Tag Archives: Niebuhr

Self-Assertion as a Virtue

In working on my dissertation, I’ve come to the conclusion that self-assertion is a virtue. And this comes mainly from looking at theological anthropology. Reinhold Niebuhr presents an understanding of human nature that in my opinion, can be thought of in terms of virtue ethics. He divides human nature into two aspects, creatureliness of humanity and the spirit/freedom aspect. The perfection of the latter is the theological virtues (according to Niebuhr, I’m not even putting words in his mouth) and human perfection in general would consist of harmony between God and self, within the self (an ordered soul), and between self and the rest of creation. Sound familiar to people who read Aristotle and Aquinas?

Feminist critiques of Niebuhr, however, argue that his understanding of sin in flawed because he identifies pride as the primary form of sin, and the other form of sin, sensuality, is viewed as a derivative of pride. I agree with this assessment but contend that viewing Niebuhr in a virtue framework allows for sensuality to hold equal importance to pride.

A virtue is a mean between an excess and deficiency. In this case, self-assertion would be the mean between selfishness (pride) and self-abnegation (sensuality). Additionally, people are born with dispositions and tendencies toward the excess or deficiency, so some people struggle with pride, while others struggle with sensuality. This could fall along gender lines, but doesn’t have to (and I think it would be a mistake to do so). Though some feminist scholars such as Judith Plaskow identify sensuality as being more in line with women’s experience, she also admits that women can also have problems with pride. I would also say that men as susceptible to sensuality as well. In terms of my own studies, there have been times where I’ve bailed on my academic responsibilities and focused on what was for dinner that night or making plans to have a happy hour with friends.

The question is what kind of virtue is self-assertion. Since all of the moral virtues are collapsible to the cardinal virtues (temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence), self-assertion would be a subcategory of one of these virtues. I think the likeliest candidates are temperance and justice. Temperance is a good fit because it is the virtue of self-restraint. One would usually consider moderation of food, drink, sexual activity, etc. to this virtue. Self-assertion is related to self-restraint but it is not identical. Humility is also one of the aspects of temperance, but self-assertion in the context I am discussing is not humility either. It is acknowledging one’s self as a self that has claims and obligations. Justice is a distant second because justice deals with what people are due. Self-assertion in this context would be taking what is appropriate, not more or less. It is easy to see how self-assertion would fit into justice, but modern views on justice have focused on the more material aspects of the virtue (economics for instance) and self-assertion is less about that than it is about identity and responsibility.

So what do you think? I don’t believe that I’m over thinking this by being unsure where to place self-assertion. Of course, maybe I’m overlooking the obvious.