Is it OK to be Stupid?

I recently said to a friend that a certain person, in my opinion, was dumb to the point of being disabled. “That’s OK,” my friend said, “some people are making their way in the world like that.” This statement is (of course) wonderfully wise and accepting. I felt an urge to argue with it though. On some affective, animal-level, I disagreed: no, I wanted to say, it’s not ok to be stupid.

Like my friend, I pride myself on being open to different ways of thinking. I don’t do this just to be nice, but because I believe, in a way which I can articulate and support, that cognitive diversity (and the acceptance thereof) is good for society. My gut reaction to my friend’s statement contradicts this. Let’s explore.

To start, I do think that it’s somewhat natural for one to favor one’s way of being over that of others. So in this regard it’s not strange that I, being an “intellectual,” value intellectual stuff like literacy, abstract thought and systematic reason. Correspondingly, I view those who lack these abilities as somehow lacking as people, sub-ideal.

This explanation doesn’t completely cover the situation though. I value lots of stuff. For example, a certain competency on the tennis court. I would never think though that it’s not ok not to be good at tennis. In other words, for me, intelligence is more connected to “being ok” than other competencies. Thinking about it further, there seems to be some moral resonance here. Being intelligent, in my mind, has become connected with being a good person.

Is this legitimate? Is there a connection between intelligence and morality? I recognize that these are two value-loaded, slippery-as-soap terms. To gain some purchase, I’ll put it more specifically: is there a connection between intelligence, however that may be defined by a specific group, and engaging in practices which are deemed “right” or “good” by that group? My hyper-accepting friend would likely say no, there is no connection. I’m not so sure though.

It seems that to do what ‘s right one must be able to put his actions in context. He must know how doing X will change the world, either for better or worse. This requires an understanding of cause and effect and the computing power to run through possible outcomes in your head (what we may deem “imagination”). Both these traits seem to be associated with intelligence as conventionally conceived.

Of course, one must also care about the changes his actions will engender. It’s not enough to know that X will hurt someone. You must also be willing to take that pain into account. This trait (what we may deem “empathy”) does not seem to be connected with intelligence. A person can be dumb as a post and really, really not what to hurt anyone. Or a genius and not care at all.

Morality has both an intellectual and emotional component. And these aren’t always in sync. For example, caring too much about one element in the moral equation can blind us to probability. Or being too systematic can make us cold to the reality of suffering.

So to draw a quasi-conclusion, it seems that it’s not just intelligence and empathy, but also a certain balance that’s key to making “right” or “moral” decisions. I don’t know if I was taking this into account when I challenged my friend’s assertion that it’s OK to be cognitively different. Certainly there’s no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and morality. If I was subconsciously making this assumption, I wasn’t being very smart. At the same time though, just the fact of this analysis shows how deeply, for me, the ability to theorize our experience is connected to what it means to be human.

The Cosmopolitian Body

There’s a scene in the movie Memphis Belle which I think really sums up the rational behind the philosophical doctrine of cosmopolitanism. If you don’t know, cosmopolitanism is the idea that all people, just by virtue of being human, possess some intrinsic “something,” and this binds us (or should bind us) all together into a single community.

Memphis Belle is about the crew of an American bomber during WWII. On their last bombing run before being sent home, and after much danger, they finally drop their bombs on the enemy target. They now have to return safely to base though. The captain, to motivate his men, says something to the effect of “OK boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam. Now we fly for ourselves!”

This, it seems to me, gets at the heart of cosmopolitan thought. The captain here is positing that at a certain point our social identity– those values and responsibilities and ways of being that are imposed on us by our community– fall away. After dropping their bombs, he and his men are no longer “Americans” on a mission from “Uncle Sam.” Instead, they are simply humans, existing in their most base animal form. They are now obeying a calling higher than community– that of survival.

I think that if cosmopolitanism is going to make any sense, we have to think of it in just these terms. Where, after all, does this magical “something” that ties all humans together come from? If you’re a theist, you can say that it is “God given.” If you don’t believe in an all-powerful creator though, this doesn’t work.

Alternatively, you could say that this shared bond arises from some sort of social contract. We all agree that all humans are family and that therefore makes it so. This is a nice idea, and theoretically feasible, but it just doesn’t account for facts on the ground. In the worst incidents of oppression (when we most strongly need cosmopolitan theory), the oppressors simply disregard the humanity of their victims. Hutus or Israelis or drunken frat boys agree among themselves (make a social contract, you could say) that their enemies lie outside the bonds of community. In short, if we take a contractarian approach, it seems that cosmopolitanism abandons us when we need it most.

So, to make cosmopolitanism work– I.E. to validate the idea that we are all, despite our cultural differences, members of the same community– we need some sort of external, non-negotiable justification. As a pragmatist, I’m not big on universal rules. It seems though that if there is any bond which connects all humans it is necessarily a physical one. We all have bodies. We all eat and sleep and (except for Macduff) come from women. Stripped of our socially-generated material trappings (clothes, cars, houses) and our socially-constructed values (love, honor, belief) we are all basically the same.

The captain of the Memphis Belle knows this. He locates his crew’s most basic and therefore most communal desire– bodily survival– and references it as a motivational point. The body is something they can all rally around. Could such rhetoric be scaled up though? Could one make the claim that we all have certain rights not because of God or the constitution, but simply by virtue of existing within a human body? Don’t hurt my body, this argument would go, because my body is the same as yours. Perhaps. Perhaps advocates of cosmopolitanism should watch Memphis Belle.