Thinking clearly about moral humility

In his November 2011 TED talk Nitin Nohria claims: “We haven’t really understood moral over-confidence.”  While I agree with Nohria’s call for moral humility, I believe it is more truthful to say that we have forgotten our tendency for immorality.  As Nohria terms it, we suffer from moral overconfidence.  We think that only “those bad people” do wrong things.

By forgotten, I mean that people, religions, and philosophies have long recognized that humankind is NOT inherently good and is certainly capable of, in fact rather prone, to evil.  Consider, for example, the concept of “total depravity” – that man is completely unable to do good apart from God’s help – taught by the likes of Augustine and Calvin based on their understanding of the Bible.  While some see this belief as arrogant or judgmental, these men were actually practicing moral humility, seeing the penchant for evil in themselves and the people around them.  Whether or not you believe in this or similar doctrines, I think Nohria’s point helps to show us the truth about ourselves.  We too easily over-estimate ourselves and our own ability to “do the right thing.”

Lewis makes a similar point in “The Inner Ring” by pointing out how quickly we can become “scoundrels,” often times unwittingly and despite our intentions.  In Chapter 1 of his book Mere Christianity, Lewis makes a similar point to Nohria,

“None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature…I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people…They [human beings] know the Law of Nature; they break it.  These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

Both Nohria and Lewis call us to think clearly and truthfully about our own hearts, and in the context of this class, the decisions we make as engineers and scientists.  A big part of the battle is simply admitting our own wrong-doing or tendency for it.  We are more likely to see the moral/ethical implications of our engineering decisions if we cultivate this type of mindset.  But Humility and the courage to act out of that humility are not easily come by.  Nohria seems to tell us to simply try harder and somehow we’ll make it.  Others, myself included, know that we need outside help to overcome this hurdle.

4 thoughts on “Thinking clearly about moral humility

  1. It sounds sad and somewhat pessimistic, although personally I agree with you that moral degeneration is much easier than rebuilding morale. I found it hard to explain the tendency for wrong-doing theoretically and am trying to recall some examples. In childhood, if you are a good child and do as your parents/teachers said, you will probably get nothing, and scolded sometimes when you failed to maintain their standards. However, if you never listen to them and happen to do so some day you are very likely to be praised and even awarded something. Good people can easily get disputed when their performance is “less good”, but bad people will be highly praised when they are “less bad” (although they may be still far away from “good”). Reward for being good is not in proportion with punishment for being bad. In Godfellas (20th episode of the third production season of Futurama), the God chuckled, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all”. Maybe this is partially the reason why people can easily go bad? Religion may be a good balance, because the God acts like a “third party” or external judge, and one is guaranteed that all the things he/she has done are watched by the God and will be eventually evaluated. It seems hard to be a real “good” man, but most people can promise not to be a bad man. So we pessimists can be a little more optimistic?

  2. Dan VB, excellent points. I am, myself, quite preoccupied these days with the idea that by our very nature we might have a penchant for wrongdoing. If we accept this as an axiom, what are its implications for scientists? Do you believe that science has the proper built-in safeguards to dis-incentivize wrongdoing? Do you believe it has the built-in safeguards to address wrongdoing adequately once it occurs? If so, what are these safeguards? If not, what does this say about the widespread conviction that science is self-correcting?

  3. Yanna, those are some deep questions that definitely don’t have easy answers, at least not for the scientific community as a whole. I think the first step or implication for us as scientists is simply acknowledging the problem, as I’ve stated earlier. If we don’t, probably sooner rather than later we’ll find ourselves blinded by our image as “good guys” or our desire for the “inner ring,” and we’ll step off the ethical deep end. But acknowledgment can’t be the final step. I’ll repeat myself: I think we need help.

    Practically, that help could come from accountability with the other scientists around us, especially if it is something voluntary and not bureaucratic. In many cases, that may be enough. Still the whole “groupthink” phenomenon can sometimes limit the effectiveness of such a strategy. Other more official safeguards could be built-in to the scientific community, but I’m not optimistic regarding the success of such programs in completely stopping unethical behavior. Personally, I think that the ultimate help for our moral dilemma, including that as individual scientists, is found in the God of the Christianity. Our tendency for wrongdoing prevents us from helping ourselves. We can do well helping ourselves for awhile, but at some point the system breaks down. I realize this sort of statement doesn’t “sit well” with the scientific community. It can’t be made into a plan that can be implemented or an educational program since it definitely is a personal issue. However, I think it is a hopeful and optimistic view, to counter kiwi’s statement. If we acknowledge our need for help and take that help from God in the form of hearts that are being changed, we have hope to “do the right thing” consistently in all endeavors, including those scientific. We can then love and serve through our science as human beings who are not proud at how “good” we think we are, but humble about our own shortcomings.

    I think I may have to tackle some of the other questions later. Thanks for all the things to think about.

  4. It is really a good point to recall ourselves to think about the tendency of immorality. Most time it is hard to find the drawbacks of ourselves untill any other people remind this or when we see the same fault happened on the other ones. So I think, before starting our research, it is better to talk about this idea to other scientists. They may not be our peers, as someone may worry about the divelge the secrets of their research. They could be the possible stakeholder, related industry or scientists from related subjects. Then we could correct our mistake before trigging a public blame like TCC case.

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