Does Intellectual Humility Matter for Democracy?

Abraham Lincoln and his "team of rivals" — Francis Bicknell Carpenter's painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln [Wikimedia]

Elections force a kind of tunnel vision upon us. We focus on the horse race and the polls, the daily news from the campaign trail, and the conflicts between opposing viewpoints. But after an election, things usually change, at least in healthy democracies. Sure, fights continue and people disagree, but so does the business of governing, and new administrations typically experience a grace period during which they try to bridge the divisions that widened during the election season.

But if conflicts don’t abate and sharp divisions continue to characterize how we think about democratic life, it is often for reasons that go beyond politics. It may stem from a larger cultural issue — from the fact that large numbers of people, of all stripes, increasingly venerate a kind of arrogance that is inconsistent with the fundamental demands of democracy. This peculiar kind of arrogance is about our own worldviews — an intellectual arrogance that reassures us with certainty about our beliefs, makes us resistant to information that would challenge them, and encourages the feeling that we know everything. This sort of arrogance can be appealing partly because it is sometimes mistaken for confidence and strength. But really, the arrogant culture, like the arrogant person, is more often reacting from a point of self-defensiveness. And as we all know, self-defensiveness, in either a person or a community, can be deeply destructive.

That is why we need to understand the value of the opposite of that trait — what we might call intellectual humility.

Learning and Respect
Theoretical accounts of intellectual humility differ, but there are common strands running through the philosophical and psychological studies of this characteristic. Intellectually humble people tend to be less concerned with status and more willing to own their mistakes; they acknowledge biases when they discover them, and they are often, as a result, more open-minded.

But there is something more to intellectual humility. That something more boils down to one key thought. Being intellectually humble means seeing your worldview as open to improvement — but, crucially, not just because of your own effort: the intellectually humble person sees his or her opinions as open to improvement from the evidence and experience of other people. Importantly, to be willing to improve means you are forward-looking; you are motivated. Thus truly intellectually humble people aren’t simply cautious, nor just skeptics for skepticism’s sake. They want to learn, to gain knowledge, and they realize that in order to do that they need to listen to the experience of others.

It is here that we see the value of intellectual humility. That value lies in its connection to a core democratic ideal: respect for persons. We aspire in democracies to regard our fellow citizens as autonomous beings worthy of equal respect. Whether or not we agree with them, the ideal demands that we treat them as fellow voters, making their own judgments. But it is difficult to live up to that ideal unless you are open to listening to their experiences — unless you are open to the idea that you don’t already know it all.

Our culture is sadly not encouraging intellectual humility and respect for persons right now. One reason for this is that it’s just easier to be arrogant than humble, as anyone who has been a teenager or a parent of a teenager knows. As a famous line (often attributed to Mark Twain) says, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Intellectual arrogance is not only easier. In democratic politics, a major motivation for being arrogant is that showing openness to the other side is seen by many voters as weakness — as a lack of conviction. And that gets you voted out of office.

But there are other causes at work as well, ones that have developed only recently. The challenge of overcoming our tendency toward intellectual arrogance has grown with the increasing influence of the Internet and social media. Our online life allows us constant access to a universe of information, much of it unreliable and highly selective. It rewards, tweet by tweet, arrogance and hyper-defensiveness. The sheer amount of information available weirdly encourages overconfidence (“Just Google it!”), making us think we know more than we do, and our social media circles encourage the impression that everyone we like and trust agrees with us. Marry this with intellectual arrogance — with a tendency to think your political viewpoint is perfect — and you get a dangerous, self-reinforcing mix. We are always right — just ask us.

Confident But Open-Minded
Recapturing the value of intellectual humility is not going to be easy. But it is not impossible. As a start, we should try to learn from the lessons of history. For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to form a “team of rivals” in his cabinet — as memorably recounted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book by that title — is particularly worth learning from in our present social-media environment in which it is all too easy to form clusters of the like-minded. Lincoln was imperfect, as all of us are, but he was a man of conviction — conviction strong enough to lead the country into war. Yet he combined that with enough humility to propose appointments that allowed for a hearing of views with which he often disagreed.

The example illustrates a key point about the value of intellectual humility: Lincoln knew that when you are in power, intellectual arrogance is at its most dangerous. That is exactly when you are most tempted to think you know it all — and when you probably don’t. That’s a lesson we’d be wise to keep in mind today.

