employment or education at a higher-tier institution affords, but whose institutions also do much less, often nothing at all, to promote them, their products, projects, and prospects, ought to be accorded more leeway, greater understanding.

What will be critical, however, is whether one does in fact deserve to be promoted, whether one is being promoted -- or rather promoting oneself -- for genuinely valuable contributions or qualities or for other, less meritorious reasons, on solid, defensible,even demonstrable grounds or more dubious bases. That, I fear, is as far as considering this from an Aristotelian perspective oriented solely by his discussion of the virtue of truthfulness will take us.  Other additional virtues and vices -- not just justice -- seem promising for contributing some clarity as well, but I'll defer that discussion for the moment