Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Is stupidity worse than evil??

Recently, I noticed a Big Think newsletter on the theory of stupidity by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). In his view, stupidity is worse than evil. Ironically, it was Nazi evil that took his life on 9 April 1945. Hence, I wonder if he would have changed his view – if he could.

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. 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; reasons 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 facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

A quote from Letters and Papers from Prison by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

The question in my blog title is difficult to answer because human stupidity is common and evil is rare. The fact (sic!) that human stupidity is common (ie, structural) implies that its cost is hard to quantify. The enormous cost of incidental evil (eg, WW2) is (often) loud and clear.

From a perspective of risk management, the risk for both can be categorized as follows:

The above analysis might indeed support the view of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: stupidity is worse than evil.

In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. In my view, evil is an example of a Black Swan. “The non-computability of the probability of consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).” (Wiki)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian and not as statistician, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His perspective was about ethics and/or morality. In his view, evil can be exposed and prevented (by force), while we are defenseless against human stupidity, a very specific cognitive failing.

In my view, we are not defenceless against human stupidity as long as there are voices of reason, like the one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Moreover, evil needs to be visible before it can be exposed and prevented (by force). Disbelief (eg, about Nazi evil) does not equal human stupidity. Seeing is believing.

Hence, evil is (far) worse than human stupidity – in my view.

The law seems to be in favour of my view. Stupidity can claim an idiot defense: “a satirical term for a legal strategy where a defendant claims innocence by virtue of having been ignorant of facts of which the defendant would normally be expected to be aware.” Evil seldom has an excuse.

A moral counter argument to Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that evil deeds (and/or words) have evil intentions, while stupidity has no intentions (ie, for its stupid deeds or words). Hence, the idiot defense. Also see the 2021 Aeon Psyche article: Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid.

“Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.”

A quote from Letters and Papers from Prison by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

Bonhoeffer‘s Theory of Stupidity

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless in quotes or stated otherwise.


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