On the Alleged Moral Superiority of Intellectuals

From my intimacy with [my fellow writers, teachers, etc] I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride, and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what. … [Eventually I saw that] almost all of them were men of bad or worthless character … [whose] real inmost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible.

                                                                                                                 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

The ordinary person is constantly being lectured and disparaged by intellectuals rooted in academia where Democrats massively outnumber Republicans.  It is useful, lest there be some misunderstanding, to stress that I believe that intellectuals, including professors, can be a good thing.  Indeed, they are essential to the development of civilization.  I am one myself.  There is nothing I love to do more than study the great philosophers, psychologists, social theorists, and literary figures.  However, intellectuals have certain inherent limitations.  First, they tend to think they know more than they do.  More importantly, they tend to believe that their intellectual accomplishments make them morally superior to less educated people, hence the contempt expressed by so many in our “elites” for Hillary’s “basket of deplorable” in “flyover country”.

Aristotle argues that the aim of studying moral philosophy is not just to become a better thinker but to become a better person.  Immanuel Kant makes similar claims in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill claims that only those who think through the issues rationally, like a philosopher, can know what is morally good. But does being an intellectual, even a “philosopher” (if one can still find one), make one better suited, as Aristotle puts it, to know “the good for man” and thereby become a better person?

Leo Tolstoy, the world-famous Russian novelist, was well familiar with the limitations of the intellectual elite.  After having been one for a long time, he came to believe that many intellectuals, despite their elaborate programs of self-glorification, were often greedy narcissistic people of bad character.  In his Confessions, Tolstoy explains that he came to believe that, ironically, the meaning of life is not understood by the people who write the celebrated books of the year on “the meaning of life” for fame and fortune, but by “the poor, the simple, and the ignorant, the pilgrims, the monks … and the peasants."

Whereas he writes, intellectuals spend their lives “in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction with life”, the peasants whose lives are filled with “heavy labor … live, suffer, and draw near to death in quiet confidence and oftenest with joy.”  Paradoxically, it is not the more educated who understand the meaning of life but the less educated.  But how could it be that even though intellectuals are much better at writing excellent books on the meaning of life, ordinary hard-working people are better at leading meaningful lives? What kind of inversion could take place here that explains why the alleged intellectual experts on morality and the value of human life are often worse at living moral and happy lives? 

Part of the answer is that the intellectual elites are especially prone to the sin of pride (and the associated cognitive and moral distortions).  One excellent example of this kind of embarrassing snobbishness is exhibited, not surprisingly, by Bill Maher, who suffers from the illusion that having a bachelor’s degree from an “ivy league” university makes him a better person than ordinary Americans who do not make millions of dollars standing on a stage exuding sanctimony and telling mostly infantile “jokes.”

There are two Americas [the red states and the blue states, where the blue states have] all the cool jobs [and] people drive Teslas and eat artisanal ice cream [and] have orchestras and theater districts and world-class shopping.  We have Chef Wolfgang Puck. They have Chef Boyardee. Our roofs have solar panels. Theirs have last year's Christmas lights. We've got legal bud [marijuana]. They've got Bud[weiser]. 

There is a sense in which the educated (including the partially educated with a bachelor’s degree), are better than ordinary people in some arenas.  They are much better than ordinary people at discussing Sophocles plays, the sociological concept of anomie, or the supply-demand curve.  That is, they are better at verbiage.  However, as it is said, “words are cheap.”

Gabriel Marcel, a French “existentialist” philosopher who, significantly, succeeded in never becoming a university professor thereby retaining his spirituality and common sense, expands on this theme,           

[It is said that] “Intellectuals are frivolous,” and, unfortunately, this is terribly true, the deep reason for it being that the intellectual has not to deal, as the peasant and the workman have, with a tangible a stubborn reality, a reality which resists fantasies; the intellectual works with words, and paper permits absolutely anything to be written on it.                                                                       

Man Against Mass Society (Part II, Chap. 1)

The sin of pride combined with a pliable verbal medium that provides an easy escape from reality does not make for wisdom or common sense.  When a farmer plants the wrong kind of seed in a given year, he or she has to face the consequences.  When a nurse gives the wrong injection, he or she has to face the consequences.  But when an intellectual writes a foolish article and 100,000 people lose their jobs as a consequence, they generally need not face the consequences.  Since word inflation is so easy, they or their colleagues, other loyal members of the intellectual tribe, write new exculpatory words for them.  Since intellectuals, so to speak, “live in a world of words” (this is most true in the humanities, less true in some of the social sciences, and least true in the experimental sciences and parts of economics), it is now very easy to make a lucrative career out of escaping reality.  Virtue, which, in the real world, is always a hard affair, requiring far more of courage than it does of mere intellect, becomes degraded into virtue-signaling, i.e., talking in the safe “politically correct” way mandated by the intellectual "in" crowd.

Since the intellectual’s skill consists chiefly in manipulating words, which can, when used properly, help to disclose reality, and since this same skill can also, when used improperly, be used to conceal reality, intellectual skills are the perfect instrument for self-deception. For the intellectual has all the instruments of self-deception that ordinary people do, but also has one more. Since they have studied the intellectual arts, they have more hypnotizing words with which to deceive themselves.  They are far better trained in the art of deception than Tolstoy’s simple honest people who work for a living.  The intellectual can, citing Euripides, Faulkner, and Rawls, prove, so to speak, that they are virtuous and wise. After all, they are so sophisticated that they have achieved such an elevated level of human excellence that they drive Teslas, eat artisanal ice cream, smoke weed, and do world-class shopping. 

Socrates: “[Isn’t it true that] those with the best natures become exceptionally bad when given bad instruction.” 

Adeimantus: “Yes, that’s true.”

Plato, Republic (491e)*

*This article is dedicated to the steelworkers, truckers, farmers, nurses, and other hard-working church-going “deplorables” and “irredeemables” who are the real moral backbone of America.

Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License

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