The Need for Intellectual Humility

The critique developed in this book of rationality and of deductive reasoning does not question the need to use concepts to bring some order to experience. There is nowhere else to go. Rather, it questions the practical use of concepts that are so general, at such a level of abstraction, that they lose touch with empirical reality. This is particularly so when they are conceived of as absolutes. In such circumstances, their application as a guide to action is inherently problematic and ideological. The perspective to be drawn from pragmatism—and from Niebuhr and Stackhouse in particular—should make us wary of such God-like pretensions and cause us to become more aware of the need for humility about our limited abilities, our intellectual techniques, our intellectual speculations and our real policy decisions.[37] Absolute truth is not available to us. All truth, as we know it, is constructed socially and is subject to revision—sometimes radically.

The substantial judgements involved in public policy development are moral rather than technical. It is the quality of our moral judgements, the sensitivity of our moral vocabulary and stories—rather than the quality of our economic logic—that is the crucial element in public decision making. Judgement needs to be informed by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others, wide learning, deep reflection, wide consultation and by wide experience of the practical world. We therefore need to acknowledge that it is not so much the lack of technical knowledge that inhibits government policy as it is the dominant moral values that shape what it is possible to think and do.

We need to be particularly wary when it comes to postulating this or that as an overarching moral principle with priority over all other values. Despite pretensions to the contrary, economics does not and cannot provide the moral equivalent of a unified field theory—an equivalent of the physicists’ Holy Grail, which can be invoked to justify collective action directed by government. For example, there is no ideal form of social or economic organisation against which to measure real organisations; the forms of organisation used in the private sector do not provide an ideal form or vocabulary that must be emulated. Social evolution, like biological evolution, does not lead to optimal outcomes, only satisfactory ones.

Of particular note is the prevalent tendency to fasten onto particular ideological interpretations of human rights and of liberty, to make them into absolutes and then to use those interpretations to exclude collective action based on other values. We have tended to elevate individualism, freedom of contract and economic efficiency above values that point to mutual interdependency and responsibility for our neighbours. Such humility should make us more conscious of the needs and claims of others in contrast with our own needs and claims. It should make us more conscious that we frequently lack the knowledge for sound decisions, and of the need to consult widely, to proceed carefully, to be willing to experiment and to change direction. Humility should also make us aware of the pretensions of ‘rationality’ and of the need to accord emotions and values a legitimate role in decision making.

We should be more careful about such abstractions as ‘the economy’, ‘the market’ and particularly ‘the labour market’. In the practical policy debate, the fact that these are abstractions has long been forgotten—the dancers have become the servants of the steps. We should also be more careful about the division of people and their social groups into rigid categories. Rather, we should admit that is it difficult to unscramble all the influences that bear on real people in all their relationships.

This critique should also serve as a reminder to avoid seeing the complex issues we confront in the world through simple dichotomies. Unfortunately, most policy debate occurs at a simplistic, markets-are-good/governments-are-bad level. Rather, as Popper recommends, in the search for knowledge, every source, every suggestion is welcome, while all are open to critical examination. Qualitatively and quantitatively, by far the most important source of our knowledge—apart from inborn knowledge—is tradition.[38]

In particular, the current distinction made in public debate between the public and the private sectors is overdrawn. We quickly forget that what we are really talking about are real, interdependent groups of people engaged in complex interrelationships, involving different and complex organisational structures and in a bewildering variety of activities and exchanges. Governance is a necessary part of all of these activities. It is only the types of governance that are in question. This is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of a priori reasoning. Collective action is a necessary part of any complex society and the government is a legitimate organ of that collective action. Limitations on government action are not to be established on the basis of abstract a priori reasoning but on the basis of experimentation within the framework of a political tradition—a tradition incorporating much practical wisdom and learning.