Arrogance is easy; intellectual humility is hard. One reason for that is obvious — part of being open to improvement is being willing to admit that sometimes you are wrong — and that can be difficult even for the best of scientists, as Einstein’s famous initial difficulty with accepting quantum mechanics illustrates. But although it is difficult, admitting that you can be wrong is also clearly connected to being able to learn. So perhaps it is not surprising that Google’s vice president for hiring has described humility as one of the main things the company looks for in job candidates.

But there is more we can do to foster intellectual humility. In a project at the University of Connecticut called Humility and Conviction in Public Life (HCPL), my colleagues and I are confronting this challenge directly, with researchers working on multiple approaches — from redesigning media platforms to figuring out how to get members of Congress to communicate more meaningfully with their constituents.

The project’s central question is: How can we balance our most deeply held convictions with humility and open-mindedness in order to repair public discourse? Or, to ask it differently: How can intellectual humility — being aware of our own cognitive limitations and biases, and being responsive to evidence — promote healthier and more meaningful public conversation?

Sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and the University of Connecticut, HCPL combines research and practical activities. Central to the project are ten distinct research initiatives, selected through an international competition. These teams are pursuing questions ranging from whether online news comments can be designed to promote better dialogue, to coming up with better solutions for how members of Congress can interact with their constituents, to figuring out the psychological underpinnings of why we argue so heatedly over things we know little about. Each of these projects aims come up with scalable solutions to real problems in public discourse.

The project’s engagement activities include summer institutes for high school teachers helping them to encourage intellectual humility in the classroom, a free and globally available online course on self-examination and public life, partnerships with public institutions and community groups in Hartford, Connecticut to practice humble dialogue over divisive issues of our day, and a series of media initiatives to draw attention to the importance of intellectual humility. These initiatives are aimed to bringing the research spoken of above to the community.

Looking at how arrogance shapes current public discourse and how it fires up social conflicts can be discouraging. Initiatives like HCPL may encourage us to strive for intellectual humility in ourselves and to help foster it in our national conversations.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do strong convictions fit with intellectual humility?
  2. How should one respond to intellectual arrogance?
  3. What are some other examples or models of intellectual humility, either from history or from our own day?
  4. Is it possible to be too intellectually humble?

5 Responses

  1. Professor Lynch, I say this with the utmost respect: Your veneration of intellectual humility (which I wish all of society venerated) is about to be tested.

    I believe HCPL’s quest can and should be fought/pursued on another front, too, one that requires the development of an entire new field of new knowledge and thinking. By way of explanation: first create and define a new civic “skill” for voters, competent self-governance, as the the ability of a free society’s voters to keep their national legislature continuously filled with a steady supply of legislators who are democracy’s equivalent of philosopher kings and queens (PKQs); second satisfy ourselves that this new skill is easy to teach and easy to learn; and third, reach the perfectly reasonable conclusion that a PKQ-controlled Congress would, among many benefits, be a vastly superior role model for our society, especially our children (compared to the only type of congressional role model the American people have ever known: a Congress controlled by two factions of politically ambitious politicians involved in a never ending, all-consuming — all’s fair in love and political war — struggle for political power, much of which is purely for power’s sake). Should anyone involved in the HCPL project explore either the feasibility of developing this second front, or simply explore this new field of knowledge for its own sake (inasmuch as that’s what intellectual humility is all about)?

  2. James Edwards says:

    It might help a lot if things would just slow down a bit. The internet, Twitter and other social media sights make things happen too fast, without enough thinking. Deep examination has almost disappeared. We have become too shallow, cannot see the other side’s concerns, and we want to win. More than anything else we want to win. It is all about winning, not about improving lives and livelihoods. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor. We sure need it.

  3. Stuart Hargrove says:

    I wonder if there might be cases where intellectual humility and other kinds of humility might be in tension? I have in mind Jimmy Carter. By all accounts, President Carter is, and has always been, a very humble person at a human level. But he was famous for not being intellectually humble, right? Or at least that’s the impression people have. He was a micromanager (he even demanded that he control the calendar for the White House tennis courts!). Anyways, I don’t want to put too much weight on just that example, but I just wonder whether there are different kinds of humility and whether having one might not necessarily mean you have them all.

  4. Sylvia says:

    You ask whether it’s possible to be *too* intellectually humble. One thought that comes to mind is the old saying about open-mindedness: you don’t want to be so open-minded that your brains fall out!

  5. PsycheStudent says:

    What do you make of the research of psychologists and social scientists about intellectual habits and tendencies of liberals vs. conservatives? (The sort of stuff Jonathan Haidt-types write about.) If I recall the it correctly, the gist is that liberals or left-leaning individuals tend to be more intellectually humble, and conservatives less intellectually humble. Is that basically right? Does your own work bear that out?

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