FRI 14 - 8 - 2020
Date: May 8, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
In praise of intellectual humility
Tarek Mitri
Public officials are often expected to demonstrate their unfailing self-confidence. Their hesitations should not transpire, nor show any other sign of doubt. High self-esteem seems desirable and thought to be a leadership quality. In certain cases, such as the one we presently experience in Lebanon, political decision-makers come across as nervously defensive and unsophisticatedly self-righteous.

It is less and less uncommon to hear people criticize the arrogance of those in power, no matter how democratically accountable they could be. Increasingly, “politics of fear” practiced by many political forces, all over the world, fuel more arrogance among politicians. In times of fear and uncertainty, there might be a demand for certitude. But making credible predictions in the realm of politics is becoming less likely. Many recent examples of unanticipated upheavals, surprising political and economic crisis illustrate the failure of politicians, public intellectuals and even prospective analysts in foretelling the future. They invite self-criticism and the humility of suggesting that predictions need to be rethought as probabilities, while probabilities considered as possibilities. To be sure, this is very true in the difficult times of the ravaging pandemic. Today, many hard scientists - including specialists in infectious diseases, epidemiology and microbiology - seem quite reluctant to be affirmative in foreseeing the future. Others are not inclined to reveal a good measure of intellectual humility. Some of them, whether specialized in medicine or in soft sciences, do not make enough distinction between their sound hypothesis, intimate convictions, and evidence-based conclusions.

Undoubtedly, it is among political leaders that the deficit in intellectual humility is the most significant. Decisions affecting lives of their people have, in some countries, failed to take full account of the wisdom of scientists. There are a few exceptions, however, when leaders refuse to pontificate.

"Undoubtedly, it is among political leaders that the deficit in intellectual humility is the most significant. Decisions affecting lives of their people have, in some countries, failed to take full account of the wisdom of scientists."


The world is tragically learning that many assumptions about “progress” did not come true. Governments of nation-states have become "too small for the big problems and too big for the small problems". More importantly, the globalization of economy and communication weakened substantially the exercise of power within the limits of a national territory. While the logic of economy favors interdependence and regional integration, that of politics continues to follow the way of fragmentation along old national lines and within nations. The world market and the universal homo economicus did not dissolve neither national nor ethnic particularisms. The limitations of economic globalization are more disturbingly discernible in the context of the pandemic.

The inability to deal efficiently with many practical problems invites a critical look at the self-assurance of those who preached the infallibility of the market. A major economic dogma is thought to be the efficient market hypothesis. Since the market operates on the basis of all existing information, it is believed to be never wrong. The market, it is said, is an accurate reflection and distillation of the countless millions of decisions made by buyers, sellers, and investors. But the market is, after all, a complex human artifice and far from being a “natural phenomenon.” Its zealous defenders could not but concede. Short of doing that, they have nothing to offer but their silence when the market “goes crazy.”

There is no way out of this difficulty except in intellectual humility. This is not only a religious virtue to be remembered but also a necessity in the age of self-assertiveness of the aggregated wealthy. There are situations where humility, not always practiced by most economists, is courageously embraced in suggesting that we all pretend we understand more than we do.

This example points to the often uncontested reliability of human knowledge. The search for an absolutely certain knowledge is more increasingly difficult, even in many hard sciences. However, scientism has not vanished. There are many who insist on claiming that science is on its way to resolve most of the questions, even ones that are inherently beyond its ability to answer. In the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its various guises proved dangerous, because it pretended to be different from what it really was.


Humility is not a notion most people are naturally inclined to uphold. They may concede it as a virtue embraced by “simple” men and women of faith or by some laudable and unconventional people. The defining trait of our age seems to be arrogance, not only among some of those who wield power or accumulate wealth. It is not uncommon among those who take exaggerated pride in their knowledge. Arrogance is equally encouraged by the exaggerated use of media technology, with its heightened risk of amalgamating information and opinion. It has become quite common to semiconsciously equate massive information with knowledge.

Political developments in many countries, more particularly the mounting influence of populism, makes it difficult to resist arrogance. To be sure, Lebanon is not an exception. The magnified self-esteem is intertwined with the tendency to pretend knowing how the world works and accentuated by those who give simple answers to complex questions. The role of ideology is undeniable. It blurs the lines between objective knowledge, subject to constant revision, and convictions derived from partial knowledge.

At the same time, devaluing objective truth contributed to the subsequent rise of intellectual arrogance. It is true that skepticism protects us against our own prejudices, but it discourages us, at times, from seeking truth. Skepticism needs to be differentiated from intellectual humility which opts for more inquiry and self-questioning instead of self-rationalization or self-justification. Conspiracy theorists offer a counterexample of tirelessly seeking truth. They stop enquiring when they see themselves capable of constructing an explanation and they become less responsive to more evidence and less inclined to a greater intellectual effort.

Arrogance cannot be resisted without the acceptance of objective truth coupled with the recognition that it is not fully in our possession. Intellectual humility, for its part, is not rejection of objective truth but an attitude toward oneself admitting one’s own limitations, biases and fallibility. It is a method of entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is, at the same time, a main feature of the scientific method, where a scientist actively works against his or her own hypothesis, attempting to rule out any other alternative explanations for a phenomenon before settling on a conclusion.


Intellectual humility is a reminder that many issues are subject to doubt. In modern philosophy, doubt was elevated to an indispensable methodological principle. More recently, postmodernism was embraced and portrayed as a radical epistemological innovation. In postmodernism, pretension to disinterested knowledge is dismissed. Old and new narratives are in perpetual competition.

Plurality is celebrated as a source of riches. But it could be perceived as a destabilizing phenomenon, leading to two opposite reactions. On the one hand, we see a return to premodern certainties, found in religious fundamentalism and blind faith in scientific rationalism. On the other hand, all certainties are lost in favor of contingencies, freedom of choice, and personal autonomy. In the first case, making individual choices is mitigated by closed belief system. In the second case, it is turned into an advantage.

Doubt and intellectual humility come together when we chose to defer judgment, fight our own prejudices and refrain from making hasty affirmations or prejudgments. However, they have clearly different functions. If doubt is systematically applied, it risks ending up with despondency as well as the loss of hope and the accompanying energy to act. For its part, intellectual humility invites openness to self-criticism and a willingness to learn from and correct mistakes. It does not, however, imply ethical relativism.

Intellectual humility and ethical certainty are often held in tension. Respect of other people’s truth claims and willingness to suspend our value judgments on the beliefs of those with whom we disagree can be salient features of intellectual humility. But humility does not imply ethical relativism. It does not contradict ethical certainty. There have been many ways of universalizing ethical certainty. Some have highlighted the convergence of religious commandments - the main one being the “golden rule,” the principle of treating others as oneself wishes to be treated. Others have based ethical certainty on natural law. Be that as it may, there is a certitude based on a historically developing perception of what it means to be human. The dignity of humankind comes to be perceived in a particular context. However, once perceived, it transcends specific conditions and is assumed to be intrinsic to being human.

Coming back to where I began, it may be good to emphasize that in a democracy, intellectual humility is relevant for those in power, be it political power or the more diffuse and wide-ranging cultural power. It helps making institutions encourage and protect dialogue among those who disagree. Democratic institutions consolidate their legitimacy in pursuing evidence-based knowledge, while recognizing its limitation, and in reminding us that power, and our own self-importance, are not the measure of all things. In a genuine democracy, intellectual humility is far more than an ornament.

Tarek Mitri is distinguished senior fellow at AUB Issam Fares Institute, president of St. George University and former director of IFI.
This article is part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics. Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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