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13: Conclusion - Intellectual Honesty, Intellectual Humility, and Charity

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    A lot from this conclusion has been copied into the chapter on Intellectual Virtues and Vices. I decided to keep it here in the conclusion as a means of emphasizing the centrality of these ideas to thinking well: thinking well is thinking virtuously. So here it is, some of it repeated, for emphasis:

    This textbook and the courses associated with it are aimed at a number of different things. I and your instructors want to teach some basic skills in recognizing arguments, different types of arguments or inferences, different problems in reasoning, and so on. We want you to walk away from the course with some knowledge about arguments, argumentation and reason and with some skills in putting that knowledge to use.

    More than that, though, I want to instill in my students a set of habits and dispositions—particularly intellectual habits or habits of mind. The three that come to my mind first are intellectual honesty, intellectual humility, and charity.

    Intellectual honesty is the disposition to be truthful and sober in your assessment of your own knowledge. It’s easy to claim that we know things and even to have confidence in what we know, but often we find that on reflection we shouldn’t have as much confidence as we do. Confidence is cheap. What is of higher worth is the ability and disposition to recognize the things we don’t know or shouldn’t be confident in and the things that we do know and do have reason to be confident in. Much of what we think we know we think we know really because we read a headline while scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or someone told us once sort of off-handedly. These, when we think about it, aren’t very good sources of knowledge. They aren’t really grounds or justifications for our beliefs—or at any rate aren’t very good justifications for our beliefs. Intellectual honesty is the disposition to take a beat, think about why it is that we feel confident in a belief and feel ready to assert it, and then proceed with a more honest assessment of what we know and why we think we know it.

    Intellectual humility goes hand in hand with intellectual honesty. What is means to be intellectually humble, though, is slightly different from being honest. Intellectual humility is a disposition to recognize that even when we have good grounds for knowing something, there might always be something that upsets that understanding or set of beliefs. To be intellectually humble is to remember that human beings have been very confident many times in the past and often for very good reason, but have turned out to be wrong due to some false assumption somewhere in their thinking. It’s the disposition to say “even if I have really good reason to believe what I believe, I still might be wrong.”

    Both of these are dispositions worth cultivating. But there is one more worth coming back to: what is Charity? To be charitable is to attribute the best intentions and strongest justifications to someone else. To interpret a set of actions charitably is to try to see those actions in terms of the most reasonable set of motivations or intentions behind them. To interpret someone’s beliefs charitably is to attribute moral innocence to them as a person as far as is possible so as to give them the strongest possible benefit of the doubt. Only when you have really good reasons for doing so might you think of someone else as irrational, vicious (in the sense meaning the opposite of virtuous), or petty. Charity, then, is a habit of interpreting actions and beliefs in a good light— a rational and moral light.

    All of these dispositions have their appropriate limits, of course: many beliefs and actions are just wrongheaded or irrational or bigoted and we needn’t bend ourselves in pretzel knots trying to interpret them charitably. Many of our own beliefs are things we have really good reason for believing, so we don’t need to be so humble that we refuse to believe anything. Some of us, furthermore, are really in a better position to know things and to reason about them. A false sense of humility stops being honest at a certain point.

    Nevertheless, the hope is that you leave the class associated with this textbook a bit more skeptical, a bit more incredulous (more reticent to accept new statements as statements of fact), a bit more self-reflective. Circumspection is the act of looking back at oneself and at one’s own beliefs and assertions. The hope is that you leave the course with a good habit to circumspect: to examine your own beliefs, assertions, and actions from a more disinterested stance. The tools in this text help move you one step closer towards this goal.

      This page titled 13: Conclusion - Intellectual Honesty, Intellectual Humility, and Charity is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Andrew Lavin via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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