Category Archives: Pessimism

Jonathan Haidt on Moral Humility

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.

The Uncertainty Principle

Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain.  People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.

Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.

Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!

I prefer modest goals and modest means.  Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.

 

Moral Humility is not Utopian thinking

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.