A Journey Toward A Theory of Stupidity 4 | The Grandfather of Stupidology Part 2

With the first two laws under my belt it was time to tackle the others (which would prove to be a doozy):

3. 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.
4. 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.
5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

The third law is the basis for Cipolla’s model of representing stupidity but it also functions as a definition of stupidity itself. This was the first definition of stupidity that I would come across and I was excited to dig into it; for Cipolla stupidity is actions that cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain (which includes cases in which they cause damage to themselves in the process). The first things I noticed about this definition is that it has both an individual AND social element while also being practical in nature. Surely Cipolla’s occupation as an economic historian inspired his way of thinking about stupidity in terms of gains and losses (the practical part) but generally speaking people usually don’t think about their own gains and losses in respect to the gains and loses of others. Western culture is very individualistic and we tend to assume that my gains and losses are my problem and not yours while your gains and losses are your problem and not mine. But Cipolla seems to challenge this a bit by saying that if I contribute to other people’s problems then I should rightly be called stupid in some cases. In this sense, the philosophy of stupidity is outwardly focused and we cannot get around this.

To reiterate: you cannot ignore the plights of others and still use the word stupid with a full sense of appreciation. And that’s a firm tenet of stupidology to this day.

However, Cipolla’s call toward thinking about the other in analyzing behaviors also comes with it a very interesting way of organizing these kinds of phenomena. Cipolla  constructs several (overly simplistic) theoretical categories into which people can be placed. It should be noted that Cipolla makes a hard distinction between stupid people and non-stupid people in that you’re either entirely stupid or you’re not. (However, in matching with the definition I detailed earlier this doesn’t seem like a necessary conclusion so perhaps we might modify this so that it categorizes activities instead.) In keeping with that he concludes that there are only four types of people in the world:

  • One gains and the other(s) gain(s) = that one is intelligent
  • One gains and the other(s) lose(s) = that one is a bandit
  • One loses and the other(s) gain(s) = that one is helpless
  • One loses and the other(s) lose(s) = that one is stupid

While I could go on to explain the significance of these categories, I think Cipolla did a good enough job of that on his own. What struck me as odd is that the terms “gain” and “loss” are left ambiguous but they seem to represent some kind of objective reality. Cipolla seems to use these in terms of the distribution of wealth or even welfare. Again we come back to axiology but this time through the idea of human flourishing. This question of what value is and now whether it was objective would plague me the entire way through, it would seem, and I didn’t think I would be able to address stupidity meaningfully at all unless I addressed this issue too. But it was at this point that I realized the very thin border between the philosophy of stupidity and ethics. If we consider Cipolla’s section on frequency distributions of behaviors within these categories then now we’re dealing with the objective value of actions in how they affect general well-being and not just categorizing people. I realized that Cipolla’s theory of stupidity could be applied as an entirely new ethical theory. It was consequentialist in nature but it didn’t get bogged down by what was or wasn’t good — that question could remain entirely open while we could still report on the dynamics of value in human relationships.

That was genius and I wanted to emulate that in any theory I constructed.

So I did. If we take this new ethical model and think about it in an ethical sense then we can derive the basic moral value in this system as maximizing value itself. That’s the only law (it’s vague, I know, but bear with me). And if you look at it that way then there’s only one category that would be considered the right thing to do in any circumstance: being intelligent. Mutual gain was the only course of action allowed by this system and it would seem that if we weren’t thinking about the ways in which our actions affect everyone who could possibly be affected by them then there was no way we were being moral. Likewise, anything that wasn’t concerned with this specific state of affairs could not technically be considered “moral”. Choices between two activities that didn’t produce this result could not be considered moral choices but rather would be choices between two crappy options that don’t produce a truly moral result. And that meant that a necessary aspect of the project of anyone who adopts this ethical theory is to eliminate those kinds of situations. And that challenged literally everything in our unfair world.

Thus the ethical spine of stupidology was born.

But this whole line of thought and its implications didn’t appear to Cipolla (or anyone else who I’m going to talk about for that matter). He was still concerned with the implications his third law brought to his other laws. If you recall the first law (that people necessarily underestimate the number of stupid people in circulation) then the fourth law is a necessary conclusion: because people underestimate the number of stupid people in circulation they pay dearly for it since they don’t account for the situations in which people seemingly randomly come into the picture and just destroy everything for no reason. Of course, I already debunked the idea that this is necessary and that there needs to be such a stringent dichotomy between stupid people and non-stupid people but it does give an excellent snap-shot of the world and how it tends to work. The fifth law however comes as no surprise either: stupid people are, by nature of Cipolla’s quasi-ethical system, necessarily bad for everyone. All they do is sap the quality of society. And so it comes of great importance in the study of stupidity to identify when we do things that ultimately make the world worse in sum total. Ethically speaking we can’t simply appeal to what we find good for ourselves anymore because we might still be guilty of robbing the world of more value than we create for ourselves.

And that would be pretty stupid.

Overall Cipolla’s contribution to the philosophy of stupidity can be summarized in the following points:

  • He informally identified that we tend to underestimate the number of stupid people in the world because we attribute the term to the wrong sets of people (especially in the case of generalizations based on identity).
    • As a result we must be wary of the people we trust and we must acknowledge the possibility that the people we don’t trust can be models of intelligence.
  • He formalized a primordial form of ethics based on the concept of stupidity.
    • He assumes value is something objective. Which ultimately challenges the tenets of nihilism (and puts the philosophy of stupidity at odds with existentialism).
    • He leaves this new concept of value undefined but still manages to show its general structure in the complexity of human affairs.
    • He introduces the necessity of the social element into the philosophy of stupidity which renders understandings of human intelligence as purely selfishness obsolete.

The second point is why I consider Cipolla to be the Grandfather of stupidology. But he was not the Father and surprisingly neither am I. There was another person who came before me who expanded on Cipolla’s theory (somewhat) and he would coin the term that I would eventually adopt and found the school for. And that would be the next philosopher I would talk about in this philosophical journey toward a theory of stupidity.

To Be Continued





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