I have adopted the notion of moral humility from Jonathan Haidt, one of the speakers at Arizona State University this year as part of their year long series of lectures on free speech. He is professor of psychology. He had some interesting things to say on a number of topics. One of them was “moral humility.” He urged all of us to practice more of it. He contrasted it with extremism.
The classic failure in the 20thcentury to follow modest and humble goals was of course Communism. They practiced an extreme form of utopianism. Albert Camus, another of my favorite political thinkers had a similar way of thinking. He opposed thinking without limits. He wanted political leaders to be modest. Humble in other words. The failure to be humble, he thought, is that it leads to an abundance of graves. That is the problem with utopian zeal or revolutionary terror.
British philosopher John Gray said, “Terror has been used in this way wherever a revolutionary dictatorship has been bent on achieving utopian goals.” Or as he also said, about the Communists, “the scale and intensity of Bolshevik repression, which was the result of attempting to reconstruct society on an unworkable model.” They wanted to create the perfect human—an impossible goal.
Gray finds even more examples of dangerous Utopian thinking. He finds it on the left and he finds it on the right. He finds in religion–in Christianity, and in Islam. He even finds in the Nazis ideology. They wanted to create the pure Aryan race.
Part of the problem with utopian thinking is that it leads to orthodoxy. After all, if you know absolute truth, then there is only one way to the truth and nothing can stand in the way. There is no need to be modest or restrained when you know absolute truth.
The Buffalo Springfield also got it right when they sang:
“A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side’ ”
There is no need to be humble when your team is cheering you on no matter what you say. That is a license to be extreme. You can call Hillary Clinton “Satan.” You can compare Donald Trump to Hitler. You can suggest that Justin Trudeau is the devil. Then you can desire to burn the others at the stake. And you will feel joy at the prospect. This is about as far from humility as you can get. No matter what you say, your side will applaud. And if you listen only to your side, you will naturally begin to think that you are a genius. You deserve the applause. It’s hard to be humble when your side gives you a standing ovation.
Donald Trump is of course a perfect example of this. Recently he said at a rally in front of his fans, “Some have asked me, “Did you have anything to do with the Korean leaders getting together?” He shrugged, grinned mischievously and said, “How about everything.” Not much humility there. Then his fans chanted repeatedly “Nobel. Nobel. Nobel.” And Trump grinned again, as if that was a reasonable suggestion. When your side is cheering you on, no matter how absurd, you accept the fawning.
What amazes me is Trump’s fans accept his abject lack of humility. He says he is the smartest. It does not matter how dumb he is. They lap it up. America, it seems to me, has given up on humility. I wish they hadn’t. Many of us could use more of it. Including me.