Reflections on Belief, Intelligence, and Evil

A thing is no more likely to be true because its truth would be very convenient. Conversely, a thing is no more likely to be false because its truth would be inconvenient. In general, truth and falsity have no intrinsic relation whatsoever to what would make things feel easier or more accommodating to you, in your conditions, with your associations, subject to your worries, compelled by your practical necessities. 

To state this differently, truth and falsity should align perfectly with what is most natural for us, and therefore be the most convenient things in the world to believe or disbelieve, respectively; but what seems convenient to us and what would be natural to us (i.e., most truly convenient) are often largely unrelated. The problem of human nature, of course, is that we are innately inclined to mistake the feeling of convenience with the natural reality of convenience. The man of understanding is he who finds his convenience not in what satisfies the needs he merely experiences today, but in what satisfies the needs of his eternal being. To bring those two senses of need into alignment is the meaning of human wisdom and the task of a lifetime. Hence, for all practical purposes, one ought to be on guard against confusing convenience with believability.

George Orwell is commonly alleged to have said, “There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe them.” This is certainly true, and is merely, in a sense, a reverse angle view of Socrates’ argument, in The Republic, that the greatest evil can only be committed by those with the spiritual capacity to commit the greatest good, hence highlighting the essential need for education, to civilize precisely the most dangerous souls. 

This view, however — that as Orwell and Socrates would have it, the most horrendously evil notions are appealing only to people of the highest intellectual capacity — must never be mistaken either as a case against high intelligence and in favor of mediocrity, or as indicating that people of more ordinary intelligence are somehow less susceptible to wrong ideas. For, to address the first error, no salt-of-the-earth plurality of the population can ultimately resist or repel the infestation of a truly evil idea; only the most serious alternative ideas can do that. Similarly, regarding the second error, while it is true that only a Karl Marx could conceive of such theoretical monstrosities as his historical dialectic and his critique of “capitalism,” it is also true that mediocrities of the first order — even borderline halfwits such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg — are fully capable of espousing the simplified conclusions of these great intellectual evils in a manner that, due to their appeal among the equally shallow, may precipitate great harm indeed. 

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