A Treatise in Support of the Idea That Constant Uncompromising Correction of the Dumb by the Smart Must Continually Take Place, with an Excursion into the All-Too-Commonly Misunderstood Nature of Selfishness, and Closing with Trifling Allowances Made for the Hypothetical Negative Consequences of Our Success



I have repeatedly argued in these documents in support of a generalized lessening on the part of the smart of tolerance of the demonstrably false opinions of the stupid.  People continually object to this sort of proposal or behavior based on the grounds that “we live in a free society.”  But this objection, if properly analyzed, is in fact evidence for their opponents’ position:  it is precisely because we live in a free society that smart people must bear the responsibility of correcting everyone else.

The statement “this is a free country” is generally taken to refer to the assortment of rights including Free Speech, Freedom of the Press, etc.; to the fact that the government cannot make laws against people saying or believing anything.  The government can make laws against certain actions (theft, murder, etc.), because this is necessary; a government that did not have the power to do this could not even accurately be called a government.  We can refer — whether in science-fiction or when insulting people in real life — to the “thought police,” but it would make no sense to refer to the “action police,” since the “action police” are just the regular police.

But there is, of course, a relationship between thoughts and actions.  When someone steals or kills, it may very well be because he believed something that made him more likely to steal or kill than the average person.  In the case of an individual who is simply, for lack of a better term, “crazy,” there may be little that we can do about this.  But what about cases in which people are taught such beliefs as would increase the likelihood of their committing immoral actions, in an organized and public fashion?  We already know that the government can make a law against, for example, beating up gay people — there are, of course, already laws against beating up anyone, including gay people.  But if a religion teaches its members that God wants them to beat up gay people, then doesn’t this make it inevitable that at least some of them will do so?

Imagine, for a second, that the Constitution guaranteed us the right of Freedom of Manufacture, and that this made it legal for a car company to make a car that could not go any slower than 66mph.  The government would not be allowed to stop the company from making these cars, or stop people from buying them, or from driving them — only to give speeding tickets to people once they did so.

This is the situation in which a “free country” finds itself with respect to belief:  there are beliefs that will inevitably lead to things that the government can ban and has banned, but these beliefs themselves cannot be banned and should not be banable.  The only solution is for the people themselves to take the initiative to try and eradicate them.  Yes, it is good and just that the government can’t do it — but the other half of that bargain is that because the government can’t, the people must.  Otherwise, it's a pretty bad plan.

There are many who will strongly disagree with such a position, but this disagreement is born of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Founders’ intent.  Americans today tend to believe that, if the Founders didn’t afford the government the power to do something, then this must mean that this thing is simply inherently bad, and would always be wrong for anyone to do, government or otherwise:  if it is wrong for the government to tell you what to believe, people reason, then this must mean it is also wrong for a private citizen to do so — after all, if it isn’t wrong, then why can’t the government do it?

But this is a gross — and even a dangerous — misinterpretation.  The fact that the government can’t tell the people what to believe not only does not mean that the people can’t tell one another what to believe, but also that the people are not only allowed to do so, but obliged with the responsibility to do so, because someone has to.  The Founders didn’t believe that no opinions were better than any others, but rather that the superior opinions would triumph more effectively if the people debated without government interference (and, since good philosophers are not slaves even to the Founders, it should also be mentioned that this system would be ideal even if it weren’t what the Founders had believed — it is not true because they said so; they said so because it was true).

If there are any readers who are unmoved by the previous paragraph, they are probably religious, so I’ll offer the following checkmate example:  if it were actually wrong for people to do anything that the government doesn’t have the right to do, then that would mean it would be wrong for any individual to have a religion, since the government doesn’t have the right to establish one.  So, the principle that you always try to use to argue the position that smart people have no right to try and get people to stop believing in your religion would also mean that you’re not allowed to have one in the first place.

Now, a Religious-Conservative reader — assuming that they were paying the slightest bit of attention and possessed even the most rudimentary logical skills — would almost certainly have jumped up a few paragraphs ago and exclaimed “Aha!  I’ve got you now, 1585!  If you are arguing that it is the duty of the people to try and stamp out beliefs that lead to immoral actions, then, if I could prove that religion makes people behave more morally than atheism, you would be obliged to admit that the people should attempt to stamp out atheism!”     

I’m glad that the hypothetical religious person was paying attention, but this is not a valid counterpoint, for several reasons.  Firstly, atheism isn’t so much a belief as the absence of a belief, just as cold isn’t really a thing in itself but rather the absence of heat (when someone says “shut the door; you’re letting the cold air in,” what they actually mean is “you’re letting the warm air out”).  The difference is as follows:  if a crazy person believes himself to be a kangaroo, this is indeed the presence of a (false) belief; if a non-crazy person, on the other hand, does not believe himself to be a kangaroo, this is merely the absence of the false belief.  If someone wanted to “stamp out” non-self-to-be-a-kangarooism, then this would actually entail inculcating people with the belief that they are kangaroos.  How exactly do you stamp out the absence of something?

