On Intellectual Honesty

Below is an incomplete list of what intellectual honesty means to me. Let me know what I missed, or if I’m wrong. Please comment if you have any thoughts at all; I want to hear from you. Yeah, you.

1. Admit you could be wrong.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” – Nietzsche

This is a basis for all intellectual honesty: to not have a higher opinion of someone simply because they agree with you, to not base your opinion of someone on agreement at all, but on how well they can explain what and why they believe; in short, if they can prove they think for themselves.[1] Since most people assume they are right, it makes sense to have a higher opinion of someone who confirms their belief.

So the first principle of being honest is the implicit conclusion to everything you say or believe: “I could be wrong.” Or the stronger, more courageous conclusion: “I am wrong”. Embrace the possibility of someone disagreeing with you; you’ll probably learn something, and they’ll appreciate that you are listening, instead of arguing. Even if I already agree with people, often I act like I don’t. Most people will not explain themselves if you too readily agree with them. Dissent forces them to reconsider their position, if only briefly: “Am I really right? Does being right or wrong even matter?” And it forces people to give reasons for what they believe, a great way of getting to know them.

Before I can stomach others disagreeing with me on my most precious beliefs, I have to learn how to attack myself, to disregard my feelings, and have it out with everything I hold dear. Nietzsche has a good point here:  “A very popular error – having the courage of one’s convictions: Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s convictions!”  I have to be my harshest critic. No one is nice enough to do it for me.

Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite of what everyone is taught to think. We rarely critique ourselves and generally find very amiable those we agree with. Unconsciously, our parents teach us to be like them, to be better people than they are, but only they get to decide what “better” means. (Of course, many parents do this consciously, and have no guilty conscience afterwards about how they dominated and saturated their child’s entire worldview[2]) Implicitly, most parents believe that whatever they taught you is right is also right for everyone else. The worst of these say, “If only everyone could teach their kids the values and standards that I have taught mine! If only everyone knew what I knew!” Even more, I find when I ask people why they believe what they do, few can defend themselves quite well, but most merely regurgitate one of four things: the status quo, what their parents taught them, what their peers think, what their company thinks. (Yes, some people are that indoctrinated by their companies — or more precisely, their paycheck.) Some just make up lies on the spot, because they realize they never had a good reason to believe in the first place. The most courageous act is always the same: to think for yourself. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Follow your thoughts to their logical conclusions.

It is such a tragedy that free spirits are, and always have been, so rare; but maybe there are many of them, who think differently, but never do differently. Only the brave and educated mind can — and will — follow all of its thoughts to their logical conclusions. Most people are great thinkers, and see where their thoughts are going, but they always stop short of the conclusion, because it doesn’t fit the model of the society they hold so dear or it disagrees with someone they admire or respect. And yet, they probably secretly despise the society they live in, but continually put up with it, because they believe they have no other choice. Nietzsche is funny here: “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” Every party, group, or organization has a tendency to wallow and languish in groupthink, so thinking yourself out of the party usually doesn’t take much thinking at all.

3. If you don’t know, say “I DON’T KNOW” or be silent.

It is a sign of strength to own one’s insecurity and vulnerability. Not knowing is insecure, it’s scary, the great void of ignorance. If I don’t know, I should act like it. Admitting you don’t know something means you respect yourself because you have high standards for knowledge, and that you respect others because you won’t deceive them by acting like you know. Respect is the ultimate currency.

Besides, conviction suffocates intellect. The best part about being a skeptic is that you feel agile and free; beliefs and convictions can weigh us down if we let them, especially if they are sloppily obtained. Minimalism of the mind is healthy. Comfort with uncertainty and love of the unknown are habits worth cultivating.

4. Strive for understanding, not agreement. Discuss more, argue less.

“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.” – G.K. Chesterton

It is not whether we agree or disagree, but whether we understand each other. The lack of desire to understand another’s opinion because we find it offensive or foreign is unproductive. Sometimes, we even purposely misconstrue other’s opinions to build our own case. This most commonly happens in political discussions along party lines, such as presidential debates.

I find that when I disagree with someone, they generally ignore me. As in, they’ll listen to what I have to say, but they already assume I’m wrong because they disagree with me. They aren’t trying to understand me or where I am coming from, but are merely looking for ways to convince me that they are right. Understanding never crosses some people’s minds; the need to persuade others they are right is so overwhelming. Even if people happen to agree, each should still give their reasons; two perspectives with the same conclusions often have totally different premises for their beliefs. How can this be? Because each person’s worldview is constructed separately, in their own mind.

All arguing starts with the need to convince. If we drop the need to convince, assume we might be wrong, that is a phenomenal step towards understanding and valuing the opinions of others. You have to understand the context, content and tone of what someone is saying before you can agree with them. But usually, it is the other way around: people ask themselves first “Do I agree?” and only seldom, if ever, do they seriously ask “Do I understand?”

