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Open for Debate

Being an Intellectually Dependable Person

4 May 2020

We are often at the mercy of others when we are trying to figure things out. The same is true when we are seeking to gain deeper understanding or to improve our skills for gaining knowledge.  Others can share their perspectives with us. They can point us toward relevant evidence. They can raise important questions for us, critique our arguments, train us in new investigative techniques, and model excellent inquiry for us. This is true not only when we are developing our generic capacities for learning in a formal educational setting, but also in our various specialized professional settings, in our participation in democratic processes, and in our personal lives. We are pervasively dependent upon others in the various arenas of our lives that involve inquiry.

Given this pervasive dependence on others, it is important for us that there be intellectually dependable people. Intellectually dependable people are the sort of people on whom we can depend for aid when we are trying to figure things out. They are people whose character enables them to perform well when others depend on them in the ways highlighted above. They are people who are motivated to help others achieve their legitimate aims in inquiry, and they are skilled in giving this help.

Not everyone is intellectually dependable. In fact, the absence of intellectual dependability is a major problem in contemporary life. For example, knowledge-hiding behavior plagues the performance of organizations, being responsible for an annual loss of over $31 billion dollars for Fortune 500 companies.[i] Likewise, democracies the world over have been seriously injured through the proliferation of fake news and misinformation that weakens the capacities of the electorate to make good political decisions.[ii] And shock waves have been sent through academia via the discovery of high-profile cases of falsified research and “sloppy science”.[iii]

We can all do better at being intellectually dependable. But if we want to do better, what might we aim for? I suggest that there is a personal character we can aspire to as an ideal that can help us to regulate our conduct when others depend on us in their inquiries. It is a character unified around a virtuous motivation to promote others’ intellectual well-being, and instantiated in various specific virtues that share this ultimate motivation of aiding others in their inquiries. Together, I call the group of virtues central to being intellectually dependable the “virtues of intellectual dependability”.

The foundational virtue of intellectual dependability is intellectual benevolence. Intellectual benevolence is a refined motivation to promote excellence in others’ inquiries for its own sake. The intellectually benevolent person cares about others’ gaining true beliefs, knowledge, rationality, and understanding, improving their abilities and virtues as inquirers, and so on. They have a firm grasp of the relations between these varied goods, and they are integrated in their feelings, judgments, and will in their concern to promote these goods for others.

Yet there are many distinct ways that a person can promote intellectual goods such as knowledge and understanding for others. For this reason the basic motivation of intellectual benevolence can support a variety of specific intellectual virtues. For example, one way a person can promote excellence in others’ inquiries is by faithfully sharing their own perspective on topics of others’ inquiries in appropriate circumstances. The virtue of communicating one’s perspective well in the right circumstances we might call “intellectual transparency”. It requires both skills in identifying one’s own perspective and in effectively communicating this perspective to others.

Another example is the virtue of communicative clarity. Communicating so as to be well-understood by others is foundational for being able to promote their inquiries through one’s communications. Communicating in this way requires skill in removing or resolving sources of confusion in one’s communications. A virtuously clear communicator will tend to define ambiguous terms they are using, to structure their communications in a way that is easy to follow, and to emphasize their key points.

These are just three examples of virtues of intellectual dependability. There are many others we could consider, including sensitivity to one’s audience, intellectual guidance, and so on. And there is much more we could say about each one of them. While these virtues are distinct, each having its own proper focus and requiring distinctive skills, they are unified in that their ultimate aim is to promote excellence in others’ inquiries. It may come as a surprise that very little academic research has been done on virtues such as these. Instead, the focus of most relevant academic research has been on intellectual virtues that promote excellence in the possessor’s own inquiries.

Thankfully, things have begun to change on this score in recent years. And—allowing myself a bit of optimism—it may be that in the near future much more attention will be given to virtues of intellectual dependability. The efforts that have been initiated in this area and those we might hope to follow are of course only the beginnings of the kind of attention that deserves to be paid to the topic of intellectual dependability. Yet one hopes that as more attention is given to these subjects in academic research, the fruits of this work can make a positive impact on our intellectual helping behaviors in the various arenas of our lives the real world. We certainly need it.

Picture: Ian Southwell, ‘Entrust’, Victoria Bay, Brandelhow Wood, Derwentwater,Lake District Cumbria, from Flickr, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

[i] P. Babcock, “Shedding Light on Knowledge Management,” HR Magazine 49, 5 (2004): 46-51.

[ii] See, for example, S. Woolley and P. Howard, eds, Computational Propaganda: Political Parties, Politicians, and Political Manipulation on Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[iii] See, for example, R. Harris, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hopes, and Wastes Billions (New York: Basic Books, 2017).