Time for a Little Intellectual Humility?




A friend and I used to argue for fun, and when we had exhausted the rational points of debate and I made a final, flourishy demand for proof, he would shrug and say, “Because I’m right.”

It was maddening. Yes, he was teasing, but we both knew he also meant it—and so did I. Arguing without any stake is too bloodless, too gamey for my taste. I did believe I was right, even when the topic was deliberately silly.

These days, I seldom argue for fun; it is too risky. Instead, I am trying to add a little agnostic humility to my convictions. If politics and the pandemic have proved nothing else, they have shown how rare intellectual humility is, and how underrated. Without it, higher education divides instead of uniting; people resent “experts”; democracy falters; community breaks apart; families and friendships crack. We are quick to point fingers, decrying woke academics or uneducated bigots, coastal elites or snowflakes, and everyone is tucked into a category of complaint.

As part of my project, I watch one of the (usually calm and thoughtful) videotaped debates at the Institute of Art and Ideas. Its aim is to explore whether we still need religion and its rituals. But fast as a gasoline fire, the conversation flares into a fierce squabble about which is more humble, science or religion.

Neither. Humility is the spotty exception in every field of inquiry. Where do I look for it, then, so I can learn by imitation? For all their cautious footnotes, academics are taught to sound certain, to be the smartest person in the room and therefore the most deserving of tenure. CEOs have to be sure of themselves, lest the stockholders panic. Doctors, clerics, politicians—our entire society is glued together with the pretense of certitude.

My friend’s old taunt had roots in what researchers in the fifties called “the authoritarian personality.” You are right, and anyone who disagrees with you is misguided if not outright evil. This is an obnoxious, indefensible arrogance.

Yet I felt exactly that way about masking, vaccines, and Donald Trump.

That may be one reason these years have felt so intensely uncomfortable; I was used to a different dance. Emotionally, I might have found someone else’s political stance repulsive, lacking in compassion or foresight, but I could usually identify a few areas where it made a certain kind of sense, a few points (like fiscal responsibility) that I wanted to integrate into my own views. Lately the issues feel too cleanly divided, free of any messy gray overlap—which ought to be a comfort but is not.

Much of politics is temperament; I have long felt. Others say that is hogwash, or that there is only a correlation, not a causation. But consider: what do you value more, openness or security? Novelty or tradition? Empathy and inclusion or loyalty to one’s own kind? I lean to the first in each pairing, and it makes sense to me that conservative friends lean to the second. Both are needed. My friends can be the keepers of all that is valuable and already established; I can be the tolerant explorer eager for fresh solutions.

Except that my famous tolerance is, I now realize, as shallow as a dinner plate. I tolerate halfway congenial ideas with a measure of grace, but the minute someone voices an opinion that feels rigid, closed, judgmental, or intolerant, I judge them back just as harshly, and my mind snaps shut.

My defense is that these are moral convictions, and I am not obliged to bend in the wind. Also, I am tired of being in the camp that gets dismissed as weak because it includes caveats, gray areas, the possibility of new information contradicting what is now known. Scared humans equate conviction with strength; qualifying an opinion is seen as overcomplicating the issue. Soon it looks like you are waffling, which is the political kiss of death.

I want leaders who waffle. Not to win votes or placate donors, but because they now have new information and are capable of adjusting their conclusion. Humility makes us smarter in the long run. It smooths romantic relationships and makes us easier to forgive. It calms others. “When I meet someone who radiates humility, my shoulders relax, my heart beats a little more quietly, and something inside me lets go,” notes one writer. Why? Because humility lets all of us drop our defenses.

When we are humbled, we admit we are human. We are all in this together, without any need for one-upmanship or ego.

But here is the rub: that kind of relaxed openness requires a sense of security. The minute we feel precarious or threatened, we go looking for rigid certainty.

Religion pretends to offer that. The minute it organizes itself into an entity that requires adherents and their financial support, it must claim to possess insight no other religion has.

The only sort of organized religion that would appeal to me would be one that encouraged intellectual humility even about its own precepts. This dream religion would begin, not by setting itself up as Truth, but by admitting that none of us really knows why we are here—then offering some bits of wisdom we can use as a climbing rope.

Why is that approach so rare, especially in Christianity, when St. Augustine called humility the foundation of all other virtues?

The John Templeton Foundation is bringing the insights of psychologists and philosophers to bear. How do we learn to recognize and own our intellectual limitations, they are asking. Only then can we avoid rash decisions, wrongheaded conclusions, and angry clashes. But we are not yet even sure what intellectual humility is—a personality trait? A cast of mind? A useful habit? A virtue, or the absence of narcissistic vice?

My question is more urgent: how, when I am convinced I am right (or rather, that the experts I trust are right), do I stay willing to reconsider, avoid growing defensive, dial back my vehemence? How do I get my fear and my ego out of the equation?

The old way was to trust the experts. Now we are cynical about expertise itself, mistrustful and therefore floundering, because it is the experts we no longer trust who have the necessary training. We think we have cut ourselves loose from a cult of experts, but in reality, we just handpicked our own substitutes. Or we studied up on our own, and now we struggle with “the curse of knowledge,” because knowing even a little about some topic makes it impossible to reimagine what the problem looks like without that information.

Intellectual humility could make us more tolerant of beliefs we do not share, ideas we do not embrace. (Even as I type that sentence, inside a little voice is screaming that some of those ideas could kill people. A life-or-death situation is no place to try for self-improvement.)

Still, even if our tolerance has crisp limits, it could help us avoid what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” When we live too near one another, literally or figuratively, we become hypersensitive to the differences between us, the Templeton researchers explain, and therefore far more bothered by them, more likely to wrangle and feud. This happens with siblings, with best friends, with neighboring nation-states. Why? Because we need those differences to define our own identity, to differentiate us from them. As a result, Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who—to most outward appearances—exhibit very few significant distinctions.”

This could explain why I rage when close friends take a different stance, yet calmly explore the differing opinion when it is held by a group of strangers quite unlike me. Maybe if I keep the habit in mind, it will help me distance a little, move far enough back to see my own views as smaller and more limited, less right, than I like to believe.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.