Epistemic Humility as a Presidential Virtue

By Mark Satta*

There are a lot of traits worth wanting in a political leader—relevant experience, good public speaking skills, strong critical thinking skills, a charming personality, empathy, tact, wisdom, diligence, willingness to serve those whom one leads, etc.

The current President of the United States seems to lack an unsettling number of these traits, but North Korea’s recent attempt to use the potential North Korea-United States summit as leverage against United States’ foreign policy makes particularly relevant another important trait that the current POTUS seems to lack: epistemic humility.

Epistemic humility, as I’m using the term, refers to a responsive awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge as well as a responsive awareness of the limits of one’s ability to independently acquire knowledge. I refer to this as responsive awareness because epistemic humility requires not only that one realize the limits of one’s knowledge, but also that one act in accordance of the limits recognized.

The degree of epistemic humility evidenced by past presidents has fluctuated, but all presidents in recent memory up until our current president seem to have shown significant epistemic humility in the following sense: they’ve surrounded themselves with people whom they believed were more knowledgeable and better equipped to address a variety of important issues.

No one can reasonably be expected to be the best at or most knowledgeable about everything. And we shouldn’t expect that of a leader. What we should expect of a leader is wisdom in choosing confidants and staff that will be able to supply the leader with good information and insight on relevant topics.

But President Trump’s tendency to proclaim himself as the best at just about everything—including loving the Bible, respecting women, and treating people with disabilities well—and the most knowledgeable on just about anything—including taxes, the military, ISIS, visas, and “the horror of nuclear”—creates good reason to think he’s lacking in even a basic sense of epistemic humility.

This lack of epistemic humility has played itself out in his staff and confidant choices, which seem to be driven by nepotism, favoritism, and ensuring that he’s surrounded by those who will stroke his ego over a concern for experience, knowledge, or expertise. This lack of epistemic humility has also shown itself in how quickly President Trump will remove people from cabinet and other high-ranking positions within his administration. These swift and frequent removals indicate that Mr. Trump sees himself as lacking a dependence on his staff. These removals also show a lack of presidential concern for if and how people will have time to build up their knowledge base within the administration.

This is not to say that there aren’t many fantastic experts working in the White House and within the Executive Branch of the United States. There are many—along with tons of experienced, committed, and brilliant military officers.

But Mr. Trump’s actions heretofore have reasonably left many Americans unconvinced that Mr. Trump either has or will use the sorts of resources needed to adeptly communicate with North Korea or other potentially hostile foreign powers. Addressing complex foreign political negotiation takes a village, not just a commander-in-chief.

No one knows how to do it all. A good leader is humble enough to recognize this and act accordingly. I hope for the good of our nation and the world, that our current president realizes this.


*Mark Satta is a 3L at Harvard Law School and Executive Online Editor for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. He may be reached at msatta@jd19.law.harvard.edu.



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