Secondly, and more importantly, 1585ers believe that all “beliefs that lead to good things” arguments must always be subject to objective reality:  to truth and falsehood.  We would be for the abolition of a belief that led to wrong action as long as that belief was false, and against the promotion of a false belief even if it led to right action.  But this is still a moral argument, because it is predicated on our general principle that all false beliefs will eventually lead to more wrong action in the long run, even if they lead to less wrong action in the immediate future.  Religion itself is a fabulous illustration of this principle (in fact, it’s where I got the idea in the first place, so thanks).

Once the mind becomes accustomed to the concept of just believing whatever about one thing, it will hunger for the easy solution of just believing whatever about other things too.  This will naturally lead to the individual selecting the most self-serving beliefs, which will inevitably lead to the most self-serving actions, which is the very definition of immorality.  These last few sentences may sound conservative, but they are actually not:  ironically, it is conservatism, not liberalism, that is the more dedicated to self-serving beliefs, which is why conservatism is wedded to religion and (the good kind of) liberalism is wedded to science.  People tend to think of liberalism as meaning “people can do whatever they want” and conservatism as meaning “no, they can’t,” but what they don’t realize is that it is the second philosophy that is the more self-centered of the two (at least, in cases where the beliefs about what others should or shouldn’t be allowed to do are false):  for most people, believing that you are better than others feels better than doing whatever you want does — ergo, adherence to a philosophy centered on the idea that everyone else is doing all these things that are wrong but I am better than them because I refrain from doing these things is more self-centered than adherence to a philosophy stating that everyone can do whatever they want as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, even if the “everyone” of the second philosophy includes you.

Very often, of course, the rub is that the “everyone” includes you in theory but not in practice — e.g. “everyone is theoretically allowed to have sex, but in practice I can’t because I am ugly, so I will think up a reason why it is wrong to have sex and allow myself to believe it, which makes me better than them rather than the other way around.”

sexy teacher

Here we must distinguish between self-interest and selfishness.  Something that is in your self-interest may also be in the interests of other people, whereas something that is selfish is in only your interest, or in the interest of you and a small group of select others, to the exclusion of everyone else.  It may have seemed a logical assumption to many people to conclude that those people who are observed to act in the most self-gratifying ways must also harbor the most selfish beliefs, but, as I've just explained, this is not actually the case — if someone who behaves in a self-gratifying way is also happy to extend the opportunity for self-gratification to others in equal proportion, then the belief that supports the action is not a selfish one.

No further illustration of this point is needed than the standard response of a grade-school teacher to a student who produces a piece of candy: “did you bring enough for everyone?”  If the student has in fact brought enough candy for everyone, then the action is not selfish, but rather generous, regardless of the fact that the student presumably eats some of the candy themselves, and enjoys doing so.  Of course, the student who brought in the candy is likely to be treated as a hero by their classmates for doing so, and it is entirely possible that this fact played a role in their motivation — but what difference does that make?  Does it mean that the students who didn’t bring in candy are in actuality more generous than the one who did?  How could that be? 

The 1585 advocates self-gratification within the bounds of logically justifiable morality and scientifically justifiable belief.  And, unlike religious types, we do not decide for ourselves what is logical or scientific — logic and science decide that.  The term Free Thinker has often been applied to Liberals, but in a way, this is a misnomer.  Non-religious thought appears to be “free” because it has historically been unorthodox, but a scientific and logical mind cannot simply believe whatever it likes — it is bound to concrete accountability.  When religious people, on the other hand, get tired of believing a particular thing, and would prefer to believe something else, they can simply change the religion (and do so often).

But what about the idea that there need to be idiots who believe dumb things?  Many have objected to such widespread-smartening endeavors, usually in the form of the “society would fall apart” arguments of which Conservatives are so terribly fond.  If everyone were smart, the argument goes, then there would be no-one willing to do the myriad undesirable jobs that a functioning society unfortunately needs people to do.  In the case of religious dumbness, the argument continues, this goes hand-in-glove with regular dumbness, since it prevents the dumb from getting too pissed off about having to do the crap jobs that they end up having to do because of their regular dumbness.  (It should certainly be noted, by the way, that any Conservative who argues this is tacitly admitting that religion is false and that the dumb are dumb, and is therefore not one of those “I believe it myself” Conservatives, but rather one of the far less pitiable “don’t let the cat out of the bag” Conservatives, who merely pretends to be one of the former kind in public.)     

The idea that the stupid are more useful to the smart when they're stupid than they would be if they were smart is not inherently conservative, of course, nor is it wholly false.  The soundness of the idea can be demonstrated by Richard Dawkins’s analogy of two armies, one of which believes in a bloodthirsty War God who rewards those who die bravely in battle, and the other of which does not believe in such a god.  The army more likely to win the battle is the former (assuming that both are of comparable size, equally well-equipped, etc.), but the individual most likely to survive the battle would be someone in the War-God army who does not believe in the War God himself — this individual would hang back in the battle and try to look busy while looking out for himself, but his army would still be victorious.

