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Open for Debate

Intellectual Humility and Conviction

12 March 2018

Here is a puzzle. On the one hand, we laud people in public life for their conviction, for sticking to their principles come what may. Indeed, we take to be crucial to someone’s authenticity. On the other hand, however, don’t we also think that it is important that those in public life are intellectually humble rather than intellectually arrogant? Here is the thing: public life is full of disagreement. In particular, there will surely be lots of people that one is engaging with who are just as knowledgeable as you are, who have thought about the issues just as much, and yet who sincerely put forward views that are diametrically opposed to your own. Faced with disagreements of this kind, then isn’t one obliged – if one is intellectually humble at any rate – to not be completely sure of your opinions? Indeed, wouldn’t sticking to your guns in the face of disagreements of this kind be tantamount to intellectual arrogance, in that it effectively means that you are taking yourself to be much smarter than all these clever people around you? But if that’s right, then why do we also praise those in public life who show conviction? Why isn’t that just intellectual arrogance?

I think we can resolve this puzzle, but in order to do so we need to think a bit more about intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance. The former is a virtue, which is an excellence of character. That is, it is the kind of trait that we find in virtuous people, who have exemplary characters. Indeed, intellectual humility is a specifically intellectual virtue, as opposed, for example, to a moral virtue like kindness. Like all virtues, intellectual humility lies between two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. Intellectual arrogance is the intellectual vice of deficiency in this regard, in that it is the kind of trait that one would manifest if one lacks intellectual humility. At the other extreme, there are also those who are too intellectually humble, and so give their own opinions absolutely no weight whatsoever. This would be an intellectual vice of excess. The virtuous person is meant to be someone who navigates between these two extremes and so manifests the virtuous behaviour of being intellectually humble.

So how does one go about manifesting intellectual humility? The puzzle we set out above seems to suggest that at least one way that we do this is by being willing to downgrade our confidence in our own opinions when others, who are just as knowledgeable about the subject matter in question, disagree with us. And on the face of it that seems right, as we noted above. More generally, aren’t the intellectually humble the kind of people who tend to have a lower confidence in their beliefs than the evidence warrants, just as the humble person more generally tends to have a lower confidence in themselves than would be justifiable?

While this conception of intellectual humility might be appealing, it is also completely wrong. This is fortunate, since it is this conception of intellectual humility that is driving our puzzle above. After all, on this proposal, the disagreement that is rife in public life would leave no room for conviction in one’s beliefs, at least insofar as we want those engaged in public discourse to be virtuous (as we surely do).

We can see that this account of intellectual humility is problematic by noting that it effectively demands that the virtuous person has inaccurate beliefs. This is because it holds that the intellectually humble person should have less confidence in their beliefs than the evidence warrants. But if the evidence demands more confidence, then shouldn’t a believer striving for accuracy have that higher level of accuracy? Moreover, remember that we are talking about an intellectual virtue here. How can an intellectual virtue make demands on us that are contrary to accuracy? Aren’t intellectual virtues by their nature geared towards a desire to get to the truth?

The wider problem with this conception of intellectual humility is that it puts the focus of this virtue on precisely the wrong thing. In particular, the emphasis is completely on an inward-looking focus on oneself and what level of confidence one should have in one’s beliefs. I submit, however, that the real focus of intellectual humility is not inward-looing at all, but outward-looking. That is, one manifests one’s intellectually humility not by downgrading one’s confidence in one’s beliefs, but in the ways in which one conducts oneself when intellectually engaging with others, including those who disagree with you. What I have in mind here are such important traits of being willing to respectfully listen to one’s opponents, of being willing to support one’s viewpoints with reasons and evidence, appropriately attending to the reasons and evidence offered by others, and so on. In short, one displays intellectual humility by respectfully intellectually engaging with others.

In engaging in behaviour of this kind one might well be led to change one’s mind, and a willingness to do that is also part of the bundle of traits that make up intellectual humility. But notice that one can manifest all of these traits without in fact lowering one’s confidence in one’s beliefs at all. Indeed, sticking to one’s guns will be an entirely appropriate response to disagreements of this kind if, after listening carefully to what one’s opponents have to say, one does not feel at all persuaded by their arguments.

But if one remains unpersuaded by what one’s opponents have to say, then why listen to them at all? Relatedly, if one does continue to intellectually engage with them, then isn’t this somewhat fake, as if one is just going through the motions of taking what they have to say seriously, when in fact one is privately disregarding it? Not at all. The key thing to remember here is that intellectual humility on this picture is rooted in an intellectual respect for others. Someone who was merely going through the motions would not, therefore, be displaying this virtue at all. Moreover, if you really do intellectually respect others, then you ought to be willing to listen to them and intellectually engage with them even if you think it is unlikely that they will get you to change your mind. The value of such exchanges is not to be measured completely in terms of who convinces who. (Besides, you might convince them to change their minds!)

The point of all this is that sticking to your guns is entirely compatible with being intellectually humble. What matters is rather how you stick to your guns. If you act with the courtesy and respect for others that we expect of people in public life, then your convictions need be no barrier to you being intellectual humble. And that’s good news.


Image: “Civil Rights March on Washington” from Wikipedia Commons


  1. Vina Huynh

    In my distinction, the intellectually arrogant person is one who feels superior in intellect and therefore needs not engage in the discourse of “lesser” people. I like this saying about humility:

    To be humble doesn’t mean to think less of yourself. It means to think of yourself less.

    The admittance and reasonable assumption that no person “knows it all.” I often reduce my arguments to their ideas and remove any sense of ego. I believe this is key to finding a “greater truth”, which, to me, is the primary reason for intellectual discourse.

    Those who care to be “right” or “wrong” wish to feed their ego, but the focus should be for the greater truth, regardless of who said what. If a greater truth is found, it is to the benefit of all those involved, including the bystander listening. The greater truth is under the assumption that those in debate have the same goal, of course. Good write up. Good luck and enjoy life! =)

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