Although recent empirical work suggests that intellectual humility is associated with reduced affective polarization, greater openness to learning about rival positions, and empathy for political opponents, the authors of a new paper challenge the assumption that political conviction and intellectual humility are always compatible. Their argument has been published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
“The standard view in philosophy and psychology is that people can be intellectually humble and still retain their convictions,” said corresponding author Michael Hannon, a fellow-in-residence at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. “We think this work is important because it aims to show that an intellectually humble person can still play an active part in modern political life.”
“However, there is also relevant research in political science which indicates that intellectually humble people may actually be less politically active, and they may have their convictions weakened or undermined. We wanted to explore these tensions, as well as explore some different conceptions of intellectual humility that seem to be forgotten and worth bringing back into view.”
In the article, Hannon and his co-author, Ian James Kidd, outlined three ways in which intellectual humility may interfere with political conviction.
Firstly, empathy, which is seen as a positive moral and epistemic outcome, is facilitated by humility. However, empathy can also lead individuals to agree with the perspectives of those with rival views to their own, leading to a tension between humility and conviction.
Secondly, intellectually humble individuals are better epistemically calibrated, allowing them to assess the plausibility of evidence for their beliefs and possess greater self-knowledge of their epistemic limitations. However, this may also lead them to question the justification of their political beliefs due to the immense epistemic complexity of many political problems and the fact that many political beliefs cluster around two main camps, even though the issues are rationally orthogonal.
Finally, intellectual humility may challenge political conviction by making individuals more open to alternative viewpoints and more willing to change their beliefs.
“We were surprised that the overwhelming consensus, amongst both philosophers and psychologists, is that intellectual humility and political conviction are compatible,” Hannon said. “Few scholars seem concerned about the fact that intellectual humility may threaten political conviction.”
But the authors acknowledged that it is possible to be both intellectually humble and have politically conviction. They went on to describe three forms of political quietism — diffidence, reticence, and modesty — which can be seen as manifestations of intellectual humility that do not necessarily equate with a lack of conviction.
Diffidence is defined as a principled commitment to carefulness and fairmindedness when taking on complex topics.
Reticence is a principled reluctance to voice opinions about complex or charged issues due to an appreciation of the demands of fully understanding such topics. In other words, reticent individuals resist offering snap judgments and “hot takes.”
Modesty about one’s epistemic abilities is a further aspect of a quietist political stance. Those who adopt this stance “know understanding will be fragile and liable to become outdated, and they are therefore averse to arrogance and hubris.”
“Our paper has two main lessons. First, intellectual humility and political conviction are not always compatible,” Hannon explained. “Second, intellectual humility can be expressed in different kinds of political life. A humble person might keep quiet, speak only about the very limited range of topics about which they are genuinely informed. Such quieter forms of humility are rarely appreciated in our noisy, know-it-all society, with its onus on having lots of views and loudly broadcasting them.”
Hannon pointed out two notable caveats.
“First, the precise relationship between intellectual humility and political conviction is still unclear,” he explained. While we provide some reasons to think that intellectually humble people may, under some circumstances, lose their conviction to some degree, there is still much empirical work needed to establish this way any certainty.”
“Second, there is more work to do in developing the quietist political stances we sketch at the end of the paper, and in seeing how they might work in modern political cultures,” Hannon said. “There are also important criticisms to consider, like the worry that quietist sorts of humility merely reinforce the status quo.”
The paper is titled: “Political conviction, intellectual humility, and quietism“.