Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Humility & Disagreement

At first glance, it might seem that being intellectually humble is at odds with having strong convictions on matters of controversy. (Here I will focus on the messy moral cases.) This is because (a) we might assume that at least some of the people with whom we disagree are, in some sense, our "epistemic peers" (that they share familiarity with the ins and outs, arguments, etc., bearing on the issue, and are just as reasonable, thoughtful, etc., as we are) and (b) an intellectually humble person will appreciate that the features that make those others one's epistemic peer imply that one is one among many, and that there is no prima facie reason to suppose oneself more likely to be right about the controversial issue. (For those familiar with the literature on the epistemology of disagreement, it might seem that intellectual humility favors adopting the Equal Weight View, which says that we should "split the difference" in cases of disagreement and move in the direction of agnosticism.)

The difficulty with this is that we may find ourselves strongly convinced of, and practically committed to, some controversial moral view because we still find the considerations in favor of that view the best. Is remaining unmoved irrational, or unreasonable? One way to avoid this is to conclude that those who disagree are not after all my epistemic peers. (Tom Kelly criticizes the Equal Weight View for making it too hard to ever arrive reasonably at this judgment once I've initially judged that a person is my peer. [Warning: it's a long paper!]) In a lot of cases, this might seem like a cheap move (though it's one, as Kelly notes, that Elga (above) seems to make, too, in explaining why the Equal Weight View doesn't have radical agnostic consequences in the non-ideal real world.)

Moral cases are particularly tricky because practical considerations are intertwined with "pure" epistemic (or theoretical) considerations, and as Catherine Elgin notes (in her essay in the disagreement volume linked above) that it may not be psychologically possible at any rate just to abandon (an especially deeply held) belief. I'm working on a line of thought that suggests a rough distinction between intellectual and practical contexts, and suggests that to be intellectually humble about our convictions, we have to moderate our acceptance of those convictions in contexts where the issue is up for (say, philosophical) discussion and debate. We can't just (obnoxiously) beg the question. Practically, we have strong reasons for accepting the view as a personal policy (in our own moral decision-making, etc.), since it is, after all, our conviction. (It's being our own doesn't give it special epistemic weight, but just special practical weight.) (By "acceptance" here, I mean it in the sense articulated by L. Jonathan Cohen, who says that to accept p is to take it as a premise in argument, deliberation, etc.) So, humility requires something like not brow-beating those who disagree with us, or being merely dogmatic. We have to try to discuss the issue as if it is open (even if we think it is not), for multiple reasons (both to attempt to persuade others and, I think, to show due respect for their not-yet-rejected status as peers).

But there can be cases where even this seems too demanding (or somehow alienating). A person's convictions might involve the thought that the alternative view is pretty bad, and that although there is a controversy about the issue, one thinks this itself shows something pretty bad, say, about the state of society. Perhaps, e.g., along the lines of what Gaita says about those who think that torture ought to be "undiscussable." Maybe if it turns out that there's just no arguing with the other side--or as Cavell says, "no hope of agreement"--then one is warranted in rejecting that those others are epistemic (or moral) peers. (And you go engage in activism and rhetoric and so forth, rather than argument of a more rational form.)

Something else that I think can be said here is that humility doesn't require moderating one's belief (or acceptance) in those cases where the opposing view is itself a product of a failure of humility (in the broader, moral sense). Take those who have struggled against various forms of oppression, racism, sexism, etc. Where they have good reason for thinking that those who disagree are motivated by a sense of moral superiority, then their views are themselves (I suggest) incompatible with humility, ruled out as immoral by it. One needn't humbly "split the difference" with those who are motivated (intentionally or not) by a kind of arrogance, self-righteousness, etc.

