Epistemic humility is popular theses days. All things considered, that’s a good thing: it’s good to be epistemically humble. That forces you to keep in mind that you don’t know everything and to contemplate the fact that you could be wrong.
On the downside, many people seem to believe that being epistemically humble entails taking potshots at certainty — i.e. the state of lacking any doubt about a belief. For example, somebody commits a moral atrocity and they cite some particular belief as the motivation for that action.
And with that the diagnosis asserts itself: the problem is that they were certain of their belief. That’s why they committed that atrocity. That mother who killed her children because she believed God told her to? She never doubted, and that’s the problem. That soldier who massacred civilians because of the rightness of his cause? He never doubted, and that’s the problem.
Obviously, certainty can be a problem in particular contexts. But it hardly follows that certainty is a problem generally.
Let’s take another example: offering help to strangers. Late at night Jane sees a stranger on the side of dark country road with a flat tire. But the man is acting erratically (he is waving his arms and making growling noises). Jane says to herself: “It’s good to be kind to strangers,” and so she pulls over to offer help. The stranger walks up, punches Jane in the face, and runs off into the woods howling.
Clearly Jane made a mistake: she should not have pulled over to offer help. But who among us is going to opine that the lesson is don’t offer help to strangers? On the contrary, that would be absurd! Instead, the real lesson is be discerning in the strangers to whom you offer help.
The same goes with certainty. If a person commits a moral atrocity based on a belief of which they’re certain, the proper response is not don’t be certain of any beliefs but rather be discerning of the beliefs in which you’re certain.
Indeed, and this is the really ironic bit, it is certainty itself which drives the misbegotten attack on certainty. How so? Because when we indict particular actions unequivocally as moral atrocities — a mother killing her children because she believed God told her to; a soldier massacring civilians because of the rightness of his cause — we (typically) do so precisely because of beliefs for which we have maximal conviction (i.e. certainty). I’m certain (i.e. I have no real doubt) that God doesn’t command mothers to kill their children. I’m certain that no military goal justifies the massacre of civilians.
To wrap up, being certain is not itself a problem: the question we should all ask is what am I certain of?