Now, Dawkins is only using this analogy to demonstrate that individual evolution trumps group evolution (it is a descriptive argument, not a prescriptive argument advocating selfishness) — but it can also be used to demonstrate that there are situations where it can be more advantageous for a smart individual to be surrounded by stupid people than by other smart people.  But convenient examples can be used to demonstrate just about anything — the relevant question is, how analogous is this battle to our situation in American society today, and the answer is, not very.  As far as I can tell, there are currently no widespread stupid beliefs that are helping American society — all presently popular stupid beliefs are doing considerably more harm than good.  Even blind patriotism, traditionally the most frequently employed non-religious method of convincing the common man to run off and die for the benefit of the ruling class, appears to be causing America to wage its current war(s?) worse, not better.

If a Conservative is going to go the whole nine yards and say “if everyone in the country were suddenly a fancy-pants philosopher, then we would just get invaded and killed by some country that still has a ton of blind-obedience psychos in it,” then yes, I suppose that’s true.  If everyone in a particular country suddenly became really smart at the same time, the end result might very well be undesirable (assuming that this didn’t also happen in every other country as well).  So does this mean that smart people should stop trying to make everyone smart?

The answer is an unqualified no.  The only possible response is that smart people still have to try as hard as they can.  Yes, for the sake of philosophical soundness, we must allow for the possibility that things would be worse if we were as successful as we wished to be right away, but this does not dictate an imperative to hold back.

Consider the analogy of a fistfight.  Someone has unjustly assaulted you, and you are about to punch him back.  You hit him as hard as you can, and you also wish that you had the ability to hit him even harder.  Of course, if you actually could hit him as hard as you would like to be able to do in that moment, you would kill him, and you probably don’t wish to kill him — but if you considered that, and held back, then you would barely hit him at all.  The only appropriate action is to hit him as hard as you can, secure in the knowledge that you don’t actually possess the power to hit him hard enough to kill him.

If the fistfight analogy does not serve, consider the situation of doctors and scientists.  If doctors and scientists were always successful in saving lives and curing diseases, then the world would quickly become overpopulated to the point of uninhabitability.  In other words, the result of trying to save everyone, if the efforts to save everyone were 100% successful, would be enormously negative.  But does this mean that doctors and scientists should hold back from trying to save every patient or cure every disease, or that it is immoral for them to try to do so?  No — because of the fact that it is impossible for them to be 100% successful.

And this is the situation of the smart person — or, rather, the situation of smart people as a group.  Yes, it is true that if we were 100% successful in trying to make everyone else smart, then there would be no-one left to do shitty jobs and so forth.  But does this mean that we shouldn’t try?  No.  We must continue to try as hard as we can to do this, secure in the knowledge that we will never be 100% successful — or that, if one day we are, it will have taken long enough that civilization will have progressed alongside the human mind to the point where there aren’t any shitty jobs anymore, and for other societies to have kept pace sufficiently that there are no longer nations with 90%-idiot populations waiting to invade us for no reason, etc.

This rationale, by the way, can be used to answer all conservative “what if everyone XYZ?” objections.  It is a strategy they are fond of using — many of them think it is a correct application of Kant’s categorical imperative, when it isn’t, because the categorical imperative applies to specific actions, not to what you are over the course of your whole life, and besides the categorical imperative applied fully is stupid anyway, e.g., “Would I wish for everyone to go around pushing people all the time?  No?  Well, then I guess I can’t push this guy out of the path of this speeding bus”.  

The reason the categorical imperative falls apart, by the way, is because actions are named by the same terms across all contexts, when in fact the “same” action effectively breaks down into different actions in different contexts, e.g., in my previous example, there would be no problem if we had one word for “to shove in anger” and another word for “to knock out of the way of,” but we just use the word “push” or “shove” in both contexts; thus, the reason the categorical imperative dissolves is because it requires the categorization of actions, and the categorization of actions requires language, and language is an imperfect approximation.

One of the Conservatives' favorite applications is “if everyone were gay, then the human race would cease to exist because no children would be born; therefore, it is immoral to be gay.”  But this can easily be answered by plugging just about anything into the “if everyone were ______” template — e.g., “if everyone were a fireman then no-one would get their mail because there would be no mailmen, and if everyone were a mailman then no-one would be able to read because there would be no teachers, and if everyone were a teacher then we would have no government, and so forth, so I guess that means it is immoral to have any kind of job at all, and for that matter immoral not to have a job as well, so by your logic there is no such thing as morality because it massively contradicts itself, unless of course you concede that the ‘if everyone were ______’ construction is stupid, which it is.”

In conclusion, I would like to apologize for the fact that this essay is not funny.  I wrote most of it months ago, before I started being funny, and then I put it aside because I kept getting distracted by other stuff I wanted to write about, but then I decided to finish and post it now because the essay I wanted to put up this weekend is taking forever and because I always knew I wanted to use this one eventually, since even though it is not funny, it is still awesome.

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