Book Summaries Philosophy

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity Summary (8/10)

This short book is a funny, clever, and simple description of the phenomenon of stupidity.

But it is not elitist or racist or sexist. Cipolla insists that no society, no matter how prosperous it is, has managed to escape the natural law that ensures the existence of stupid people. In fact, he goes a step further, and he insists that the proportion of stupidity is constant across occupations too. Even the most powerful in society can be stupid.

But this observation is tempered with the admission that there is a variation in the percentage of stupid people are allowed to be active within different societies (more prevalent in declining countries).

Cipolla divides people into four classes: intelligent, stupid, bandit, and helpless. And each class is defined by two variables: how much harm they incur to themselves and how much harm they incur to others. People who are stupid are those who harm others without any gain to themselves.

This simple definition, one has to assume, rests on an initial assumption: intelligence increases social wellbeing. Stupidity is what decreases social wellbeing.

Any behavior that results in a net negative to society is more stupid than smart so that a bandit’s behavior, while rational in the sense that they are incurring a personal gain, would be considered more or less stupid depending on the relative harm done to others that has been caused by personal gain.

There is the question of intentionality, which is not discussed much in the book, so it must be assumed that over a long enough time span, the net result of one’s behavior should be sufficient to classify them as either stupid or intelligent.

Thus, you can imagine a scientist who for decades does nothing but produce life-saving technologies, but in his most recent contribution (which earned him a slight bump in salary), he has caused the extinction of the human race.

This is someone, who despite his brilliance, would ultimately be considered stupid. The only way to accept this idea is to agree with the pragmatic philosophy of William James: what is true is what brings benefit, and what is false is what brings harm. Cipolla’s definition follows the same line of logic. What is intelligent, rational, good, is what creates a social surplus, and what is stupid, irrational, bad is what creates a social deficit, in terms of well-being.

Chapter 1: The First Basic Law – Summary

Chapter 2: The Second Basic Law – Summary

Chapter 3: A Technical Interlude – Summary

Chapter 4: The Third (And Golden) Basic Law – Summary

Chapter 5: Frequency Distribution – Summary

Chapter 6: Stupidity and Power – Summary

Chapter 7: The Power of Stupidity – Summary

Chapter 8:  The Fourth Basic Law – Summary

Chapter 9:  Macro Analysis and the Fifth Basic Law – Summary

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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