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.