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On stupid ideas

When people complain about stupidity they mean that someone is willfully ignoring—or mindlessly oblivious to—the obvious. Whether something is obvious depends on your general understanding of things. So to say something is stupid, when it’s something other people insist on, is to say that (1) it’s based on an understanding you reject, and (2) there’s something immediately untenable about the understanding, so much so that someone who claims to hold it is either lying, or refusing to think, or has something seriously wrong with him.

It follows that the more uncritically dogmatic you are, and the more incomprehensible you find other people and their views, the more you’ll rage about stupidity. “Few men speak humbly of humility, chastely of chastity, skeptically of skepticism.” [Pascal] For similar reasons, complaints about the stupidity of those other guys are often quite stupid. Still, life goes on, and stupidity is real and sometimes deserves comment. So with that in mind, here are a couple of stupid ideas:

  • Freedom, taken as a supreme social goal. Freedom is worth having because it makes us free to do things worth doing. As a supreme goal, taken without regard to what is worth doing, it becomes freedom to be free: freedom to indulge oneself or act whimsically in ways that don’t affect other people. (To affect other people is presumptively to violate their equal unconditioned freedom.) What possible reason could there be to choose that as the supreme standard to which everything else in social life must give way?
  • Equality, taken in a factual sense. People differ, and their differences matter. That should be obvious. In particular, there is no reason to think that the distribution of inclinations and aptitudes is uniform between the sexes and among racial groups, and every reason to believe the contrary. Nonetheless, we’ve recently seen one of America’s leading scientists and the president of her top university driven from their positions because of brief and entirely defensible comments they made on the issue.

So the two ideas that today are most authoritative in politics and morality, so much so that even to question them can end a distinguished public career, are stupid. That doesn’t prevent them from being accepted even—maybe especially—by our intellectual elites. What does that mean?

Well, if stupidity is a matter of leaving out the obvious, and the people who decide what is acceptable in academic and scientific circles leave out the obvious, then very likely the explanation is that our official way of thinking omits something basic. The obvious way that might happen is by overemphasizing what our official thinkers do well at the expense of what they don’t do as well. Since we live in an age of science, expertise, and formal organization, with thousands of investigators pursuing their specialized investigations as part of a huge structure of inquiry nobody understands as a whole, presumably what happens is that the aspects of thought that can be formalized and made public and demonstrable get too much emphasized. We get academic thought, which is very useful in many ways but bears the same relation to thought that academic art does to art. It can’t give us what we need most, and identifying it with rationality itself can be expected to lead to endless stupidities.