There's more to say, I think, but that's where I'm at. (The rest of the puzzle has to do with the cases where our convictions call for practical action that's directed at those with whom we disagree, and what we might say about that from the perspective of humility.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad Advice

The following question and answer comes from this interview with Julian Young (Kenan Professor of Humanities at Wake Forest):
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

Don’t. Not in the current job-market. Not unless you are extremely good and can get into a top graduate school. They still have reasonable employment records. But if you can’t get into a top school, forget it.
As I hail from a non-"top school" (and cannot think of myself as "extremely good" though I think I'm at least ok), I have to take issue with this. I don't have any particularly profound counter-advice (or a particularly inspiring story). So, I'll just have to witness to the fact that it's possible to land (what I think is) a fine job in academia even if you don't measure up to Young's criteria. (Maybe Rusty Jones--though I don't know his background story--is an even better example, since it's not every day that Harvard hires a Ph.D. from Oklahoma.)

What Young says is probably true (Rusty Jones being the exception to the rule) if anything other than a "research" job would not make you happy. But as a baseline standard, that strikes me as a bit like refusing to drive anything other than a Bentley. And that's hooey. (So is driving around in your Hyundai and bitching about how you really deserve to be driving a Bentley.)

(I hope that if anyone at Arkansas reads this they understand that I don't mean to imply anything negative about the department there. I learned how to learn in that program, and learned from people that I trust immensely.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hot Off the Press: "Comparing Lives" in Philosophical Investigations 34(3)

Here. The whole issue looks great, and I look forward to reading Mounce's paper on Winch and Anscombe.

(This means, due to copyright agreements, that I'll have to take my penultimate draft offline. However, if you have problems accessing the published version, let me know, and I'll do what I can to assist.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Pride" & Humility: A Response to Myself (and Tara Smith)

I warned that the previous post was provisional, and I believe I've cleaned up my thinking about whether there's a kind of pride that cuts across, rather than being in direct opposition with, humility. The short answer is that I think there is such pride, as with the "proud man" who, though he might be hungry, refuses to accept a handout. What Tara Smith seems to emphasize in such cases as pride we might just as well call a kind of commitment to certain (perhaps especially moral) principles. This seems rather different from the "pride" of the arrogant person, insofar as the arrogant person has an elevated (or over-inflated) view of himself, while the "proud man" above, if anything, has an elevated view of his principles. That is, he puts his principles above his own (mere) self-interest, as well as above "compromising" actions that would require him to break with his principles.

Here's how I would now illustrate the idea that pride in this sense intersects with humility (again, click to enlarge):
This captures Smith's suggestion that a person could be proud (read: committed) without being arrogant or vain. But I also think that construing the vertical axis as involving commitment doesn't conflict with the common use of pride which locates it along the "self-regard axis." It seems that this also makes clearer what distinct contribution each vice makes in the four problematic characters located in each quadrant.

This also allows us to explain two different senses of being "too proud": one can be too proud in the sense of being arrogant, vain, or conceited, but one can also be too proud in being overly dogmatic or zealous in one's commitments. (Compare this to what Bernard Gert means by "moral arrogance.") We might suggest that the man who refuses a handout when his children are starving is being "too proud" in that sense.

This analysis still leaves open whether there is anything at stake in calling the virtue along the self-regard axis "humility" or "proper pride," or whether those are simply synonymous terms. As I mentioned before, I think a humble person can "take pride in" certain achievements and so forth. One might say that a humble person just doesn't let it "go to his head." But we might say the same thing about the person who shows "proper pride."

Perhaps part of the issue here depends upon where a person is at: someone tending toward too little self-regard, in ways that are debilitating, might need to be encouraged to take pride in some aspects of himself, or at least be brought to see the how self-respect is possible (even if one lacks anything in particular to be proud of). This seems particularly true where a person or group has been subjected to injustice and oppression (and thereby humialation). On the other hand, where someone is tending toward arrogance or vanity, it makes sense to emphasize humility.

We could then see critics of humility, such as Nietzsche and Hume, as rejecting in particular the severe form of Christian humility (rooted in medieval views) because they see these views as tending toward "too much" humility, viz. undue self-deprecation and servility.

