While my first introduction to the philosophy of stupidity was through the work of the third writer I listed in my last post, it wasn’t long until reading the second writer’s work was mandatory. (Actually, I would consider it mandatory reading for anyone who’s interested in stupidology because it is perhaps the earliest recorded version of a theory of stupidity.) In 1979 an Italian economic historian by the name of Carlo M. Cipolla wrote an essay entitled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity“. Now, in researching this paper it came to my attention that the author didn’t intend it to be a serious publication; it was marked as something to be in the public domain by Cipolla himself and doesn’t have the kind of depth and rigor that a complete theory of stupidity would include. However, there is actually a lot to be gained in taking it seriously as the basic insights it provides as well as its model of representation of stupidity are invaluable tools that I wouldn’t do away with entirely (modified, surely, to take into account new information but in the case of the model especially its general structure is simple and highly flexible).
But for the purposes of my book I wasn’t as concerned with the model of representing stupidity (as I wanted to be anyway, this was fascinating stuff). Frankly, to go into all the implications would take forever, and I could spend weeks more writing about stupidity in terms of this model as well, but it wasn’t necessary to explain the model in order to get the basic points that would help shape my definition. (I certainly intend to do more with it in the future, but for now we’ll side-step that one and continue with the journey.) Luckily, the most pertinent insights regarding my book’s interest in stupidity are comprised in what the paper is about: the laws of human stupidity. They are as follows:
- Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
- A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
- Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.
In looking at these laws I found myself amused by Cipolla’s strategy in going about tackling this issue. The first two laws attack our preconceived notions of who the stupid people are (in a very decisive way, I might add); the third law defines what kinds of behaviors count as stupid so as to give us some sense of what stupidity is; the fourth law explains the third law’s relevance to “non-stupid” people; and finally the fifth law drives home the point as to why stupidity is so problematic. While we’ll see soon why it’s not perfect in execution (there are some assumption) I do think that at the very least Cipolla chose the correct place to start with the concept of stupidity.
We have to challenge the way people use the term.
The first law does this by essentially saying that “if you thought X person isn’t stupid, think again”. Essentially we’re concerned with who we don’t ascribe stupidity to as there is a tendency in talking about stupidity that large portions of the population are excluded from scrutiny. Cipolla throws that out entirely and leaves the population of stupid people as an unknown quantity simply so that we don’t fall into this tendency. Naturally this forces us to question whether the company we keep are stupid and so the philosophy of stupidity historically starts with alienation from our own social group. On the flip side the second law does the exact opposite and checks our assumptions on how we do ascribe the term saying that “if you thought X person is stupid, think again”. The other strong tendency in the use of the term “stupid” is to blanket an entire group as such so as to delegitimize them. But if we can’t appeal to the common identity between people in a group in order to call people stupid, by nature of the second law, then we can’t simply wave them away either. Therefore, the very second historical step in the philosophy of stupidity was the possible acceptance of other social groups.
And you know what? These might be the first steps in stupidology too.
Regardless both of these make sense in the concept of stupidity as a kind of “meta-cognitive trap” as if the only way to know if we ourselves are stupid is to be able to evaluate our own thinking then unfortunately it’s almost impossible to tell if others are stupid because we simply don’t have direct access to their thinking in order to evaluate it. Essentially we are doomed to a world in which we can’t know how many stupid people there are in total unless we inspected the thinking processes of every single person on Earth. (But this is assuming we actually know how to evaluate our own thinking; if you add the possibility that any one of them may be better at evaluating thinking than you are and you just don’t know it then it really throws things for a loop.) Likewise, as I showed last time stupidity is caused by stupidity so it makes complete sense that it would have nothing to do with any other aspect of identity; you either think well or you don’t — nothing else matters — and thinking well is a skill so as long as they’re capable of being taught good thinking there’s no reason to assume they haven’t learned how either by themselves or through others.
All in all, these two laws seem pretty solid. …But I couldn’t help but push them a little.
The first law basically rides on the idea that there is no way to overestimate or correctly estimate the number of stupid people in circulation. However it would seem that if someone doesn’t want to underestimate the number of stupid people in circulation then they could simply assume everyone is stupid. Then we’d have the opposite problem: we might overestimate the number of stupid people in circulation (which, when we get into the later laws we’ll see that that may not be such a bad idea after all). Or perhaps we don’t even need to assume it — maybe everyone actually is stupid in one way, shape, or form. Arguably, underestimating the number of stupid people in circulation is stupid in and of itself. The second law, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky. Identity is a very weird subject and it’s not entirely clear how it works. But one thing is for sure: if stupidity is a kind of incompetence of thinking in gathering knowledge about how to evaluate itself then any kind of identity that necessitates that a person not even try to evaluate their own thinking — or even deny that that was possible — would be cause for rejection of this.
To that I refer to the nihilist.
As silly as that statement was I realized at this point how the seemingly innocuous philosophy of stupidity was on a collision course with existentialism of an insane scale. There was no getting around that. But again, this wouldn’t become relevant until much later. My historical account of the philosophy of stupidity was only beginning, and I wasn’t even done with the first philosopher.
To Be Continued