A large majority of drivers think they’re “better than average”. But the arithmetic doesn’t allow it — at most half of drivers can be better than average. So quite a lot of drivers are fooling themselves. How can this be? How is it that so many drivers have such an unrealistic view of their own abilities?
I think it’s because driving is a rather adversarial activity, in which we expend quite a bit of effort justifying our own actions and decisions, trying to avoid blame at the same time as apportioning it to others. In telling a coherent story in which we are not ourselves to blame, we tend to “suspend disbelief”, and come to believe our own self-justification.
We really need to “take a reality check”. If most of us have to take evasive action or honk at other drivers, then most of us make other drivers take evasive action or honk at us.
Of course, some drivers really are better than others. I’d hazard a guess that the best drivers are not those who disguise their own failings through self-justification, but those who actively try to uncover their own failings in order to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
Political discussion is another adversarial activity. As with driving, a large majority think their own judgement is better than the judgement of others, and for much the same reasons. But again, there is usually no good reason to think one’s own judgement is better than the judgement of others. Again, we need to take a reality check. And yet again, the ones who really do have the best judgement are probably those who are actively trying to uncover their own failings rather than covering them up or disguising them.
I think remarkably few people actually do try to uncover the failings in their own political or moral judgement. The business of justifying one’s own opinions is largely a matter of deliberately overlooking the failings — the misconceptions, historical inaccuracies, prejudices, and so on — to which we are all subject. By turning a blind eye to our own failings, we lose sight of the possibility that we may be mistaken. And then when we disagree with others, we tend to explain the disagreement in terms of our own integrity versus their lack of integrity. Toleration comes to look like a sign of weakness — a vice rather than a virtue. And then we feel justified in overruling the opinions of others by taking action on their behalf or by silencing them. As JS Mill recognized, that amounts to a claim of infallibility.
In his famous 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill presented three arguments for freedom of thought and discussion. The first of them amounts to the claim that silencing other opinions is an assumption of infallibility. It is such a simple argument, backed up by such a penetrating insight into human nature, that I reproduce it here in full:
[T]he opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgement, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.
Let us take precautions against our own fallibility! — Imagine what the world would be like if drivers routinely commandeered other drivers’ cars and justified doing so on the grounds that “I’m a better driver than you”. Oh wait — that’s what the world of non-democratic politics is like already, isn’t it?