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

Back last year, I wrote two pieces (part 1 and part 2) tackling a question raised by a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The art and science of academic self-promotion, examining the key questions posed by it:  How much self-promotion is too much?  Can a line be drawn, and if so, how?  Is it a matter of hard and fast rules?  Or can it be more adequately understood -- as I think it can -- in terms of virtues and vices of character?

I'd framed it in terms of several of Aristotle's promising discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he explores the virtue of truthfulness, and its correlated vices, boastfulness and self-deprecation, and also discusses shame and shamelessness.  These are natural places in his works to look for insights about the relative and respective values, limits, and modalities of self-promotion, aren't they?  The sort of truthfulness Aristotle describes as virtuous is precisely honesty about oneself, one's qualities, one's accomplishments, honesty in a public or at least not entirely private setting.  Shame, when it is felt -- or would be felt -- rightly, also marks the character of a person who has some limits, who will not just do or say anything, subordinate any other value or good to satisfy desires or advance interests.  Is this all that Aristotle has to offer?  Everything he has said or has to say?

I don't think that is the case.  In fact, there's two virtues which are arguably closer to the heart of Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, two good states of character which he examines in considerable detail, two habitual dispositions arguably among the three most architectonic in his moral theory:  justice and magnanimity.

Because Aristotle's treatment of justice is rich, deep, complex, a few things should be said about his views -- or rather, a few points he makes should be, if not explained fully, at least set out on the table, pieces to what might seem like a many-pieces puzzle.  First, just about any type of behavior -- good or bad -- can be brought within the scope of justice broadly understood, since as Aristotle stresses, justice is in a certain sense "the whole of virtue," clarifying this by noting that justice in this sense involves doing -- and the disposition towards doing -- what the other virtues require "in relation to the other," towards and with, concerned by and connected to, other people -- "for the good of others".  Already, then, the virtue of truthfulness or honesty about oneself, or the vices opposed to it, will in some sense potentially involve justice or injustice.

Certainly that will be the case when we are thinking about self-promotion, the intrusion or imposition, or alternately, the offering and recommendation of oneself not only into shared and public communicative space -- sometimes even literally the space within which we move, live, love, work, and play.  Being boastful, going beyond bounds of propriety that are tangible if only hazily visible, is in some sense to be unjust in a public way, towards one's peers, fellows, neighbors.  And yet, to fail to promote oneself -- particularly in the competitive, saturated, always unfairly skewed and advantaged marketplaces of ideas -- cedes over that space that can legitimately belong to (or at least be used by) one, should one choose it, exercise the initiative to take, develop, and exploit it. In fact, both vices of boastfulness and self-deprecation could be unjust in another way, precluding cooperative, even collegial, rather than merely competitive, impedimental, or invidious relations, collaborations and projects, communities of enquiry -- good things, matters of a at-least-semi-common good, which would otherwise attain live possibility.

This leads to a second point, which is that Justice, as Aristotle understand it, comprises a number of distinct but mutually supporting modalities.  Put in another, less technical way, there is not one single thing that is justice.  There are several different and perhaps equally important kinds of justice.  This is where, from my view, it gets really interesting -- and its gets concrete, the examples get real, easy to relate to, when we think about some of these  different kinds of justice and how they would play out in morally evaluating self-promotion.

Let's start with one sense Aristotle discusses throughout his works, what we might call "legal justice."  Even if we understand legality in a considerably narrower sense that Aristotle himself (and Greek society) did, we can still easily recognize that there are some legal constraints on just how far one can go with self-promotion.  One ought not, for instance, fraudulently represent oneself to have qualifications one does not actually possess, to have accomplished things which have not been done or which a colleague (or worse, one's graduate researcher) might have done. 

More interesting is the notion of justice as fairness:  justice in distribution, in rectification, and in reciprocity.  What would justice in distribution look like?  One might at first think of how, say within a workplace, a scholarly community, anyplace where different people are doing or have done good work which might be overlooked, that everyone should get noticed, that everyone deserves to have their actual accomplishments, contributions, qualities and qualifications noted -- not necessarily that everyone gets an equal share in the limelight, of course, but that the amount of publicity, credit, attention is roughly commensurate to some measure of merit.

And indeed, that would be one aspect of public promotion -- but not one which as such directly involves self-promotion.  One might even imagine a workplace or public space -- perhaps social networks like would be a prime example of this -- set up so as to allow participants to easily publicize their own works, limited only by their initiative or ingenuity, and the realities they have to offer.  Still, the questions and concerns originally raised envisioned an environment, a condition, a situation in which the issue is not the spaces of social networks so much as promotion of one's accomplishments and qualities to one's peers in less out of the way manners.

It seems to me that meeting the demands of distributive justice in one's own self-promotion should be looked at less in terms of whether one is getting one's fair share in relation to one's peers, in one's environment, from one's superiors -- and more bout whether one is doing justice oneself by acknowledging the roles and contributions others have made in one's own successes.

Does this mean that worries about whether one is getting one's due have no place?  That these would inevitably taint, corrupt, vitiate self-promotion?  That is not necessarily the case, and in fact rectificatory justice involves addressing precisely such imbalances.  When placed in a still class-ridden, contact-driven, pedigree-conscious academic marketplace subject to the same vicissitudes of personality, prejudices, and just plain imperceptiveness as everywhere else -- where you can't count on the system to balance itself or some peer or patron to set matters straight -- vigorous self-promotion can actually be the just thing.  Some limits would have to be thought out, observed, respected, of course -- otherwise, one goes from one extreme to another, using admitted injustice to excuse further injustice.

Reciprocity, the kind of justice which often involves paying back favors, the fertile ground at times for friendships to flourish, also has implications for self-promotion.  If one has helped another in their own self-promotion -- and there are a variety of different ways to do that -- it seems reasonable to expect a certain receptiveness to one's own self-promotion.  And, likewise, a just person would recognize that imposing upon another's attention itself extends demands of reciprocity out into the future.

I'm going to end here, without having yet discussed magnanimity, vanity, low-self-worth and legitimate humility and their bearing on self-promotion, putting that last bit of study off for a Virtue Ethics Digest post later this week.