Intellectual Humility and Lazy Dogmatism

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, political musings

This post is a bit long, but stick with me…

Generalized political smears are a great irritation of mine. Not only do I think they are not helpful, but I also think they represent lazy and dogmatic thinking. As in, “All NRA Members Are Terrorists,” “Republicans are Racists,” “Democrats Are Politically Correct Snowflakes,” “Muslims are Terrorists,” or “Christians only care about life when it is in the womb” or really, pick your poison on whatever cardboard sign you see people, on whatever political divide, holding attacking the other side, usually with some contemptuous generalized over-statement. In full disclosure, whenever I see someone express these opinions, as an argument or protest, I usually do not think that person is thoughtful, regardless of whatever policy decisions they support.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts in in the Gulag Archipelago, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

That is, making a broad judgment on people based on what their religious, political, or policy opinions, is not only an absurd over-simplification, but also is a relinquishing of our responsibility to see and address our own individual intellectual short-comings.

In response to these broad judgments, I try to make a call for intellectual humility. Honestly, and truly, how many books have you read or research have you done on any particular topic on any particular policy proposal? And I mean more than just read a few articles. And I mean even more than read a few books that support your side. Most of us, myself included, have not done much. Maybe we have pet policies that we care about, like gun control, abortion, or immigration policy or maybe we are an expert in a particular field. Most of us, though, probably take things on authority or at the very least, take some things on authority. And honestly, I think we fail to appreciate how much that authority and the opinions we hold (especially if we stick to only reading and discussing only what agrees with those opinions) is based on pure chance — as in what our parents thought, where we grew up, the schools we went to, and the people we met along the way.

This is a problem that there is not really much we can do about. We don’t have time to read and research and compare everything (as much as I wish I did). Everyone has to take things on authority as a matter of practicality. No matter what, we are going to have opinions and ideals, as pure skepticism is an impossible state for the mind and for politics. Take immigration for example. I take George Borjas as my authority, because I trust, as a Harvard economist, he has done his research and read all the books on the topic (and interestingly, probably because he has done the research is more moderate than either side) and because, what he writes seems to match up with a lot of the political theory I read. But I would never claim to be an expert, because I myself have not spent a great amount of time reading dozens and dozens of books, articles, statistics on immigration, because well, my time is taken up with Rousseau and my dissertation and 18th century France. And while I vote and discuss my opinions in a way that one could probably tell Borjas is my authority, I absolute keep the fact that I have not done my own research in mind when talking with my friends who may have different opinions, or rather, different authorities. I think in our own rhetoric, while holding to our opinions and ideals, we should probably keep in mind our own lack of knowledge and be humble.

I’m not particularly eloquent (or particularly well-written for that matter), but I’ll conclude by turning to my friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who is exceedingly well-written) for what I am trying to say. That is how difficult not only is it to make knowledgeable (let alone true) judgments on people for different opinions, but also, what it takes to really understand and know certain arguments and theories. He refers to religion, but considering how much moral capital we ascribe to having the right political ideals today, I think it is currently applicable:

“Among so many diverse religions which mutually proscribe and exclude one another, a single one is the right one, if indeed there is a right now. In order to recognize it, it is not sufficient to examine one of them; they must all be examined, and in any matter whatsoever one must not condemn without hearing. The objections must be compared to the proofs; it must be known what each objects to in the others, and what it responds to their objections against itself. The more a sentiment appears to us to have been demonstrated, the more we ought to try to find out the basis for so many men’s not finding it so. One would have to be quite simple to believe that it suffices to hear the learned men of one’s own party to inform oneself of the arguments of the opposing party. Where are the theologians who pride themselves on good faith? Where are those who begin by weakening them? Each shines in his own party; but one who in the midst of his own people is proud of his proofs would cut a very foolish figure with these same proofs among people of another party…The absent party is always wrong, and poor arguments spoken with assurance easily efface good ones expounded with contempt…In order to judge a religion well, it is necessary not to study it in the books of its sectarians, but to go and learn it amongst them. That is very different. Each religion has its traditions, its views, its customs, and its prejudices which constitute the spirit of its belief and must also be considered for it to be judged.” (from the Profession of Faith, Emile).