Arrogance plagues our ethical lives. High School Physics is where I first learned anything about Aristotle. The discussion centered on Galileo and his discoveries about the Laws of Motion. Aristotle believed heavier objects fell to the ground faster than lighter objects of the same materials. Galileo proved it wrong. The acceleration due to gravity (on Earth at least) is constant. I don’t have to look the number up. It is 9.8 meters per second per second. But there was a problem beginning in the minds of us students. I call it the arrogance of the obvious.
It’s So Obvious!
The idea that Aristotle developed laws of motion fascinated me. I began then a career in philosophical speculation. I was commenting one day with a fellow student about the impressive thinking Plato and Aristotle did.
“How can Aristotle be considered smart?” He began, “All he had to do was,” and here my friend dropped a pencil and an eraser from the same height to the floor. “It’s so obvious!”
The demonstration made a devastating argument. Back then I could not tell the difference between logic and rhetoric. I knew something was wrong with what he was saying. Today, I realize claiming Galileo discovered the “obvious” ignores the fact that 1800 years passed until someone tried the experiment. Being 500 years removed from Galileo doesn’t make us any wiser. It only makes us more arrogant.
The other problem with my friend’s assertion is believing Aristotle got something wrong meant he had no wisdom. We learn early on in our philosophical education that because we now know a Great Philosopher made mistakes does not mean we won’t.
Schools of Business are examples of places of applied arrogance. David Korten makes this point admirably. “Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard to the common good.” Ancient and the early modern philosophers (with the exception of Thomas Hobbes) teach us to regard the common good. Thoughtful students pick up on this obvious need to do away with the common good.
Throughout my career I hear these students come home to say, “I don’t think the ways of Jesus work ‘in the real world.'” Invariably, each student thinks they are the first to tell me that.
Well, duh? Jesus’ ways got him killed. Not one of them ever ask what is obvious to me. “If they do not work, what was so threatening about them?”
Jesus issued challenges to the world. The Beatitudes are not simply good wishes. No. They jeopardize the project of the social pathologies that make the “real world.” Churches unwittingly teach these pathologies in how our lives are lived, what we celebrate, and what we will accept. Will we accept bigotry, spite, hatefulness, and destructiveness in order to get along? What do we do when someone challenges this attitude? Do we see such people as “threatening the peace?” It is arrogance to believe we must convert to the world’s ways in order to convert the world. We are specifically warned against it.
The obvious way of doing life and work is not necessarily good. Asking ethical questions tests what appears obvious. Is my neighbor harmed by my action? Will paying workers less improve my life? Obviously. But who would buy my goods when I sell them? Is my family’s health threatened by farm workers not having proper bathroom facilities? Or is the price of produce low enough to allow me to afford the new car I want? Which question is more important?
The Cure for Arrogance
We fall prey to the arrogance of the obvious. That is, well, obvious but only after it happens. How do we stop it from happening?
The Revelation of St. John is an attack on arrogance of the obvious. The Empire represents the culmination of human arrogance in this book. The Emperor represents the Empire. Rome is the obvious power. It is the obvious victor. The Emperor is the Savior of the World. But none of this is true, John says. It only appears to be the case.
The first step is to root out every instance of arrogance within us. I like to make fun of my own hubris. It is actually painful to know it is there. The second step is to oppose arrogant presumptions in others. The third step is to repeat the other two.
Reading and practicing the Beatitudes, the golden rule, and the Ten Commandments will be helpful in maintaining the hard work. Prayer and fasting only help if we try to be humble. Then we can begin to see underneath the assumptions of what is obvious to the world.