On the other hand, in the midst of identity politics, partisanship, and various ideological clashes which threaten or encourage or involve violence against the "other," it strikes me that humility, particularly epistemic humility, is a highly desirable trait. What I'm working on is how to make out the praiseworthiness of such humility in a way that doesn't entail that we should let go of our own deep convictions. (That is, one might worry that aspiring to such humility would lead to some amount of alienation, where our own deep commitments involve matters of significant controversy.) More on that another time.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Pride & Humility: A Reconciliation?

Pride and humility are often opposed to each other. Some regard humility as the virtue, contrasting it with pride, which is characterized as involving vanity or arrogance. Others praise pride, and characterize the humble person as self-effacing, servile, and resigned, lacking in proper self-respect. However, I don't think that humility rules out self-respect (or even "taking pride in a job well done" or being proud of our children, and so forth). I tend to think of humility as a matter of keeping in mind one's dependency on others, and on other factors beyond one's control, being mindful of one's limitations and fallibility, on the work that is yet to be done, or improvements to be made, but not as celebrating these facts about oneself, or of being so severe with ourselves that we resign to our fates or waste our talents or fail to stand up for our principles. (See, for example, Kupfer and Snow on humility.)

On the other hand, there is a kind of pride, which is primarily a form of self-respect, which doesn't seem to exclude humility (or: which doesn't entail either vanity or arrogance). This latter character is the kind of pride which Tara Smith attributes to the person who, in virtue of (sound) moral principles, won't do things that are "beneath" him, won't compromise on his values (unless he can be shown his mistake). This person is autonomous in the sense that he or she doesn't seek the approval of others (as some vain people might), but this needn't entail any kind of dismissiveness of others (who have legitimate claims). Let us call this a form of "proper pride" and allow that this virtue has an axis along which there are excesses and deficiencies.

I'm thinking that virtuous humility can be seen as falling along a distinct axis which intersects with this kind of pride, and that there is virtue in both orientations. (Not that "proper pride" and "proper humility" are synonyms.) The following (provisional) graphic illustrates this, and I've given names to non-virtuous folk who might be seen as failing in terms of both pride and humility. (The virtues in both cases would be at the intersection of the axes.) Sorry that the print is a bit small. (Click the image to see it full size.)
It might seem awkward to separate pride from arrogance and vanity, or the kinds of self-regarding attitudes that might tend (if mistakenly) in those directions. But even in Christian accounts of humility (as in Aquinas), the essence of pride is a turning away from God, and associating pride with one's sense of "independence" seems here to capture that. (Someone defending that conception of humility might claim that we just are wholly dependent on God, and my quick response would be that "independence" needn't involve "turning away," least of all to God, but involves something more like self-reliance of will...if you want, our God-given will. The person with proper pride, within that metaphysical view, could still acknowledge the necessity of grace, and if he or she is humble, will be ready to receive it.)

As for the problematic characters, who have neither proper pride nor proper humility: the "dogmatic servant" would be someone who is "too humble" in the sense of having little or no self-regard but also "proud" in the sense of uncompromisingly serving his or her master (a person or a system of value)--a henchman of sorts. The "spineless follower" also has little or no self-regard, and is "spineless" in the sense of having no core values around which to cultivate a self-respecting identity. Such a person would follow the "fascist" into the fire. The "fascist" is both self-inflated and goes beyond reasonable self-respect in being utterly uncompromising and fully separates himself from others, rejecting all help and criticism. Such a person has no ears to hear others, no eyes to see them as others. Finally, the "insecure attention-seeker" is a kind of vain person who depends on the praise and attention of others to fuel his own view of himself. Like the "spineless" person, he lacks any sense of principle.

It seems clear that these are distinct types of characters (and presumably there could be characters who find the mean along one axis but not the other), and so I think the positioning of these two axes does some real work, and that suggests that pride and humility are not (in every sense) opposed. This conflicts with some of the ways we use both terms, but if there is something in both pride and humility that seems good, and character traits that both oppose which seem vicious, then perhaps this suggests how to reconcile forms of both pride and humility, in order to reveal where the virtue in each one is.

This idea just hit me today, so again this is provisional, and I humbly submit it for comment and critique. (Though I also provisionally take some pride in what I hope I can show to be a good idea!)