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When does an intellectual failing become a moral one? Bonhoeffer's theory of stupidity
Reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thought on the 77th anniversary of his death
We live in divided times. And it often feels that today people not only hold differing viewpoints, but are also less charitable than they used to be, more likely to vilify and demonize those who think differently than they do.
Anyone who disagrees with us is not just different, misguided, or wrong. They are bad.
We equate intellectual shortcomings—where people may simply lack the information, attention, or training to form good opinions—with moral ones.
This tendency raises an important question: When, if ever, does an intellectual defect become a moral failing?
There seem to be some paradigm examples on each end of the spectrum. Thinking the earth is flat, for example, clearly is an intellectual failing, not a moral one. John C. Calhoun’s view that slavery is a “positive good,” meanwhile, is an example of both an intellectual failing and a moral failing.
The toughest situations fall somewhere in between these extremes. I have someone very close to me in my life who is deeply good yet has very misguided opinions on many topics, and I often find myself uncertain how I should respond.
My book on civility, forthcoming from St. Martin’s press, argues that civility requires us to see and respect the humanity and dignity of others—including people unlike us, those who can do nothing for us, and those we disagree with.
Many times, especially in those moments when I’ve lost my temper with this person, I’ve reflected on whether I’m living up to my own ideals—to my own standard of civility. It’s in moments like these that I wonder—How are we to think about people with bad views, and what are the terms for productive engagement for interacting with them?
Bonhoeffer's theory of stupidity
Dietrich Bonhoeffer—born February 4, 1906 and died on this day, April, 9, 1945—can help us think a bit more clearly about this question. Bonhoeffer is among the most important theologians of the 20th Century, and he thought a lot about this problem.
He was imprisoned and executed—seventy seven years ago today—for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He was killed just two weeks before the United States liberated the concentration camp where he was held.
Bonhoeffer used his time in prison to reflect on how his native Germany—the land of poets and scholars, arguably the most intellectually sophisticated and creative country of the time—could elect a megalomaniacal leader like Hitler, and support him in his dehumanizing ambitions of racial purity within Germany, and world domination without. He was particularly scathing in his criticisms of lukewarm Christians who stood by while Hitler persecuted ethnic minorities, including Jews, political dissenters, and more.
How did Hitler rise to power? How did his fellow Germans allow it to happen?
In his Letters from Prison, Bonhoeffer argued that the answer was not malice. It wasn’t that his fellow Germans became misanthropic and evil overnight.
It was stupidity—a vice which Bonhoeffer concluded was more dangerous than malice.
Malice can be reasoned with and confronted. But there is no reasoning with stupidity.
When a foolish person is confronted with facts or evidence that contradict their beliefs, Bonhoeffer observes, they ignore and deny them. The foolish person is volatile, and easily offended when people question their beliefs. They are quick to go on the offensive. Bonhoeffer says it is easier to reason and dialogue with a malicious person than a foolish one.
Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.
Dialogue can be futile, because the foolish person doesn’t think for themselves, but merely recites talking points:
In conversation with [the foolish person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him.
He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.
In answer to our original question, Bonhoeffer contends that stupidity is not an intellectual defect at all; it is instead a moral one. Bonhoeffer knew people who were brilliant intellectually, yet stupid. Consider Martin Heidegger, among the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, who supported the Nazi party until his death in 1976. He was very smart, but also very stupid.
By contrast, a person can be intellectually dim yet wise, moral and kind.
One is not born, stupid, Bonhoeffer says. A person becomes stupid because they allow themselves to become so transformed.
People are also not stupid in isolation. Stupidity, according to Bonhoeffer, is an inevitably social phenomena. He observes that in groups people succumb to pressures and influences, and lose a grasp on their autonomy and moral reasoning.
Bonhoeffer says that a stupid person must be liberated. They cannot be argued or instructed out of stupidity.
You can read Bonhoeffer’s entire note on stupidity here, and I encourage you to read more from Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre, which is well worth your time.
Stupid people vs. stupid thoughts
I’d like to add an additional nuance to a Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity. Bonhoeffer seems to distinguish between two types of people: those who are foolish, and those who are not.
I think that is too simplistic. Instead of labeling people as foolish or not, I’m of the mind that people are not foolish—but merely hold foolish opinions. People can have blindspots without being blind. The same person can be wise with respect to one thing, and at the same time be foolish as to others. Making this distinction helps us separate the person from the opinion, which is important to helping us keep in mind the duties we have to others by virtue of our shared humanity.
The relationship in my life that I mentioned earlier causes me much grief. I choose not cut this person off entirely, however; I instead try to separate their foolish beliefs from who they are as a person. This is difficult for all of us to do, especially in the heat of the moment when we are angry and frustrated with those whose opinions we find deeply troubling.
Our contemporary social divisions have caused many people to end friendships or family relationships over differences in belief. I think this happens because we don’t make the distinction between people’s views and the person they are: our childhood best friend, our beloved aunt, our father or grandparent. Keeping the relationship in mind—the history we have with them, the trust we’ve built, the memories of days gone by—can help us put our disagreements into perspective. I call this “unbundling people”—or separating the person from the bad view (or act, in some cases)—and elaborate this idea in my upcoming book on civility.
How can we keep the complexity and dignity of the human person in mind even when they have perspectives we disagree with?
Everyone has something to teach us. And when we label people and cut them off over one view or deed, we may miss important opportunities to learn and grow in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
On the one hand, contrary to Bonhoeffer’s recommendation to avoid dialogue with foolish people, Socrates was open to engaging anyone—anytime, no matter how outlandish or immoral their views. If we choose to follow Socrates’ path, we can learn from his method: gentle, persistent questioning. He did not fume, berate, or condemn his interlocutors.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said that the most important thing we can learn from Socrates is how to have a debate without it descending into a quarrel. Through his questions posed to others—known to us today as the Socratic method—Socrates used the logic of his interlocutors’ own reasoning to highlight errors in their views. This enraged some who were offended and embarrassed by having their ignorance exposed. But for others, Socrates’ patient correction helped them see the error of their ways.
On the other hand, it’s okay to have relationships guardrails.
In the relationship I mentioned, I’ve established boundaries in our dialogues and interactions. There are certain topics that, when they are brought up, I change the subject. This is because I know that discussing certain topics will only inflame, and won’t lead to productive or illuminating dialogue.
Civility doesn’t require us to waste our time. Nor does it mean we must affirm falsehood. We don’t have to talk about every topic with every person. Parameters and boundaries can be both healthy and important.
I’m still working these ideas out in my own life. I certainly have more to learn.
I’m curious how you approach engaging with people who hold bad views.
When do you think an intellectual failing becomes a moral failing?
When do you decide when a topic is no longer worth engaging with a person—or when a person is no longer worth engaging with at all?
How can we avoid simplistically labeling people who disagree with us as “foolish?”
How can we resist the urge to essentialize, label, and cut people off based on one option they hold?
Write to me with your thoughts at email@example.com
Thank you for being here! I’m grateful to have you as part of the CR community.