Open for Debate

Arrogance and the Space of Reasons


A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoining communicated experience.

—John Dewey[1]


One of the truly baffling things about the Trump era in the United States is that just when you think our political life could not become any more fractured, it does—as the events of this past week, and the week before that, and the week before that, sadly illustrate.


Democracies aspire to what Dewey thought of as a common space—a space where disagreements can be navigated without fear of violence or oppression. Operationally speaking, this common space of reasons is public discourse—discourse in the public square whether that is online or off. The ideal is that public discourse should be reasonable—that is, allow for an exchange of reasons both practical and epistemic that are recognizable as reasons by those willing to engage in that discourse. Meeting that ideal requires citizens having convictions they believe in, but it also requires a willingness to listen—and maybe even learn from—each other.


It is in the nature of ideals that they are rarely realized. But the fear in the U.S. at the moment is that political fracturing has become so great that it is undermining its very possibility. And I believe that part of the explanation concerns the increasing prevalence of a particular state of mind amongst portions of the public and their political leaders. It is a state of mind, not coincidentally, exemplified by Trump: a kind of know-it-all arrogance of belief. People who are arrogant in this way think that other people have nothing to teach them. They already “know” their beliefs are superior—hence they don’t need to listen or even be accountable to any one else’s experience.


The arrogant aren’t arrogant just because they overestimate the correctness of their view—although the arrogant almost always do. True arrogance of belief is not based on a mistaken assessment of the correctness of one’s view, but as Alessandra Tanesini has noted, on a self-delusion about why it is correct. The arrogant are committed to the superiority of their view not because it reflects the world, but because it reflects their self-esteem. They are under the delusion, to varying degrees, that their worldview is correct, just because it is their worldview. Rather than seeing self-confidence as the natural effect of actual achievement, the arrogant come to treat it as an end in itself. That fact rarely if ever rises to consciousness, of course; and when it does, it will typically be denied.  But that is to be expected. The arrogant rarely believe they are so.


Hence epistemic arrogance almost always involves a degree of self-deception, an act of epistemic bad faith.  The arrogant fool themselves about the basis of their confidence. This means that arrogance of belief involves a kind of distorted relationship to truth. At the extreme, the arrogant have either fallen into thinking, irrationally, that whatever they think is true or—more likely—they have ceased to care about truth altogether. Truth is irrelevant to them, at least with regard to some aspect of their worldview. What matters is something else—something connected to their self-esteem.


Perhaps the most obvious harm arrogance of belief does to the ideal of reasonable public discourse is that arrogance can encourage us not to engage in discourse at all—reasonable or otherwise. This can happen for two broad reasons. First, other things being equal, the arrogant citizen is not inclined to engage in reasonable public discourse at all. Indeed, she is apt to regard the prospect of exchanging reasons with those who have differing views with suspicion, both because if you think your views are unimprovable, then talking to those who disagree can be a waste of time, and because it might encourage those with less conviction to waiver. To the dogmatic, the demand that public discourse be a space of reasons is both a bother and a bad influence. As a result, the more prevalent epistemic arrogance is, the less likely the arrogant citizens will be motivated to engage in discourse with those they are arrogant towards.


The arrogant also don’t see themselves as accountable to those they are arrogant towards. This is another way this state of mind can harm public discourse. As noted, the ideal that democracy should be a space of reasons is founded in part on the thought that people are answerable to each other. To hold each other accountable in this way requires—at a minimum—treating each other with what Robin Dillon and Stephen Darwall have called “recognition respect”. That means treating each other with dignity—both as agents and as believers. Yet the arrogant believe they are only accountable to themselves. And that is a fundamentally anti-democratic attitude. It violates basic recognition respect and in turn undermines the norm of mutual accountability central to liberal democracy.


Importantly, when it comes to political matters, interpersonal epistemic arrogance is often due to what we might call tribal arrogance. That is, it stems both from group identification and is directed at a group. Some white people for example, will adopt an attitude of arrogance towards minorities with regard to some aspects of their worldview because of a sense of superiority of “white culture”. Thus some whites can take themselves to be unaccountable to members of another group. For whites feeling this way, the experiences of injustice brought by minorities, and the evidence thereof, are not worthy of consideration or refutation. They are discounted, and disrespected.


The harm wrought on the ideal of reasonable public discourse by this kind of phenomenon is profound because it undermines the very basis—equal respect—of egalitarian democracy. This is, I suggest, an intrinsic harm. It stands whether or not the particular consequences of a particular act of group arrogance are particularly widespread or damaging.


In fact, however, the consequences often are widespread and damaging. Arrogance not only encourages the arrogant to forgo discourse, it also encourages those on the receiving end of that arrogance to bow out of public discourse. Moreover, and more insidiously, those subjected to systematic group arrogance can have their self-respect undermined as well. To fail to recognize that another may have something to teach you—even if the lesson you draw isn’t perhaps quite the same as they intended—means you not only fail to recognize their dignity as an epistemic agent, you can make them question their own self-regard as fellow rational agents and knowers.





Dewey, J. (2012), Democracy and Education (Start Publishing LLC).

Tanesini, Alessandra (2016), ‘‘Calm Down, Dear’: Intellectual Arrogance, Silencing and Ignorance’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, 90 (1), 71-92.

[1] J. Dewey, Democracy and Education (Start Publishing LLC, 2012) at 101.

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