On Intelligence, Freedom, and Who Knows What’s Best for You

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Thu, Feb 5 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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The Good Life - Intelligence

Intelligence is a human being’s most important asset.

One sign of this is the amount of time we spend educating our young. For some species, such as squirrels and hawks, the learning necessary to become a full adult is acquired in a matter of months. For more intelligent species, such as chimpanzees and elephants, it takes a few years. But we humans need a dozen or more years of life to acquire the knowledge, the learning skills, and the judgment necessary for adult life.

We do need to develop our physiques — muscular power, endurance, and flexibility — but most importantly we each need to develop our minds. A lion can overpower its prey with strength, an insect has the flexibility to find what it needs in nooks and crannies, and a goose has the endurance to fly hundreds of miles. But humans flourish primarily via the power of their thinking.

“A healthy mind in a healthy body” — said an old Latin poet. That is the state of being a fully-realized human being. (Which may be why smart people are so sexy — though I should avoid turning this into a true-personal-confessions article.)

The connection between intelligence and living freely is that thinking is a capacity of individual minds and one that each individual initiates, controls, sustains, and acts upon. A free human being lives by thinking for himself or herself, acting on his or her best judgment, and taking responsibility, good or bad, for the results.

Of course others can assist, but fundamentally we each must reach our own conclusions and walk our own paths. By the time we become adults, we should be able to live independently. That is the challenge and the glory of being human.

Especially in a complex civilization, as our society is becoming, living successfully depends on our ability to understand complicated things – how technologies work, principles of civility, international markets, global politics, and so on. Society’s complexity increases as we learn and do more, and that complexity wonderfully enables our more flourishing lifestyles. But those lifestyles also make greater demands upon our intelligence.

What if some people can’t keep up?

That is why the challenge of paternalism is a deep one. (See “Are You Smart Enough to Live in a Free Society?”) The paternalist claim is that some of us are cognitively stronger than others, and that the well-being of the cognitively weaker and society as a whole will be improved if some decision-making power is taken away from weaker.

Yes, that may sound elitist, paternalists acknowledge. But, they counter-charge, isn’t liberalism also elitist? Liberty works only for the intelligent among us – that is, for those who have what it takes to live fully self-responsibly. But it ignores the capacities of the less gifted who need some looking after. So isn’t paternalism’s making targeted limitations on freedom the most benevolent policy?

Paternalism makes three networked claims:

  1. Paternal controls will yield better overall results than freedom will.
  2. We therefore face a trade-off: we must choose between (a) living with less freedom but getting better results, or (b) living more freely but being worse off.
  3. Option (a) is preferable.

All three claims are false.

In the first place, very few people are too stupid to learn how to run their own lives. If we’re worried about the next generation, watch some kids playing video games, with those games’ cognitive demands of exploration, judgment, evaluation, eye-ear-hand coordination, memory, and so on. How many of those children are by nature so cognitively limited as to be incapable of learning basic life skills?

Some are. But even most of that small minority can become adults who can do low-skill jobs, dress and feed themselves, play games and enjoy entertainments of their own choosing. And for navigating life’s more intellectually-challenging terrain, they can rely on social networks of family, friends, neighbors, and philanthropic organizations. The very small number of very-low-intelligence people does not justify governmental paternal policies.

We should also ask: How many of this generation’s cognitively-challenged are the consequence of last generation’s paternalism? A generation ago, paternalist policy makers despaired over those who were making bad decisions. So they took that decision-making away – undermining further that generation’s capacity to learn how to make good decisions.

If, for example, you take retirement planning out of people’s hands, then you create more people incapable of retirement planning. If you relieve parents of responsibility for overseeing their children’s education, then you create less competent parents. And when this generation arrives, paternalists despair at all the incompetent financial planning and parenting – and call for more paternalism as the solution.

The solution is not more paternalism but less.

Paternalism also involves an injustice: In order to help some, it denies freedom to others. Some individuals cannot competently track the nutritional values of their food and drink intakes, for instance, so paternalists want to limit the food-and-drink options of everyone. At most, arguably, the desire of paternalists to control others should target only those whom they judge to be intellectually sub-par. There is no justification for extending that control to the rest of us who are capable of judging nutritional values.

In some ways, the free society is the hard road. It does place greater demands of thinking and self-responsibility upon individuals. At the same time, a free society makes the road easier, because free societies are richer societies with more resources available for our cognitive development and more protections against the mistakes we make.

A free society does become more complex technologically, legally, financially, and medically. At the same time, it also cultivates a variety of experts – mechanics, lawyers, financial planners, physicians – whom we can consult to get the knowledge and advice we need to make our own self-responsible decisions.

Even so, many people will make bad decisions in a robustly free society. But, as a character in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment said, wisely: “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” Being human means making one’s own choices. Robust self-responsibility is a fundamental principle of morality. One does not trade-off on it, no matter the degree of one’s intelligence.

Paternalism thus subverts our human-ness.

Think, by analogy, of good parenting versus bad. We can understand parents who are tempted to try to control their offspring on into adult life. They brought the child into the world and properly exercised paternal control when the child was younger. But essential to good parenting is weaning one’s child off his or her state of dependence – and weaning oneself off the habit of control.

There is something wrong with parents who feel the need to run their adult children’s lives – they are at best misguided and at worst pathological.

The same is true for paternalist politicians, but with less excuse.

[Forthcoming: Responding to the paternalist arguments for limiting democracy.]

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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