Being clever doesn't make you good

Folks often insult Trump and other leaders for their stupidity. And understandably so.

But sometimes the slurs are misguided. They suggest that somehow being smart is the key to being good; that intelligence is automatically the morally superior position.

My latest Canberra Times piece takes this idea apart:

Donald Trump’s statements are routinely lambasted as stupid and ignorant. He is seen as the prince of idiocy and obliviousness. But local examples abound too—look at recent asylum seeker or marriage equality debates.

Trump is indeed unable to pursue basic arguments, and is demonstrably lacking in vital knowledge about his own brief. The New Yorker quoted one conservative advisor: ‘He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th’. Closer to home, many leaders’ arguments are often absurdly bad. Witness Dutton’s description of pro bono representation of asylum seekers as ‘un-Australian’, or Katter’s bizarre discussion of crocodile deaths.

So, the problem with these accusations of weak rationality is not that they’re inaccurate. The problem is what we might call “the fallacy of inherent intellectual goodness”: the belief that enhanced cognition translates into improved morality. Put this way, perhaps it seems silly: a boffin’s conceit. But it is actually a common idea. In civilised debate and frothing rancour alike is the assumption that what really sets one apart from one’s opponents is intelligence and knowledge. The logic is this: if only they were as smart and informed as I am, they’d be good (like I am).


© 2017 - Damon Young -