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Stupidity as Moral Negligence

Those guilty of political stupidity do not necessarily suffer from a lack of reasoning skills.

· 9 min read
Stupidity as Moral Negligence

You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.
~Navajo proverb

Stupidity has always been a popular culprit for our societal woes. Napoleon reportedly remarked that stupidity in politics is not a handicap (although he stopped short of calling it a requirement). “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups,” warned the comedian George Carlin. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt argues that the accelerating tribalization of American society, facilitated by social media, has caused us to become “uniquely stupid.”

Hanlon’s Razor cautions us to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” However, the German theologist and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45), an ardent and vocal opponent of the National Socialist movement in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, believed that stupidity is more dangerous than malice:

Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; arguments fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when they turn out to be irrefutable, they are just dismissed as irrelevant exceptions.

The word “stupidity” is often understood to describe substantial limitations in the ability to think or reason. However, the kind of people that Bonhoeffer and his present-day co-lamenters would accuse of stupidity do not necessarily suffer from a lack of reasoning skills. On the contrary, this particular type of stupidity often requires sophisticated cognition. The “stupid” debater must recognize the need for a particular argument; formulate that argument in such a way that an interlocutor can understand it; and ascertain that the argument will, at the very least, appear to be compelling. 

For instance, in debates about the safety of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, opponents will often claim that “the science is new.” This is demonstrably false. The science is not new, and abundant data now show that mRNA vaccines are not only highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but that these vaccines are also very safe. Nevertheless, while “the science is new” is a stupid argument against vaccination, it requires mature and advanced cognitive skills. 

Looking for COVID-19 ‘Miracle Drugs’? We Already Have Them. They’re Called Vaccines
Sydney. London. Toronto.

First, the vaccine skeptic displays awareness that their decision not to get vaccinated needs to be defended at all. If the question were “Why don’t you get a dog?”, an expression of preference—such as “I don’t like dogs”—would be sufficient to end the discussion. There is, after all, no social pressure to own a dog. Vaccination campaigns, on the other hand, produce clear societal benefits, including protection of the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable from potentially fatal infection, slowing and containing the spread of disease, preventing the overloading of medical facilities, and so on. Skeptics, therefore, realize that the refusal to get vaccinated demands justification. This requires a level of social intelligence that would be very challenging to achieve for people with genuine cognitive limitations. 

Second, the claim that “the science is new” appeals to a chain of four inferential assumptions, each of which requires complex reasoning skills:

  • Invocations of “the science” in these discussions are invariably vague, but the skeptic appeals to a common understanding of the term—“the scientific research that underlies the development and testing of mRNA vaccines”—so they can be confident that its meaning is intelligible to opponents. This requires reflexive reasoning and taking an interlocutor’s perspective into account.
  • The skeptic assumes that new or inadequately tested medical science may be unreliable, which requires some knowledge of how such science works.
  • If the science that underlies the development and testing of the new vaccine is unreliable, the vaccine might harm the recipient.
  • If it is potentially dangerous to take the vaccine, this is a legitimate reason for refusing to get vaccinated, on the grounds that it is reasonable to avoid doing things that might cause harm to oneself.

So, even though “the science is new” is a stupid argument, employing it to defend one’s refusal to get vaccinated requires mature and sophisticated cognitive skills. Other anti-vax arguments follow the same pattern. A conspiracy theorist who believes that Big Pharma wants to subdue the human population by putting microchips in their blood would need to make use of the same sophisticated cognitive skills. That arguments like these are often provided by and copied from opinion leaders (bloggers, podcasters, and social-media influencers) does not substantially alter this analysis. Most of us get most of our arguments from others, but we must still judge whether, when, and how they can be used to defend our own beliefs. 

Generally, the ability to recognize how and why a certain argument threatens (or supports) one’s belief, and to choose the most effective and energy-efficient way to counter (or employ) it, requires highly developed cognitive skills. Any Artificial Intelligence researcher attempting to implement these reasoning skills in an artificial agent would emphatically agree. Individuals with true cognitive limitations would not be able to chain these inferences together and come up with the counterargument “the science is new” in this context.

So, the claim that people who employ stupid arguments “can’t help it” because of their limited intelligence is not only condescending, it is also inaccurate. Stupidity in this sense refers not to a person’s cognitive ability but to the quality of the arguments they choose to use. And it is to this, I believe, that Bonhoeffer alluded when he wrote: “[T]here are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.” 

This apparent paradox is produced by faulty intuitions about the function of human reasoning. The normative model of human rationality is that we use our reasoning skills to evaluate information and improve the accuracy of our beliefs. A lot of evidence now indicates that our fast and automatic lower-level perceptual systems—for instance, the ability to recognize objects even when they are partially occluded, or our ability to recognize words from speech sounds—do indeed work in this way. But our higher-level cognition—our slow, conscious, step-by-step reasoning, sometimes called “System II Cognition”—does not operate like that at all.

The cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have persuasively argued that humans do not reason to improve their beliefs and decisions, but to “devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.” In other words, we reason to convince others of our beliefs, or to protect those beliefs from challenge and refutation. If this is true (and I believe it is), then most of our core beliefs originate not from a rational analysis of available facts, but from our social environment—parents, teachers, and most importantly, peers. Once we have adopted our core beliefs, we use our reasoning skills to defend them against incoming fire. 

The distinction between stupid reasoning and non-stupid reasoning is, first of all, a matter of degree. There is no clear line separating what is stupid reasoning from what is not. We are all stupid to a certain extent, as evidenced by the selective and self-serving nature of our skepticism. When a study finds that eating red meat is bad for our health, we become very concerned about the limitations of its methodology and of the scientific method in general. But when a study finds that drinking red wine is good for our health, we are suddenly less inclined to ask critical questions about its methods. As the social psychologist Thomas Gilovich has observed, when we want something to be true, we ask ourselves “Can I believe this?”, but when we want something to be false, we ask “Must I believe this?”

The degree of stupidity in our reasoning is not the lack of mental acuity we display, but rather the degree to which we use arguments in ways that are unfair. For instance, we might attack arguments that we use to defend our own beliefs, and employ arguments that we would disdainfully reject when used by our opponents. We might use arguments that are inconsistent with our other arguments or behavior. We might be disingenuous by saying things we don’t really believe to provide a tactical advantage during a debate. Or when confronted with a fact that threatens a cherished belief, we might move the goal posts every time a counterargument is refuted—from “Fake news!” to “They were joking” to “Well, it is not illegal” to “OK it may be illegal, but you’ll never be able to prove it in court.”

Calling out fallacious and/or unfair reasoning can be extremely time-consuming, and it draws us away from the point at issue. Brandolini’s Law, otherwise known as the “bullshit asymmetry principle,” captures what makes stupidity nearly invincible: it takes far more time and energy to refute stupidity than it takes to come up with it. In a twisted caricature of Popperian falsificationism, an individual often concludes that an unchallenged attempt to defend a stupid belief amounts to its validation. This is partly why political extremists often feel the need to pick fights on social media—it helps to maintain their belief and signal to fellow tribe members that those beliefs are still valid. 

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit
There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect.

But if a person has the cognitive skills to perform high-level reasoning, why do they make use of stupid arguments at all? We seem to have effected a reversal of Hanlon’s Razor: whatever we can’t attribute to stupidity, we must attribute to malice. Bonhoeffer also points to the moral dimension of stupidity: “If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a defect in humanity.” Nevertheless, he distinguishes it from malice. Bonhoeffer lived in a time and place infused with unspeakable levels of malice, so one can understand why he didn’t want to use the word lightly.

It may be useful to distinguish between degrees of malice, analogous to the degrees of murder in US law. First degree indicates premeditation and intent, second degree indicates only intent, and third degree indicates neither premeditation nor intent but involves some degree of culpability. According to this logic, malice in the first degree would be deliberately driving a car into a crowd of people. Malice in the second degree would be impulsively cutting off a cyclist because he impeded us. Malice in the third degree would be texting while driving. Using this categorization system, stupidity would be a type of moral negligence—second- or third-degree malice.

This would not only apply to people using unfair or bad-faith arguments, but also to people who deliberately ignore information that could change their beliefs. The latter may look “dumb,” but the ignorer of information needs to know exactly what information to ignore, when to do so, and how to justify their selective ignorance. The different levels of malice resemble the useful distinction drawn by philosopher Harry Frankfurt between lying and bullshit. Lying involves intentional deception, but the bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not, so long as it achieves its primary goal. Similarly, although a person may not be intentionally trying to cause damage by using a stupid argument, they don’t care if they do, so long as it maintains their cherished belief and prevents a loss of face. 

So, what can we do about stupidity? To counteract the bullshit asymmetry principle, we can spend our energy efficiently, and attack the sources of stupid arguments rather than those mindlessly repeating them. Instead of arguing with anonymous strangers on social media or with drunken relatives over holiday lunches, we should focus our energy on the politicians, pundits, and commentators who are spreading stupid arguments. Perhaps more importantly, we should all—regardless of our political affiliations—acknowledge our own vulnerability to the temptation of engaging in stupid reasoning, and work to guard against it.

J.P. de Ruiter

J.P. de Ruiter is a cognitive scientist studying the foundations of human social interaction. He works on dialogue, multimodal communication, and the spreading of information in social networks.

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