Arrogance stinks. I’ve been accused of it, sometimes guilty of it. And I’ve seen the effects of it—even in my relationship with my dad. A year before he died, we attended our first and only baseball game together. My father loved baseball. When he offered to show me how to “keep score,” I scoffed, informing him that I wasn’t stupid and knew how to keep score. He tried to explain, but I had felt my intelligence insulted and wouldn’t have it. He didn’t force the issue. Years later, after he was gone, I realized what he was saying. I still haven’t learned how to do it.
So I’m under no illusions about the potential ethical consequences of arrogance. I know what it is and what it can do. Arrogance can damage relationships when others feel looked down upon or devalued, it can close you off to new ideas and crucial evidence, it can keep you from the truth. But being familiar with arrogance means I also know what arrogance isn’t. There is certainly nothing inherently arrogant about thinking you are right, even about important things. In fact, it is logically impossible to believe something is true and not think you are right about it. Arrogance is something extra, an added attitude that intermingles with our beliefs.
So what is that something extra? I think a person is being arrogant when they assert something beyond what their reasons can support. Typically, this assertion takes the form of a value-claim about themselves. But I think it is the epistemic status (whether it is well-supported) of the claim that grounds the charge of arrogance. For example, if I sincerely claimed to be the greatest Scrabble player in Missouri, this would be arrogant because I have no good reason to believe it. But if I were to win the Missouri state Scrabble championship five years in a row, then I might be able to make such a claim without being arrogant.
Arrogance and Religion
What about claims regarding ultimate reality? If someone says, “there are no gods,” or “Jesus is the only way to God,” sparks can fly because they threaten the deeply cherished beliefs of others. But I think the same principle applies here: if you have adequate support for your claim, it isn’t necessarily arrogant. Granted, it is hard to determine what amount of evidence or support is “adequate,” but that is another discussion. The key is to avoid making the assertions without any good reasons at all.
Let me address two worries about the case of religion. First, many religious skeptics will insist that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to ever make an exclusive religious claim. Religious claims are hopelessly unjustified and therefore inescapably arrogant. Ironically, this objection is itself an unnecessarily strong statement that would require a significant assemblage of evidence and argument to avoid the arrogance charge itself. I think skeptics would be better off simply asking the believer to present their evidence.
Secondly, religious skeptics and religious pluralists (those who think all religions are true) might say something like this: “Look at all the religions in the world! Do you really think you’ve won the religious lottery and just happened to choose the right one?” Skeptics and pluralists, in this case, think of religion like a game of chance. There are many religions, like numbers in a lottery, and every number is equally likely to win. The probability of being “right” is evenly distributed among all religions. So even if there were only 20 religions, each religion would have only a 5% chance of being right, and this isn’t enough to justify belief or ward off the charge of arrogance. To be justified in believing your religion is true, you’d need at least a 51% likelihood – slightly better than a coin flip. But since there are so many religions, no religious exclusivist can have adequate support for their view, and thus their assertions are arrogant.
But I think this is the wrong model of probability when it comes to religion. It would be better to think of the religion question the same way we think of a murder investigation. Suppose you had 20 suspects. You wouldn’t simply divide the probability evenly among them. You would begin investigating and gathering evidence, and as the evidence mounted, you would eliminate some suspects and narrow the pool. Eventually you might only have 2 or 3 suspects, and hopefully the evidence would point more strongly at one particular suspect. You might say that there’s a 70% likelihood that this particular suspect is guilty, and there’s a small chance that the other remaining suspects are guilty. That may not yet be sufficient for conviction, but it would certainly be adequate to justify a belief in the guilt of that suspect. I think the same is true with religion. As we gather more and more evidence and arguments, we can eliminate certain “suspects” and narrow the field to a few candidates. Eventually, we may find that there is much more evidence in support of a particular religion, raising its likelihood above that of the others and providing sufficient support for belief.
Are We All Exclusive?
Let me offer one additional thought about arrogance and religion. Exclusivists get a bad rap because they draw a line separating “us” (those who are correct) from “them” (those who are incorrect). Pluralists argue that it is better to avoid drawing lines and think of all religions as true. But whether they realize it or not, pluralists are also drawing a line. On one side are the pluralists (those who are correct) and on the other side is everyone who disagrees (those who are incorrect, which would include most of the Abrahamic traditions). No matter what your position, you will have to draw a line between your group and everyone who disagrees with your group. We are all exclusivists! So, if being an exclusivist makes you arrogant, we are all arrogant. Alternatively, maybe it isn’t arrogant to be an exclusivist.
In conclusion, if you claim to be right about something, and you have good reasons for your claim, then I don’t think you are necessarily arrogant. You should still exercise prudence in how you present your claim—attitude, tone of voice, body language, etc.—because you can still appear (or be) arrogant even if your belief is justified (and even true!). This applies to politics, science, religion and just about anything.