5. Resist the urge to be intoxicated by great writing and oratory.

It’s great to appreciate the beauty in a well-crafted sentence, but it’s even better to hone in on what is actually being said.

Montaigne goes on, “In debates and discussions we should not immediately be impressed by what we take to be a man’s own bons mots [Fr. “good word”]. Most men are rich with other men’s abilities. It may well be that such-and-such a man makes a fine remark, a good reply or a pithy saying, advancing it without realizing its power. That we do not grasp everything we borrow can doubtless be proved from my own case. We should not always give way, no matter what beauty or truth it may have. We should either seriously attack it or else, under pretense of not understanding it, retreat a little so as to probe it thoroughly and to discover how it is lodged in its author.”

Intellectual honesty is incredible hard to achieve, mostly because we can’t even get past our own biases and prejudices. Indeed, apparently — and this is a very strong apparently — studies have shown that being aware of your own cognitive biases doesn’t make you any less susceptible to them.  At most, this is depressing; at least, it is very humorous.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Everything that we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grown-up he might be otherwise.” – Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human, 630

“We cheat ourselves of what is rightly useful to us in order to conform our appearances to the common opinion. We are not so much concerned with what the actual nature of our being is within us, as with how it is perceived by the public. Even wisdom and the good things of the mind seem fruitless to us if we enjoy them by ourselves, if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of others.” – Michel de Montaigne, Essais, “On Vanity”

“Never maintain an argument with heat or clamor, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinions modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and, if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good-humor, “We shall hardly convince one another; nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.” – Lord Chesterfield, Letter to His Son

Further reading:

Tim Krieder’s essay in the NYTimes, The power of I don’t know
first paragaph of Nietzsche’s essay on “The Need to be Alone”

Walden by Thoreau
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

[1] I’m not saying despise people who don’t think for themselves, but, if anyone, those who do think for themselves are the ones to hold in higher esteem.

[2] I know parenting is more complex than this, and I don’t see all parents as authoritarians, but some parents literally do want to dominate their child’s worldview. And they get very angry when the child strays from the path.


Filed under Philosophy

8 responses to “On Intellectual Honesty

  1. RC

    I mostly agree with your post. However, a few nits:

    1) “Or the stronger, more courageous conclusion: ‘I am wrong’.” That’s not a courageous conclusion. Rather, it’s a needlessly self-deprecating view of the world. Think that your knowledge is limited? Sure. Think that you are actually wrong? No, I don’t think so. You should believe in your positions, but be willing to examine those beliefs critically and without a filter suggesting that your position has any additional merit simply because it is your position.

    Not to argue to much by authority, but as far as self-skepticism goes, it seems like Socrates via Plato has it about right. Constantly challenge other people’s viewpoints, because it’s only by that thorough interrogation that we can learn anything.

    2) Everything that we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius

    Man, if I listen to more of this relativistic stuff, my head might explode. Some things are certainly opinions. Some things are facts. Gravity is not a perspective; it’s a fact. Tim Minchin has a pretty great bit about how science is actually fact. And if you don’t think, step outside your 4th floor window.

    Of course, science can be wrong; but the process of learning and discovery leads to knowledge, not opinions.

    3) I miss reading Nietzsche. 😀

    • Darius Liddell

      RC! thanks for replying, I’ll go through your points in the order you expressed them. Let me know if I’m misunderstanding you.

      1) True, we should believe in our positions if we are indeed espousing them, because this is honest. I think it does take *more* courage to actually say you are wrong, than merely admit the possibility. Either “I could be wrong” or “I am wrong” can function as safeguards against the ego, with the latter simply being more extreme. I just think that if people just say “I could be wrong” most people would leave it at that, and say “I’ve done my part”, but to actually say you are wrong (whether out loud or merely in your brain) forces you to reconsider and seriously entertain opposing opinions. Me and you both might be nitpicking here, as the distinction is not very strong between the two, as they can both serve the same function. Nevertheless, this is what I think, fwiw.

      2) Aurelius lived in a much different time, when science didn’t have the authority that it has – or seeks to have – now; so I could see how it would make perfect sense in his time. It’s worth noting JS Mill viewed Aurelius as the ideal philosopher-king, as envisioned by Plato. If you read Aurelius’s meditations, you can easily see why.

      I once heard something witty: “If you’re too open-minded, your brain will fall out!” Skepticism has its limits, to be sure. I think the quote by Marcus is best adapted to the world of human opinion.

