The Work Done by “Very Smart People”
We all rely on, and are duped by, very smart people. It happens all the time, and we can’t do otherwise.
Let’s start with someone I think probably no one doubts is a bigot: John Derbyshire. Here he is talking about his avowed homophobia:
Why am I — how dare I be! — so insouciant about my own homophobia? Aren’t I ashamed of myself? Isn’t it a cruel, bigoted, outrageous thing, to be a homophobe?
To believe that it is, you have to think very badly of the human race at large. As a conservative who reads a lot and takes an interest in history, I tend to accord some weight to the opinions of past generations. I do not subscribe to the fashionable belief that human beings suddenly got much smarter and more moral around 1965, and that everyone who lived prior to that date was a benighted ignoramus. There are plenty of people long dead who seem to me to have been very smart indeed — much smarter than I, in many cases. It is even possible that one or two of them may have been smarter than the editorialists at the New York Times. I don’t know, I don’t say this necessarily was so, only that I wouldn’t altogether rule it out.
And practically all of them were homophobes! My own father was a homophobe. Plato, as I have already mentioned, was one of us; so was Cicero (so far as the ancient world is concerned, I have never read anything that contradicts J. P. V. D. Balsdon’s remark in his book Romans and Aliens, that “Homosexuality was one of the paradoxes of ancient life, universally practised and universally reprobated”). Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt were homophobes. So were the great novelist-prognosticators of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In none of these cases was the motivation religious. In fact, my father was, as I have mentioned before in this space, a militant atheist.
So am I supposed to think that all these folk were wrongheaded, and that in the matter of homosexuality I should prefer the opinions of Barney Frank, Andrew Sullivan, and Rosie O’Donnell? Sorry, no sale. I stand with Plato and Cicero, Churchill and TR, Orwell and Huxley, and my Dad. Not bad company, it seems to me. I feel pretty comfortable with it, anyway.
This is the argument from Very Smart People, a subspecies of the Argumentum ad Populum. It’s a remarkably hardworking argument, and it does all sorts of things both bad and actually sometimes quite good.
Do let’s be honest about the bad, however. The argument from Very Smart People would and did efficaciously prevent women’s suffrage: Hardly a single statesman in all of human history had approved of the idea, and almost never had a group of Very Smart People (of the Male Gender) consented, outside exceptionally rare circumstances, to allow women anything resembling civic equality in a republic. Perhaps it had never happened even once, depending on where one draws the lines. Oh sure, there was the occasional queen, and some were among the greatest of monarchs, but a republic? That takes manly virtue—and thus men.
No, really. This is how real people—real Very Smart People—actually thought. They were serious, sober, and carefully reflective. They meant it, and they acted on it, and they bet their nations’ fortunes on it. Surely this wasn’t mere bigotry!
Very Smart People (of the Male Gender) also held that women were unfit for higher education, business, medicine, law, exploration, combat, and the ministry. A vast number of Very Smart People (of the Female Gender) agreed wholeheartedly. They did, and let’s not stomp our feet overmuch about it. If anything, the authority of Very Smart People (of the Female Gender) should count even more than that of their male counterparts. For them, it’s what we would call an admission against interest.
The question then becomes: Faced with this truth, and with all the others exactly like it, what do we do? Do we still take the Derbyshire approach? Do we say that we can’t possibly disagree without spiting upon and thinking very ill of all sorts of Very Smart People? By extension, we must be thinking even worse of the ordinary folk. Can we really stand to think so ill of all of humanity? If we don’t, then how do we wiggle out of it?
The problem here is that being a Very Smart Person has almost no correlation whatsoever with Getting All the Right Answers. Generation after generation has come and gone, all full of Very Smart People, all of them getting damn near everything completely wrong.
As this is a demonstrable fact outside the squishy realms of politics and ethics, we should consider it at least a plausible assertion within them as well. Very Smart People have affirmed that there were only four elements; that the sun revolved around the earth; that there were four vital humors to the human body, and that disease was caused by their imbalance. Very Smart People have subscribed to the doctrines of spontaneous generation, phlogiston, supernatural witchcraft, young-earth creationism, and the luminiferous aether. Among others.
I note these things intending no disrespect whatsoever to their Very Smartness. I further note that in the physical sciences, the demonstrable fact that Aristotle was a Very Smart Person—and he was—amounts to no additional weight given to, say, his theories of chemistry. They stand or fall independently. To Aristotle, it is no disgrace to have gotten it wrong. These are hard problems, and he tried, and he did so more successfully I think than I might have done, given the resources he had at hand.
And here’s where I’m going with all this: It is hardly if ever asserted that the property of being Very Smart finds its apex in the political and ethical realms. Rather the opposite, to take the balance of opinions from—again—some Very Smart People. We are almost certainly worse at politics and ethics than we are at the natural sciences. Very Smart People will almost always back me up on this.
Do I contradict myself? No, I don’t.
It approaches being merely phenomenological, our dependence from time to time on the opinions of Very Smart People. Sure, they are often wrong. But there are only so many hours in the day, and none of us, no matter how Very Smart we are, can personally think through everything from first principles. We all rely on each other, to a degree that neither our rhetoric nor our sense of self-esteem finds convenient to admit. From the little things all the way up to the very biggest ones — an obligatory footnote here to “I, Pencil,” of course.
This intellectual dependence is not something we can change or do without. It simply is; it comes to us as part of the package of being human and living in a civilization. We can and should make improvements on the margins, however, and pass along an intellectual legacy just a little bit better than the one we inherited. Or possibly quite a lot better. And with no disrespect implied whatsoever to the Very Smartness of all those Very Smart People.