The warm glow of being certain that my political views are correct. The thrill of the perfectly formulated gotcha question. The combined feelings of fury and astonishment that my political adversaries could be so stupid, so evil, so misguided. Welcome to our era. We live in the age of arrogance—an unforgiving, intolerant, anger-stoked age of entrenched confirmation bias across groups and of constantly alleged binary political choices in which your position is entirely wrong and mine is entirely right.
This way of understanding those with whom we disagree has become so prevalent that we may come to view it as normal, or inevitable, though it’s neither. Nor is this tumor benign. Believing that my political opponents are either deluded or trying to cause harm destroys the trust on which civil society depends. It wrecks politics and political discussion. It weakens our intellects. It distorts the mission of higher education. It threatens family life. It ends friendships.
What is to be done? The ultimate antidote for political arrogance is political humility, which is a branch of intellectual humility. And so I rise with soft clear voice to sing its praises.
Intellectual humility appears to be a malleable personality trait. We can define it briefly as the capacity for recognizing that a particular personal belief or position may be fallible. Accordingly, intellectually humble people typically understand their own beliefs as subject to further consideration and typically feel willing and able to learn from the views of others, even those with whom they strongly disagree.
For centuries, intellectual humility was understood as a character virtue to be cultivated. Socrates, a founder of Western philosophy, embodied and taught it in classical Athens. In his famous 1748 “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume expressed one of his principle conclusions this way: “In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.” Benjamin Franklin, in his warnings about the self-defeating qualities of “dogmatical expression,” describes intellectual humility as one of society’s most useful virtues.
At the personal level, intellectual humility counterbalances narcissism, self-centeredness, pridefulness, and the need to dominate others. Conversely, intellectual humility seems to correlate positively with empathy, responsiveness to reasons, the ability to acknowledge what one owes (including intellectually) to others, and the moral capacity for equal regard of others. Arguably its ultimate fruit is a more accurate understanding of oneself and one’s capacities. Intellectual humility also appears frequently to correlate positively with successful leadership (due especially to the link between intellectual humility and trustworthiness) and with rightly earned self-confidence.
At the social and political levels, intellectual humility is a primary democratic virtue. Many political philosophers across the centuries have insisted on its importance. Why? Because, as the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain put it, “a responsible politics is one that appreciates the limits to our understanding: We don’t know enough and can, in principal, never know enough to advance epistemological and political certitude.”
Indeed, without those habits and commitments associated with intellectual humility—dialogue based on reason-giving, openness to other views, rational argument in the service of truth, and norms of forbearance, civility, and self-restraint—democracy itself is poisoned and can grind to a halt. For this reason, intellectual humility may be the essential cure for the condemn-your-neighbor political polarization now dominating our society.
Analytically, and especially when considered as a character virtue, we can view intellectual humility as a wisely discerned middle ground (the golden mean) between the two extremes of intellectual arrogance and intellectual servility.
Viewed this way, intellectual humility can, but does not need to, lead to the inability to act with courage and conviction. Abraham Lincoln gave his life for the preservation of the Union. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his for the beloved community. The Czech playwright and political leader Vaclav Havel showed matchless fortitude in the fight against authoritarianism.
Yet these three are among my heroes in large measure because of their intellectual humility. For their highest principles they risked all, but they were never ideologues. They never bragged, never gloated, never considered the conversation closed. They never suggested in word or deed that doubt is the enemy of truth or that humility undermines conviction.
We can similarly view intellectual humility as the wisest balance between, on the one hand, the belief that truth exists and is objective, and on the other, the knowledge that our access to the truth is subjective and therefore partial. Understanding this balance suggests that the search for the truth we revere is best undertaken in recognition of our limitations and in collaboration with others.
Havel once said that he would rather have a beer with someone searching for the truth than with someone who has found it. An important quality of both scientific inquiry and democratic political discourse is the understanding that all can learn from all and that important conversations don’t end.
Finally, intellectual humility is not a freestanding (purely heritable) or fixed human quality. It’s like baseball. It can be done well or badly, and doing it well requires practice and repetition. Nor does excellence typically arise only from internal effort. Like baseball, intellectual humility is most proficiently played as a team sport.
Accordingly, my capacity for intellectual humility depends importantly on a surrounding culture that prizes it and expects it, particularly of its leaders, that institutionalizes it, and that teaches it, especially to the young.
A number of societal conditions are favorable to cultivating intellectual humility. They include:
- knowing conceptually what intellectual humility is and how to recognize it in others;
- participating in institutions that value openness and flexibility and that tolerate and often welcome uncertainty;
- receiving environmental feedback that permits us to understand accurately what we do and do not know;
- being exposed to the benefits of intellectual humility, such as improved decision making, better relationships with others, and enhanced organizational and social progress; and
- being exposed to societal leaders who model intellectual humility, are admired by others because of it, and whose success is in part attributed to it.
What can be done to help produce these conditions? Here are ten ideas.
- Encourage social scientists to conceptualize and measure intellectual humility. (This is already beginning to happen.)
- Teach children in family, community, and religious life that consciously cultivating intellectual humility is a way to become both a smart person (with a high “Civic IQ”) and a good person.
- Promote intellectual humility on college campuses as a gateway to knowledge and an antidote to politicized higher education.
Politics and Media
- Seek the revival of “regular order” (rules and customs intended to produce deliberation and compromise) in the U.S. Congress.
- Seek the revival of senatorial courtesy in the U.S. Senate. (The principle here is that attitudes follow behavior. If I dislike you but must pretend otherwise in my external behavior because custom obliges me to use prescribed language indicating respect, I may eventually come to suspect that you deserve respect. Thus acting as if I respect you can increase my respect.)
- Replace posturing and publicity-seeking with actual, give-and-take communication in town hall meetings with members of Congress.
- Encourage (mild-mannered) arrogance-shaming of those in the public eye acting with gross intellectual arrogance.
- Create and seek to make popular a social media code of ethics.
- Do everything we can to foster social, class, and racial integration.
- Create more opportunities for citizens to talk with (not just at) one another across partisan divides.
Will any of this work? Of course it will. My logic is flawless, and my argument is irresistible. And if you can’t see that, you are a bad person who doesn’t care about others. Of this I’m certain.