This essay was adapted from an edition of the popular Substack letter Civic Renaissance. We are publishing it in honor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday: February 4, 1906.
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.
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The toughest situations fall somewhere in between these extremes, and they tend to be acutely personal. There is someone 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, The Soul of Civility, 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.
Often, and especially 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—can help us think a bit more clearly about this question. Bonhoeffer is among the most important figures and theologians of the twentieth century, and he thought a lot about this problem. He was imprisoned and executed 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 that 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 his beliefs. According to Bonhoeffer, it is easier to reason and dialogue with a malicious person than with 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 himself, 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.
To Bonhoeffer, stupidity is not an intellectual defect at all; it is a moral one. Bonhoeffer knew people who were brilliant intellectually, yet stupid. Consider Martin Heidegger, among the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, who supported the Nazi party until he died 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 he allows himself to become so transformed. People are also not stupid in isolation. Stupidity, according to Bonhoeffer, is an inevitably social phenomenon. He observes that in groups people succumb to pressures and influences, and lose a grasp on their autonomy and moral reasoning.
Stupid People vs. Stupid Thoughts
Bonhoeffer seems to distinguish between two types of people: those who are foolish, and those who are not. But what if instead of labeling people as foolish or not, we instead consider that people can simply hold foolish opinions? People can have blind spots 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 vital to cultivating a civil society.
The relationship in my life that I mentioned earlier causes me much grief. But instead of cutting this person out of my life, I strive to separate their foolish beliefs from their humanity. This is difficult for all of us to do, especially when we feel 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. This happens when we fail to distinguish people’s views from their personhood. Keeping the relationship in mind—the history we have with the person, the trust we’ve built, the memories we’ve shared—can bring us perspective.
Every person can teach us something. And when we cut people off over one errant belief or misdeed, we may miss important opportunities to learn and grow in our understanding of ourselves and the world.