Self-Promotion: How Much is Too Much? (part 2 of 3)

Several weeks ago, in an earlier piece, I brought Aristotle to bear on a question which arose in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Art and Science of Academic Self-Promotion. There are some real issues there -- not just matters of etiquette or prudential career moves, but genuine moral issues, comprising matters wider in scope than just the decidedly not (for anyone who has actually worked there) ivory-clean towers of academia.  We inhabit a society in which we routinely have to compete for recognition within the organizations to which we contribute, often in ways that can easily be overlooked. Oftentimes, promotions, raises, even the possibility of small perks depend on how much value we bring -- or rather, are perceived to add -- to the projects, concerns, functions of the institutions.

In addition to the demands imposed by the kind of workplaces we typically inhabit for large portions of our days, weeks, years, even lives -- a situation differing radically  not only from Aristotle's own time but even from workplaces just a few generations ago -- there's also a factor that runs as a constant across societies and cultures, down the paths of time and into any foreseeable future, since it stems from human nature -- the natural human tendency to want to talk about, to publicize in some way, our accomplishments, our qualities, our successes -- or at least what we perceive or would like ourselves or others to think of as such -- precisely why the first Aristotelian set of ideas germane to this topic, discussed in the previous post, were the virtue of truthfulness about self, and its opposed vices of boastfulness and self-deprecation.  Is there any further light Aristotle can shed on the subject, though?  Any other discussions of interest, any virtues or vices particularly relevant here?

I'd promised that I would follow up the previous portion of this Aristotelian inquiry about self-promotion by identifying and analyzing precisely those other virtues and vices -- or other morally evaluated conditions -- which could add some new depth, reveal some others sides to self-promotion. It seems to me that there are three sets of moral concepts and distinctions which could contribute to understanding that admittedly and emotionally murky issue:  shame and shamelessness; ambition and unambitiousness; and, justice and injustice.  I intend to make good on the first of these in this post, and the other two in another appearing in the near future.

Possessing a sense of shame (aidos) comes to mind almost immediately, not least since we castigate "shameless self-promotion," instances in which someone has gone too far, over some tangible though difficult-to-draw line.  There are cases in which we sense that the ways in which someone has called the attention of others to their work, talents, or products are wrong, in poor taste, servile, pushy. Perhaps it is a matter of degree.  Or, it is a question of whom they address themselves to.  Alternately, it is the means they select.  In other cases, it is the hyperbolic self-praise, puffery, seemingly ascribing more merit, value, or rarity than is legitimately due.  When it comes to thinking about shame per se, it is not those defects of the act, those modes of deception, those deviations from truthfulness that we ought to focus on, but rather the person's own response to these, their own actions, revelatory of intention, habit, and character.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle very clearly denies shame, as actually felt in real situations, the status of a virtue, which is very interesting for several reasons.  First, deciding not to treat it as a virtuous state of character, which would then be opposed to one or more vicious states of character does not remove it from the moral plane.  In fact, it is good in a qualified sense, since it is good for younger people to have.  Why?  Because younger people have a tendency to get things wrong quite often in their views, actions, reasoning, and emotions, and shame -- fear of loss of reputation or status (phobos . . . adoxias) -- works as as kind of corrective. 

Shame is not good for mature people to have, however -- at least in one sense, since it is better that someone who has done something shameful does feel ashamed over it (in this case, perhaps not so much just a fear of, as a being-pained-by it) than that they do not feel ashamed, which is worse.  When one feels shame, it is because something has gone astray, something shameful (or considered shameful, something scandalizing or offending others) has been done.  So, actually feeling it is not a mark of virtue or of good character -- just a sign of one's character not being even worse!

Aristotle does soften this a bit, however, by saying that for mature people to feel shame can be a sign of good character, "by hypothesis," i.e. counter-factually -- if a virtuous person were to commit a shameful action, he or she would feel ashamed -- but they don't do such actions, as a rule (though it could, I suppose be shameful to make a mistake, and virtuous people do make them sometimes), so virtuous people don't actually feel shame -- at least not over their own actions (this is one of the issues which one would have liked to see Aristotle wrestle with a bit longer).

So, what would the upshot of this be for self-promotion?  Can we say, is it possible to agree, to achieve more or less of a consensus, that there are some modes of self-promotion that are shameful, that a person ought to be ashamed to engage in -- but perhaps, precisely because he or she is shameless, does not feel ashamed to use?  In egregious and obvious cases, I think we can attain some rough agreement, which will not include everyone, of course, precisely because some people are shameless, deficient in character in this respect.

It gets a bit trickier when it comes to other cases.  One might reason that this is not so -- don't we simply have to consult our own experience about what we have afterwards been ashamed or to engage in a thought-experiment about conditionals:  "If I were to do this. . .  would I feel ashamed?"  If appeal to experience is in your line, then consider this one, my own.  After having children, being the main breadwinner in the household, and teaching at my first full-time, highly unprestigious, full-time post (in a maximum security prison), I found that my sensibilities about what constituted shameful and non-shameful types of self-promotion changed considerably.  There were a number of tacks, tricks, and dodges I would have blushed to consider (and since I was that sort, openly and loudly contemned) when I was a single, childless, grad student, about which I found myself adopting -- without even having to given them much thought -- self-promotional courses about which my increase in moral latitude was matched by the energy with which I put them into effect.

As I pointed out in the previous post, Aristotle himself does not see any great problem with not being able to draw exact lines ahead of time, abstractly, outside of concrete situations, neatly separating what would be appropriate or virtuous from what is not -- or in this case, what would be shameful from what would not be -- after all, it is of the essence of virtue ethics that one needs to learn, to develop, to build upon -- and at times, even lean upon, borrow, walk in the footprints of other people's -- discretion, practical wisdom, phronesis, the capacity to determine in actual, real situations what is fitting and what is not, what goes too far and what remains within the pale, to survey motives and intentions of the acting person.

When it comes to self-promotion, then, determining what is, even what is regarded as, shameful -- for Aristotle seems to think that both what actually is shameful and what is deemed shameful (but perhaps isn't) ought to be avoided -- might not be a simple matter.  Presumably, one resource to rely upon in particular situations would be one's own sense of shame -- not shame actually felt for having done something wrong, but the realization that, were one to promote oneself in this or that way, to this extent, by this means, with this person or group, one would then feel the emotion of shame.  But, this appeal to personal sensibility would require supplementation, perhaps even what we might think of as a necessary calibration by other means.

Among these we could set models provided by observation of and interaction with other people, particularly, I think, good mentors -- those who can not only guide but also articulate to those uncertain about self-promotion why such a case of it is or would be shameful, and why another case might bear no such opprobrium, might actually be precisely what one ought to do in such circumstances.  Comparing notes with peers in the same or similar fields, caught up within the same institutions and situations, soliciting their views and experiences, utilizing them as sounding boards, perhaps even learning of resources, forums, or techniques that can lift that lurking sense of shame by providing clearly -- or at least arguably, in good conscience -- legitimate occasions and channels for the self-promotion.  The virtues also provide a necessary framework, not only externalized in our talk and thinking about this, but within the person, a gradually developed armature of habit, tendency, outlook, and feeling.  We've already looked at one virtue needed here -- truthfulness -- and in the next post, we'll turn to those of justice and right ambitiousness.