Moral Stupidty

by Ed Kazarian

Yesterday, Talking Points Memo reported on new CBS News poll that found extremely high percentages of respondents approving of the use of drones against suspected terrorists. According to the article:

Seventy-one percent of Americans — including 78 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats — said they support the use of drones against suspected terrorists. Only 20 percent of respondents said they are opposed.

My initial response to this was twofold: 1) disgust and dismay, and 2) the thought that we might need a category of ‘moral stupidity’ to describe this kind of phenomenon. I want to briefly explain the latter, since the more I think about it, the more I think such a category — or perhaps, for reasons I’ll explain below, a category of ‘moral stupidities’ — has some genuine value and is worth developing in a precise way.

To begin, it is probably necessary to justify the idea that what is producing this sort of a poll is properly described as ‘stupidity.’ To establish this, I do not think it is necessary to argue that the drone policy is wrong (though I obviously think it is). Indeed, I think it is worth disconnecting the notion of stupidity from that of error in either a moral or an epistemological sense. So, being stupid doesn’t necessarily entail being wrong. Instead, what is stupid in this instance is the unwarranted, indeed exaggerated consensus around an answer that–assuming that one reflects on the problem even a little bit–clearly should be very controversial. In other words, there is here a failure to think, and on a fairly massive scale. Otherwise, there simply would not be such a relative absence of controversy. And not thinking in this way, it seems, can at least provisionally be described as ‘stupid.’

However, the term ‘stupid,’ as my friend Maurice Wade pointed out while we were talking all of this over yesterday morning, has a number of connotations, including possibly that of “an inherent condition that is beyond remedy.” I don’t want to use it in that sense, in particular. But I do want to preserve one element of it, namely that whatever is rightly called stupidity will be deeply embedded and highly resistant to change.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, ‘stupidity’ in this sense can even be given a conditionally positive value, as in a recent article by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer that presents “functional stupidity” as an “important if under-recognized part of organizational life.” Without taking up the meat of their analysis as it bears upon management practice, Alvesson and Spicer’s definition of stupidity seems to resonate in important ways with the considerations I have just raised:

To be stupid is not just (as is ignorance) to lack knowledge, it is also to lack the ability or willingness to use or process knowledge (Sternberg, 2002). Cognitive psychologists have pointed out that this may not be due only to a lack of intelligence needed to process knowledge, but may be because of a fixation within problematic algorithms of thought or a lack of willingness to question one’s own deeply held beliefs (Stanovich, 2002). Stupidity then is seen as the inability or unwillingness to mobilize one’s cognitive resources and intelligence. Some suggest that stupidity is not just an expression of individual cognitive features, but is actually encouraged by broader modes of modern knowledge (Ronell, 2002) or organizational cultures (ten Bos, 2007). This suggests that stupidity in an organizational context is an organizationally supported inability or unwillingness to mobilize one’s cognitive capacities.

Taking these ideas further, we can view what we refer to as functional stupidity as being characterized by an unwillingness or inability to mobilize three aspects of cognitive capacity: reflexivity, justification, and substantive reasoning (Alvesson and Spicer, p. 1199, my emphasis).

As I said above, for Alvesson and Spicer, stupidity of this sort can be useful in an organization, where it may be important to avoid having to reflect on or justify what is working well, since this frees up time and cognitive energy for reflection, justification and reasoning where they are most needed. It is, in other words, perfectly fine to be stupid when you have a ‘good enough’ answer in non-problematic case.

Obviously, however, at the ‘moral’ level that I am discussing, which tends to presuppose that there are real — and genuinely difficult — questions at stake, stupidity is considerably more pernicious. Why appeal to Alvesson and Spicer, then? For my purposes, what is important about their model is twofold: first, that it offers us a way of thinking about stupidity that isn’t tied to ignorance or lack of intelligence, but rather denotes simply “the inability or unwillingness to mobilize one’s … intelligence”; and second, that this inability or unwillingness is (and I would argue must be) “organizationally supported” — and we could easily go farther and begin to speak (as Maurice did in the conversation referred to above) about the ways in which it is socially produced or cultivated, via the media, via education policy, via various affective techniques that serve to promote and direct various sorts of fears or anxieties. All of this is correct, but what I want to call particular attention to is that (even and especially in the cases where the above mechanisms are used) stupidity of the sort at stake in the CBS News poll is, to put it bluntly, a mass phenomenon. As such, it is the kind of thing that only arises when there is a social or institutional support for the avoidance of thinking, either because there is active social and institutional pressure not to think, or because there is broad and deep social support for reaching a certain conclusion. Alvesson and Spicer speak of stupidity as being a function of both of “deeply held beliefs” and “fixation within problematic algorithms of thought.” It seems to me that the second of these phrases is the most apropos here, and in fact captures much of what is going on at the broad social level where stupidity phenomena arise.  Stupidity of this sort is not a function of deeply held and considered belief, but rather of what we might call, in a nod to Bernard Stiegler, a short-circuit of thought that takes us directly from the posing of a certain question, or the mentioning of certain key terms, to a fundamentally hasty conclusion that obliterates debate and moral questioning.

Stupidity — even and especially ‘moral stupidity’ — is thus, again nodding in Stiegler’s direction, a systemic phenomenon of acceleration and short-circuiting that thins out or eliminates affective connections and investments at the level of the community that would support a more robust moral debate or thoughtful assessment of things like drone policies. And by its very nature, as a kind of socio-linguistic burn-in, it clusters around specific nodes or patterns that become ingrained in such a way as to interrupt or block the possibility of reflection when they are encountered: the word “terrorist” in the polling question being a perfect example. 

But in this last case, it becomes worth asking a final question. Can we even speak of ‘stupidity’ as a general phenomenon? Must we not, rather, consider stupidities as being fundamentally liked to the multiple and discontinuous supports for them that come into being around particular terms or patterns that come to be reiterated in social and discursive fields with sufficient frequency and regularity to set up ‘short-circuits’? Surely one distinguishing feature of the operation of these ‘stupidities’ is that they affect a great many people who would otherwise not be inclined toward the failures of reflection or critical questioning that they involve. This is why, once established, they are so resistant to change — but it is also how they become massive, almost by definition. As they reach or approach the critical point of becoming what ‘everyone thinks, regardless,’ they accelerate and deflect conversation and thinking more and more, becoming almost unnoticeable.

We certainly are, it seems, far less likely to notice and question the criterion for the use and the meaning of the label ‘terrorist’ than we might have been 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30.