      I agree that science has a higher standard, but I’m not sure if science is totally objective. We invented the scientific method, we invented logic… and now we claim that our system of logic and our way of doing science is the way to truth. To me, science is just another way of describing the world, although a more “truthful” way than myth or literature because it refines itself when new evidence comes along. But then again, we get to decide what “evidence” is. One example issue I have is how can we measure the intelligence of animals — and claim to do it objectively — when we do it through our methods and experiments? Isn’t that biased from the get-go? To me, science has its limits too — but I’ve heard the Minchin quote you reference. It’s funny; if I don’t believe in gravity, gravity’ll show me. But Heisenberg best sums up my critique to science: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Perhaps we disagree here.

      3) Yeah, Nietzsche has inspired me in many ways, although in other ways I find him certifiably rude, insane, and hilarious. I’ve only read BG/E and Gay Science, but dip into other works from time to time. I find that when others find I’m reading Nietzsche, they tend to get ideas about what kind of person I am. You have N-bots who are basically obsessed with him, quote him all the time, and don’t critique his ideas. Personally, I think people focus too much on his “themes” such as “god is dead, slave/master morality, christianity sucks”, and forget all his other, more profound insights. Human All-too-Human and Daybreak are packed with stuff, but those are his least popular works, because people are caught up in his polemical and inflammatory ideas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the man.

  2. Lamees

    I’m glad you deemed this topic worthy as one of 34justice’s first babies. If the pillars of this post were included into every household/organization/company/country’s constitution, a # of our society’s mistakes would be corrected….much earlier in their trajectory and without as much devastation.

    I’ve been delving more into Islamic spirituality/the Islamic lifestyle for the past summer and this ayat/quotation instantly came to mind: “do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts and minds may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly, it is not their eyes, but their hearts which are in their breast.”

    This also further enlightens MJ’s Man in the Mirror.

    This list is on point, Darius. Perhaps #3 could be a lil more balanced with “and if you think you still know, spread it.” Accessing knowledge (therefore expanding intellect) isn’t accessible by all. Intellectual honesty must include dissemination…..lack thereof could enslave (in numerous forms) generations on generations of people. And constantly evaluating the 5 points you discuss ensures purity of our opinion/intention.

    • Darius Liddell

      Lamees, I’m glad you enjoyed the list. I know the list is incomplete, and there are plenty of other things that I could mention, but we don’t want to make the blog post 20000 words long 😉

      And you are right, a significant amount of introspection and reconsideration of our opinions early on in the thinking process can catch arrogance early in its trajectory, and minimize the internal and emotional devastation that the crumbling of convictions inevitably brings.

      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the Islamic lifestyle. Tangentially related, I’ve been reading up a bit on Sufism — or, more precisely, how Sufism has been popularized, explained, “demystified” to “the West” — and some of the stuff really resonates with me. I’m talking about such authors as Idries Shah, Fazal Inayat-Khan, and a few others.

      Yes, I see what you mean on your last point. #3 sets an almost impossibly high standard for actual conversation. How does I really know when I know something as opposed to when I merely think I know it? I mostly just want people to raise their standard for what knowledge really means, to be more skeptical and critical of their ability to “know” when they investigate the following: themselves, others, “the world” and the systems/institutions that it comprises.

      As one prime example, the public always has opinions about politicians, the government, and either’s relation to foreign policy decisions — and yet — does the public actually know what’s going on? Does the government actually know what they are doing: the nature, degree, and scope of its actions? I can almost imagine Jesus saying to any government as he once said to the one who crucified him, “Forgive them for they know not what they do!” Norman Mailer goes on, “… politics quarantines one from history. most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history, but to divert history from being made.”

  3. Sean

    People not saying I don’t know, and it relates to healthcare (Ben and John):

    • Darius Liddell

      Well this is just a case of ignorance, but they don’t know they are ignorant! My case was towards if someone knows they are ignorant, or at least suspect that they may not have enough ‘evidence’ to say anything useful, then it is more useful to say ‘idk’ at such times.

      My first reaction to this video was that these people just aren’t familiar with the naming schemes en vogue. I doubt these people even know what either policy actually entails (of course they are the same policy, but I’m in their minds right now), so they are just relying on the names. “If I don’t like Obama and his cohort, for whatever reason, then it stands to reason that I shouldn’t like Obamacare.” Obviously ad hominem, nevertheless very common.

      Or, “Oh the ‘affordable’ care act! What a egalitarian and moral name! How can we go wrong with this??”

      This video is funny, but that’s all it is. It’s not comedy with a purpose. If you don’t know particular names and definitions, anyone can make you look like a fool with the right tactics. Clever, but vapid.

  4. Thank you Darius for this article. I will attempt to apply some of your points. My favorite part “Admitting you don’t know something means you respect yourself because you have high standards for knowledge, and that you respect others because you won’t deceive them by acting like you know.”

    • Darius Liddell

      Haha, great response at (I will “attempt”). That’s all we can do, right? Owning up to ignorance is all about respect for humanity, and the fragility of the human intellect in nearly all endeavors.

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