Saturday, August 13, 2011

Humility & Moral Disagreement

Here's a little something I've been working on, a mashup of (something like) "virtue ethics" and epistemology of disagreement, as it were. I guess that's what some people mean by "virtue epistemology":
Abstract: Intellectual humility involves acknowledging one’s position as one among many, and one’s limitations and fallibility as a perceiver and knower. On controversial matters, the intellectually humble person would, it seems, be disinclined to treat her own beliefs about those matters as more likely to be correct than the beliefs of her epistemic peers. But then it would seem that an intellectually humble person would be disinclined to have strong convictions about controversial moral matters—controversial in the sense that epistemic peers are inclined to hold different and conflicting positions about those issues. I suggest that things are not as they seem, and that a person can maintain intellectual humility even while holding to those convictions with which she most deeply identifies and to which she is strongly committed.
Comments appreciated, as always. (Thanks to the EKU College of Arts and Sciences for giving me money this summer to work on this.)


  1. I second that.

    This made me pause: "humility cannot require that one take
    an intellectually humble stance toward views (or holders of those views) which themselves
    violate the requirements of humility." It sounds like a kind of logical point, but I think the point is more that humility does not require that we reject reasonableness. Imagine someone claiming to be great in some way. Not a humble opinion. But does humility tell me that someone who voices such an opinion of himself must be wrong? Morally, perhaps, but not with regard to the facts. Maybe he is great in the way he has claimed (best pianist in the world, say). Humility tells me to be open-minded about this, I think, but common sense tells me not to put much faith in his claim. And humility does not tell me to ignore common sense.

  2. Thanks, Bosphorus, and DR.

    DR: Good point(s). I shouldn't say "intellectually humble stance" here. The passage risks a bit of an equivocation between intellectual humility and moral humility (seeing ourselves as one among others in a broader sense). I'll have to think of a better phrasing. (I'd be worried about simply saying that humility cannot require us to give equal weight to views that are unreasonable, since that might seem question-begging, though maybe it's not a terrible question to beg. The kind of cases I had particularly in mind would be those where, e.g., your piano player deduces some kind of moral superiority to others on the basis of his own excellences. And so was trying to make a link between humility and what you're calling common sense, I think.)

    Your example helps, and it draws attention back to another matter often discussed in connection with humility, concerning first-person ascriptions of, roughly, greatness. It's one thing for me to say that Albert Pujols is the greatest baseball player in the game right now, and something else for him to say that about himself. (Some have discussed whether a humble person can know that he or she is humble or describe oneself as a humble person. Julia Driver has said, no, and argued thus that humility requires some degree of self-ignorance.) Is this because we think that others are in a better position to make such judgments, perhaps because they are less likely to be speaking from the kind of natural bias that incline us to think that we are better at things than our peers? (E.g. that we are better than average drivers, or teachers, etc.) But in that case, someone like Pujols could just be reporting what others have said.

    Perhaps the worry is that there is a danger of letting such judgments, even if they are true, go to one's head, fostering self-satisfaction, complacency, etc. One of my colleagues argues that he can, however, think of circumstances where some amount of self-satisfaction would, for him, make perfect sense, and perhaps allow him to sleep quite contentedly at night. But as I've discussed in previous posts, I don't think humility in general rules out taking pride in some of the things we do and accomplish.

  3. 1) There is a certain character type - rare, but impressive precisely because of its rarity - that is in some way (hard to put into words) exempt from the normal requirements of humility, real as those requirements are by themselves. Your reply above put me in mind of Norman Malcolm's memoir of G. E. Moore (less known but as interesting as his memoir of Wittgenstein), where he writes:

    I recall that once when lecturing before a small class he had occasion to refer to an article that he had published some years before, and he went on to remark, without embarrassment, that it was a good article. I was much struck by this. Most men would be prevented by false modesty from saying a thing of this sort in public. Moore's modesty was so genuine that he could say it without any implication of self-satisfaction.

    2) Also, some years back I read a very interesting little paper which I immediately thought of when reading this new one of yours. Its argument was that:

    There are at least three strategies we might take in approaching controversial issues: (i) we might accept the conclusions of experts on their authority, (ii) we might evaluate the relevant evidence and arguments for ourselves, or (iii) we might give up on finding the answers. Students of "critical thinking" are regularly advised to follow strategy (ii). But strategies (i) and (iii) are usually superior to (ii), from the standpoint of the goal of gaining true beliefs and avoiding false ones.

    I was and am made very uncomfortable by this argument, but it's proved to be very tough finding reasons for this discomfort other than the mere fact that the conclusion is, so to say, ideologically forbidden among my own social and epistemic peers. There are certainly echoes from the paper from what I've since written myself (not in English) on ignorance, irrationality and controversy. Maybe deference is an integral, even necessary part of intellectual humility, and the problem is just in picking the right authorities to defer to.

  4. Yes, I think my point is only about the way you phrase what you're saying.

    I think I can imagine a humble person acknowledging their own humility. They might have to speak hesitantly and while blushing, but I think it's possible. Perhaps they might have to show that they see the irony of it though.

    As for acknowledging one's own greatness, I don't think that could be humble, but it needn't be vicious either. It's one thing to say "I'm the greatest baseball player on the planet, so the rules that other people have to live by don't apply to me" (which is obnoxious), but another to boast entertainingly of being the greatest in a Muhammad Ali style. That isn't humble, and some people probably find it obnoxious, but some enjoy it, and it might well help the athlete to have such self-confidence. The important thing, I think, is not to believe that having a special talent or ability makes you a better person than other human beings.

  5. Tommi,

    Thanks for the story about Moore (and the paper reference). I don't know if it needs to be said that one is exempt, but just that there are times when it is appropriate (or at least not inappropriate) to acknowledge one's own achievements. I agree with DR that expressing one's own greatness needn't be vicious. While Ali's style--and here, the differences may be more about style than morality--will, I agree, seem obnoxious to some, there's also something "sporting" about Ali's attitude. He's challenging his challengers. I agree with DR that it's problematic if these local claims start to look like claims of moral (or general) superiority. But there are some people who really are great at what they do, and who because of this, occupy positions of influence. And so maybe awareness (which is not the same as expression) of one's greatness might be coupled with an awareness of one's greater responsibilities that go along with such influence. Humility, in such cases, might involve both (a) not mistaking particular achievements with moral superiority and (b) not forgetting the role of contingencies, fortune, and help from others have played in one's achievements.

    A case that's been discussed in the literature is that of a person who is morally excellent, and whether that person, being aware of his or her own moral goodness, is somehow exempt from humility. (This is related to the puzzle of the humble person who acknowledges his or her own humility.) My inclination here is to think that if humility is part of one's moral excellence, then as DR says, one might acknowledge it with a blush (as it were)--and one wouldn't go around lording it over other people. (Wouldn't a morally excellent person see that that isn't the way to make others good?) One way of thinking about this kind of case, as others have pointed out, also involves equivocating between the superiority of one's moral achievements and having a superior moral standing just insofar as one is a person (etc.).