Home » Blog » Neglected Virtue (5) Altruistic Humbleness – “Why not just say “I want it”?” Yuan Yuan (Yale University)

Neglected Virtue (5) Altruistic Humbleness – “Why not just say “I want it”?” Yuan Yuan (Yale University)

Yuan Yuan is a Ph.D student in philosophy at Yale University. Her research mainly focuses on moral, political and legal philosophy.
Altruistic Humbleness

My 4-year-old daughter is sweet and extremely shy. Like kids in her age, she loves snacks, toys and hot spots on the playground. When it is time to allocate those resources (say, a pretty new hand-drum this time) at schools, the typical scene would look like the follow: while her classmates raise their hands as high as possible shouting out “Me!” “Me!” “Me!”, she would be sitting there silently…At first her teachers try hard to keep a queue, and give everyone a fair chance to access the drum, my daughter waits and waits at a corner in silence, until everyone has played with the drum, gotten bored with it, and left it unattended. And just at the moment when the teachers start to think: “enough for all the kids,” she quietly walks up to the drum, carefully picks it up, and smiles…

When Fan (a Post-doc in developmental psychology who also grew up in China) and I were sitting in a café and chatting, I told her my puzzle: why is it so hard for my daughter to assert that “I want it!”? I thought that this would be a psychological problem for shy kids, but she said: “This might be psychological, but it might also be cultural! I so strongly identify with your daughter. I always put other colleagues first (e.g., let them conduct their experiments with the available participants first) out of humbleness, but they always think that I simply prefer to be the last. It is not part of the Chinese mind set to declare forcefully ‘this is really what I want,’ while here (in America) everyone assumes that we all have made clear what we each want.” I said to Fan: “I never teach my daughter not to assert her needs!” She said: “But you also never teach her how to assert her needs, right? Absence of counter-education is enough to reinforce the Chinese way, which must have been entrenched in your house.”

Putting in a somewhat cartoonish description, while the Chinese are frustrated about the Americans: “why cannot you get the idea of humbleness and the expectation for everyone to put others first?”, the Americans are perplexed about the Chinese: “Why don’t you simply say that you also want it, so we can take it into account and develop a fair overall arrangement?” Though the American culture might have gone too far in terms of asserting “I want it,” the intention and capacity to straightforwardly communicate what one wants is crucial to one’s happiness. Especially since the others-first approach often involves a high level of epistemic uncertainty, as it implies that we all guess what others want. In light of Mill’s acute observation that human beings are often a better judge of what is good for themselves instead of what is good for others, well-intended Chinese on the both sides of a giver and a receiver are often hurt and frustrated: the giver’s well-intention is not appreciated, and the receiver’s actual needs are not satisfied. It may be time to encourage my sweet daughter to clearly pronounce the simple verse: “I want it, too.”

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