Is intellectual humility an intellectual virtue

"Cancel Culture"? More humility, less morality

Morality is not objective, says the Graz philosopher Thomas Pölzler in the guest commentary. But abolishing them entirely would not make sense either. He recommends a return to the virtue of intellectual humility. You can also read the guest commentary by Klaus Kastberger, professor of contemporary literature: "Culture needs confrontation".

"Are women adult females?" This is the title of an article by MIT professor Alex Byrne that was published a few months ago in a major philosophical journal. To some, the question may sound innocuous, maybe even funny or trivial. But soon after it was published, Byrne was the target of personal assault by transgender defenders, a publisher of the magazine announced his resignation, and on the Internet the lines crashed once again.

This case is symptomatic. In the age of Twitter excitement, the lines between factual argument and mere emotion are blurring. Even scientific discourse is no longer immune to this. Hot-headedness and the exclusion of those who think differently are also increasing here. The result is a climate in which debaters on both sides complain of fear of being able to speak freely. After all, the sword of Damocles hovers over us all, namely "being canceled". The causes of the misery are manifold. One of them is morality - or more precisely: a misunderstood morality.

Fire accelerator morale

The charge that morality fuels conflict and makes compromise difficult is almost as old as it is. Looking at an issue through moral glasses can make us more narrow-minded and opinionated. If we believe we are on the side of the good, we can ignore the arguments of our counterpart and run the risk of considering them morally ignorant or perhaps even evil. In addition, some people are not interested in the good at all. They just want to demonstrate to the outside world that they belong to something that is widely perceived as good or bask in the feeling of their moral superiority.

So what should we do? A radical suggestion would be: Let's just get rid of morality. Let's stop dividing actions into good and bad, right and wrong.

In fact, a small minority of thinkers advocate this "moral eliminativism". But this proposal goes over the top. Aside from its bads, morality also has its good sides. It can motivate us to keep our selfish impulses in check. Indeed, sometimes we would do well to sharply judge people, actions, or beliefs. In addition, it is unlikely that we could even get moral thinking out of our heads. From an evolutionary point of view, evaluating things is simply in people's blood.

Instead of abolishing morality, I propose something else: the virtue of intellectual humility.

Bare guard rails

What makes us intolerant and stubborn in debates? Psychological studies suggest that the culprit is not so much morality itself. It is the interpretation of one's own moral convictions rather than objective.

In his new book Moral progress in dark times the German philosopher Markus Gabriel defends such a moral objectivity. He speaks of universal moral "guard rails": actions that are always right or wrong, good or bad. That’s plausible. Nobody wants their shin kicked for no reason. All people are owed a minimum of respect, freedom and the satisfaction of basic needs.

In my opinion, morality does not fully have this objective quality. Gabriel's guard rails are really nothing more than that: guard rails; in between lies a wide landscape of subjective moral questions. There is no single correct answer to these questions, there are several acceptable answers. What is good or bad, right or wrong depends at least in part on one's own values ​​or the values ​​of the community.

Find a balance

Moral humility means taking this subjectivity of part of morality into account. If there is no objectively correct answer to a moral question, it cannot be a question of winning an argument and rising above the other. It has to be about understanding the other and thus finding a balance between the different interests.

Perhaps you won't buy the thesis of a partially subjective morality from me. All right then. But even then, there is another strong basis for the intellectual humility required here. Psychological studies teach us that, for the most part, most people are simply not very good at making moral judgments.

Many of our moral judgments are the product of emotionally tinged intuitions; it is, to paraphrase the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the emotional tail wagging the rational dog, not the other way around. A good mood makes our judgments milder. We ourselves and those close to us usually come off better than others anyway. Often we simply lack the necessary factual knowledge. In a sense, this diagnosis is not surprising. Moral questions are often complex, but few lack confidence in them. As the philosopher Hanno Sauer recently put it succinctly: "Most people invest significantly more time and effort in choosing their new smartphone than in choosing their moral opinions." We display this nonchalance even with regard to our most basic values.

Moral humility also means: not to judge too quickly; to find out what's going on; critically reflect on one's judgments and how they came about; and above all to be aware that you could also be wrong. Often this simply means not making any judgment at all, i.e. abstaining from a judgment.

So what?

So should women be understood as female adults? Are being a woman and being a man more biological (or rather social) categories? I have no well-founded answer to that. But I believe that these and many other questions should be discussed objectively, openly, and with appropriate intellectual humility. Let us save our indignation when it is really justified: when we have good reason to believe that objective standards have been violated. (Thomas Pölzler, August 10, 2020)

Thomas Pölzler researches and teaches at the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Graz. His most recent studies on the subject will soon appear in the journal Philosophical Psychology.

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