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There’s been a great discussion going on in the comments to last week’s post on humility and science. This week I’m going to focus on only one of the themes mentioned, which takes us in a different direction from that post but is interesting in its own right.

My post recounted Carl Sagan’s claim that although “religions” claimed an ideal of humility, science was actually more humble; I argued that the two were in fact very similar. A comment from Ben acutely pointed out something I had been missing, a way in which Sagan was right that the tradition was different. Sagan, Ben points out, is defending “not the humility of individuals, but the humility of the whole tradition.” Science as a whole is able to admit when it is wrong, in a way that Christianity and Buddhism are not. In a following dialogue, Ben and I agree that science maintains an institutional humility that “religious” traditions do not, though those other traditions likely do a better job of promoting individual humility.

Other commenters took issue with this agreement, however. If you follow the comment threads on this site with any regularity, you will know that Thill and Jim Wilton do not usually agree on very much. But this time, they unanimously condemn the point shared by Ben and myself: “There is a category mistake here,” says Thill. “Traditions cannot be said to be humble or arrogant. Only individuals can be said to be humble or arrogant.”

And this is a question that well deserves further philosophical exploration. Can an institution or a tradition possess a virtue? Can a government be courageous? Can a corporation be honest? Can a tradition be humble?

The answer will necessarily be “no” if we define “virtue” (or any of its species) strictly, so that virtue is by definition individual. But I see no clear reason why we should do this. Going back to earliest accounts of the concept, Aristotle does not limit virtue to individuals; in explaining aretē, the word we translate as “virtue,” he speaks of the aretē of a knife: a virtuous (or excellent) knife is one that cuts well. Even thinking of common English usage, we can speak of an honest car dealership, one where all the sales staff are genuinely expected to be upfront with their customers and act accordingly. We can speak of a courageous action taken by a political party, when it adopts a platform that is politically unpopular but is nevertheless the principled thing to do.

Now common usage can and should be criticized; everyday speech is often inaccurate. Are these examples of category mistakes? Virtue is realized and expressed in action; if human collectivities can take action, that fact suggests that they can also be virtuous. But is it inaccurate to speak of an action taken by a collectivity? When we speak of an honest car dealership, a generous government or a humble tradition, is this merely an inexact way to say that these collectivities are generally made up of honest, generous or humble individuals?

I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. The idea that the virtues or actions of collectivities are merely those of their constituent individuals – this puts me in mind of Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” But in this very quote Thatcher shows that she’s not ready to carry a reductionist individualism all the way: there are families, which she grants an existence distinct from the individuals who make them up. If families are not merely the individuals that make them up, then surely other institutions – including society itself – can also be more than their constituent individuals.

Collectivities can take on a life of their own. (I say “collectivities” rather than “groups” because the latter term tends to connote a mere aggregation of individuals, prejudicing the discussion in that direction.) We understand this point when we make the important distinction between the rule of law and the rule of men (or women). A government (or a corporation) works best when its members act not according to their arbitrary individual preferences, but according to the interest of the whole organization and the precedents that have been collectively established. When an organization successfully acts according to the rule of law, it is that organization as a unit and a whole, and not merely the individual members who make it up, that is acting justly. It is a just organization, not merely a bunch of individuals who happen to be just by themselves. To describe the organization as just is no category mistake; it is correct.

It is in terms similar to these that I think one may accurately speak of the humility of a tradition – and as something quite separate from the humility of individuals. As Jabali108 noted, defining the terms matters here. I set out a basic sketch of the idea of a tradition two weeks ago, as consisting of both a normative ideal and a set of institutions which often does not live up to that ideal. Thill, rightly I think, pointed out a third separable element of a tradition: its body of accumulated knowledge.

As for humility, I take it to mean the awareness of one’s limits and weaknesses, not only in an intellectual sense but also in a practical one – acting on the recognition that one is fallible and dependent on others. In a more specifically intellectual or epistemological sense, it means listening carefully, recognizing that one has never thought of everything, that others very often have something valuable to contribute – even when one maintains the courage to defend one’s own sincerely held convictions. Above all, perhaps, the readiness to admit when one has been wrong. A mean between the vices of arrogance on one hand and meekness or timidity on the other, as I said to Thill. (If this definition seems imprecise, that’s intentional: spelling out the nature of a virtue too precisely implies that one already knows exactly what to strive for, which in my books itself demonstrates a lack of humility.)

On these terms I defend my previous claim, developed with Ben: natural science maintains an institutional humility as a tradition, because it does not take its claims as infallible, is ready to see them overturned when better evidence comes to light. The ideals of scientific tradition encourage its institutions to act in a humble way. This institutional humility is a very different thing from encouraging the humility of individuals; and indeed the two are in distinct tension with one another. When a tradition emphasizes its own unchanging rightness, as Buddhism or Christianity does, it is much more likely to foster a sense of individual humility – a recognition that one as an individual doesn’t have all the answers, that one has been wrong before. I think this is typically a good thing for the individual within the tradition; but it’s not so good for the health of the tradition itself. Science is a whole made humble by its arrogant members; the “religions” are wholes made arrogant by their humble members.