Monday, November 08, 2004

Arrogance, Education, and Courage - Part 1

When I taught I encountered all sorts of students. Some were hard-working, some constantly failed to show up for class, some were loud, and some were quiet but attentive and sharp. I had all the sorts you would expect.

There was one sort of student, though, that has stuck out in my mind as time has passed-- even more than the especially bright or the "problems." These were the students who would accuse me (as well as on occasion their fellow student) of arrogance.

I mention them because I am often reminded of their accusation as I listen to the course of public conversation on divisive contemporary issues. I have addressed in another entry the post-election assessment that the Democrats lost because of their elitist disregard for the values of mainstream America. But the issue of arrogance is really much broader than just this, and it will no doubt survive the election season and continue as a theme of public discourse. Furthermore, the charge of arrogance is connected in systematic ways to other very fundamental ideas we have about who we are.

What is arrogance, or elitism? There is a Greek notion I admire, transliterated as megalopsuchia, which literally means something like "great souled." This person knows what he deserves and demands just that from those around him. (The term emerged in Latin as "magnanimous," which sometimes is understood today as "generous." The idea was, roughly, that the person who knew what he was worth wouldn't sweat being generous to his inferiors.) Opposed to the person with megalopsuchia is a person who has what the Greeks called 'hubris'. 'Hubris', of course, is a contemporary synonym for 'arrogance'. Someone with hubris desires to humiliate those around him in any way he can. He does this, in part, because he suffers from an exaggerated estimation of his own importance. He wrongly feels himself to be better than everyone else. Likewise, the arrogant person regards himself as better than he really is.

Intellectually, we could say that an arrogant person regards her own beliefs as better than others'-- without any justification for doing so, or without those beliefs really being any better than others'.

The part after the dash is important, and I want briefly to say why.

In the American Radio Works documentary on Kerry and Bush, President Bush is quoted as remarking that the professors at Yale "thought they knew all the answers." I think anyone who has gone to college can appreciate the President's frustration. Sometimes professors seem to think of themselves not only as, say, working to open their students' minds, but as converting them. Yet at the same time-- especially at a place like Yale-- it seems reasonable to admit that the professors do have some of "the answers." Who else would have them, if anybody did? In some cases, professors at my college had been thinking about the issues under discussion in the classroom longer than I had been alive. That doesn't imply that they were absolutely correct about those issues; but they certainly had answers I did not have. They certainly knew how to think about the issues under discussion with considerably more sophistication and precision.

When we confront someone like a professor at a prestigous university, who is an expert in his or her field, we face a kind of dilemma. For surely in one sense of the term 'know', the expert knows it all. But in another sense of 'know', the expert is in no better a position than we modest beginners are. For in no field-- and here I include the fields in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities-- have we arrived at the definitive true theory. In some cases we humans have been working on the problems for thousands of years, with the brightest of us spending lifetimes battling the riddles, and we have at best a partial understanding, half-way knowledge, of the way things really are. The vast majority of physicists in the 450-year history of modern science have been wrong about the world (most of their theories have been empirically disconfirmed). It is a dramatic misunderstanding of even confirmed scientific theories to regard them as definitively or certainly true. At best these theories accord with all our observations; but what we have observed until now may be anomalous in the course of the history of the universe.

For this reason, when we confront a person with a high estimation of their own beliefs, it is very difficult for us to determine whether that estimation is deserved or not. That is, it is very difficult for us to distinguish "megalopsuchia" from "hubris" or "arrogance."

And while the point applies to the natural sciences, it is especially pertinent for our moral evaluations.

So when we argue over moral evaluations, like whether or not it is morally permissable to abort a fetus or for a man to marry a man, we are tempted to accuse of arrogance those of our opponents who are absolutely convinced of their position. We could call this problem, "the inseperability of judgment from mere opinion." For since mere opinion is not justifiably regarded as true, it is arrogance to try and force it onto someone else.

I'm not saying that we can never know the truth. We know many truths; and we have come to know some of these through centuries of investigation and some through the quickest of glances. But for most of the things we care about (such as whether abortion is morally permissible), assuming that there is a correct answer to be had, I think it is safe to say we don't know what it is.

Here is an example of the problem of the inseparability of judgment from mere opinion. Since his debut at the New York Times in 1999, economist Paul Krugman has become one of the most influential opinion columinsts in American journalism. Recently, however, an awareness has developed of how singularly focused Krugman is on attacking the Bush administration. Krugman's attacks concern not just economic policy, but foreign policy as well, an area ostensibly outside Krugman's scholarly bailiwick. Ken Waight, whose site uses statistical methods to measure the partisanship of pundits, ranks Krugman second in the country-- just behind Ann Coulter. Can we trust Krugman to be fair?

Krugman writes opinion pieces; so we expect judgments from him. But at the same time, we expect him to exercise a certain amount of care in coming to the judgments he does. It is unlikely that any one administration is uniformly malicious, unsuccessful, or incompetent. Reading Krugman, though, you might think that the Bush administration was an exception.

But on these grounds it is impossible to say whether or not Krugman is partisan. For this observation-- that he consistently attacks the administration-- is perfectly consistent with the possibility that Krugman is correct in many of the accusations he makes. And if that is the case, then Krugman shouldn't be regarded as partisan at all. In that case he should be regarded as an incisive and unyielding journalist. The observation, then, is consistent with two entirely different conclusions about Krugman; it provides us no means to choose between them. Unfortunately, this is just the choice we needed to make.

Likewise, as they stand Waight's statistical measures provide little in the way of distinguishing between an incisive and courageous journalist who continually debunks one source, and someone blinded by their allegiance to a certain cause. The measures just count negative evaluations. Even the mention of "simple facts," such as a candidate losing an election, are counted as negative evaluations, and thus increase the measure of partisanship. ( But this is surely flawed; what ought to be measured are unfounded negative evaluations, not true or well-justified ones! Only consistent unfounded evaluations are evidence of the "blindness" by which Waight himself defines partisanship.

I don't think we ought to fault Waight too much for this. For it is not clear how we could in this case, with any kind of certainty, systematically separate founded from unfounded evaluations. This is just the problem of the inseparability of judgment from mere opinion. For judgment is distinguished from mere opinion by virtue of its being well-founded. The intellectually arrogant person is distinguished by virtue of an unfounded allegiance to his or her own mere opinions, even in the face of significant rational challenge.

When my students accused me of being arrogant, then, this is what they were accusing me of. In part this surely resulted from the force with which I expressed certain ideas, and from the rough treatment I gave the opinions of theirs I thought superficial. At the same time, I was sensitive to their accusations of arrogance. I sometimes worried that I was too charmed by my own beliefs.

There is a general question here. How can I determine of myself whether I am intellectually arrogant? How can I see of my own beliefs whether or not they are unfounded mere opinion? They are, after all, my beliefs. Can I stand "outside" them? Can I suspend or ignore them?

Look for Part 2 of this post, coming in the next few days.


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