Moral humility is the opposite of utopian thinking. It recognizes limits. It recognizes ourlimits, The concept of moral humility is associated with the concept of modesty/pessimism of John Gray one of my favorite modern philosophers.
His concept is a logical consequence of a sceptical attitude. If one is uncertain then one should be careful about claiming moral superiority over another person. One should hesitate to judge others. That does not mean we can never judge others. It does mean we should not be too quick to judge others. I think I have been too quick in the past. I yearn to ease up. As Gray said, “ Utopias are dreams of collective deliverance that in waking life are found to be nightmares.”
Utopian projects are by their nature unachievable. As Hume put it: ‘All plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary.’” That is why we must be modest. We must be constrained in our optimism. Too often it leads to dire troubles. That is why Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia—a term he coined—meant both ‘a good place’ and ‘nowhere.’ That was why he set his imagined community in a far-off land.
We are very unlikely to find Utopia and are much more likely to find dystopia when we try. Just like heaven is an illusion, unless it is here and now, so too with Utopia. That is a fundamental flaw with utopian thinking. It looks for a non-existent heaven and then frequently imposes great misery on us in a hopeless effort to achieve what cannot be achieved. That was why Gray’s advice was to be wary of those who argued for Utopia. Instead, Gray urged, “it is dystopian thinking we most need.”
Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human. As has often been said, but no often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.
Obama often told his advisors that “better is good.” We can seldom (never?) do the perfect, but we can usually do something that is better or worse. We should always choose the better and we should often be satisfied that this is all we can do.
We can always make things worse. And as Obama also said to himself, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Going to war in Syria would have been stupid. One look at American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan make it clear that is very easy to do stupid stuff by going to war in the Middle East. And the costs of stupid stuff can be horrendous.
It is always important to think things through before jumping into a fray. It is often very stupid to jump in, no matter how tempting it seems. This takes time. This may make a leader look weak. It actually makes a leader look smart.
Utopian thinking is the opposite of critical thinking. It accepts impossiblegoals so it justifies the most brutal means. Nothing is too extreme when the object is perfection. Or as Bob Dylan said, “For you don’t count the dead with God on your side.” The religious pursuit of perfection should be rejected for exactly the same reasons. Murder is always justified if the goal is a higher form of human. Lets abandon that goal.