Thursday, May 05, 2016

On the Charge of Being an "Intellectual Lightweight"

Against both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I have claimed that being an intellectual lightweight is a fault. I placed it in a list that also included hate-monger get bigotry and a disregard for the humanity of those who are not Americans.

Yet, there is an important difference between these three qualities.

I want to start by saying something about the context. The post was written and charges made in the context of talking about applicants for the job of President of the United States. It is a position for which we have reason to require a certain amount of intellectual acuity.

Furthermore, there clearly is nothing actually wrong with not knowing things.

All of us are ignorant of a great many things. There are whole fields of study about which I know very little. I do not apologize for it. Each of us has only a limited amount of time on this world - insufficient to capture more than a small percentage of the sum of human knowledge - itself a very small fraction of what can be known.

Not knowing things is not a failing.

Still, we have a number of moral responsibilities regarding knowledge - many of which depend on and respect the fact that, individually, we are substantially ignorant.

Curiosity is a virtue. A thirst to know is something that we all have reason to promote through general praise. At the same time, intellectual laziness - intellectual sloth - is something we have reason to condemn.

There is a distinction between those who lack knowledge in an area because they are focusing on other subjects, and those who lack knowledge because they are content to be ignorant.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both show signs not only of ignorance, but of intellectual sloth. Having been given significant amounts of time to learn about matters that they claim are important to them, they come back still knowing little or nothing about those subjects.

Sanders wants to break up the banks, but cannot identify the statutes that would guide such an action or the department that has responsibility to take action given those statutes. He has not educated himself on matters of foreign policy - a subject that he seems to bore him, even though a President cannot ignore matters of foreign policy and many of his economic plans have foreign policy consequences. For example, depriving a developing country of the opportunity to trade with the United States - wrecking their economy - risks creating a generation of vengeful potential recruits into terrorist organizations.

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy matters, answered that he talks to himself, "Because I have a very good brain."

If a person actually does have a very good brain, one of the things that would be obvious to him is how much he does not know.

There are a lot of people in the world with very good brains. The trick is to find those who have focused those brains on the subjects important to the decisions one wants to make and find out what they know that one does not know.

Intellectual arrogance when lives are at stake is a vice. The person who thinks that they know everything, and that nobody else can provide them with information or interpretations that are useful, is a very dangerous person.

In the same way that conservatives deny the scientific consensus on evolution, climate change, sex education, and the biological facts regarding homosexuality, many liberals follow the liberal program of denying the scientific consensus on genetically modified food, nuclear power, alternative medicine, and the genetic influence on behavior. Sanders and Trump both obviously get their scientific beliefs, not from scientists, but from political ideology.

The level of arrogance there escapes notice only because we refuse to pay attention to it. Here is a body of experts who, in many cases, devote nearly every waking hour reading and doing research on a subject. Then the politician comes along and thinks that a few moments of thought is all that he needs to dismiss the scientist as being wrong.

An intellectually honest person says, "I don't know everything. I need to surround myself with experts and get my opinions from them."

An individual could, of course, choose to become an expert in some field by devoting their own time to its study. I have my own opinions on matters of moral philosophy that I think are well earned. I have actually studied climate change, minimum wage, international trade, and the economics of political decision-making. However, you will not read a post where I proclaim my expertise on matters in the Middle East, drug laws, wall-street regulation, or public education.

It is no crime to not know - the best of us does not know infinitely more than he or she knows.
It is a moral crime to fail to respect the fact of one's ignorance, to fail to take advantage of what different people have acquired an expertise in, to pretend to know what one does not, and to fail to exercise a measure of moral responsibility regarding beliefs when the lives and well-being of others are at stake.

As with the previous comparisons, Trump is far worse on this scale than Sanders. One clear measure of the difference is that Sanders is willing to say, “I do not know” (or some variation on that theme). Trump, on the other hand, tries to bullshit his way through the question. He cannot possibly admit to having any limitation. In this, Sanders obviously has the morally superior attitude. Trump is, in effect, lying – pretending to have knowledge he does not have and trying to disguise his ignorance in bluster and nonsense.

It is on this measure that Trump and Sanders both fail . . . Trump being far worse than Sanders.

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