Evil or Stupid?

There is a bit of a double standard in sociology. People are conceived of as innately evil, but the presumption of malice over incompetence as an explanation of some poor result is considered erroneous.

As just one example of the presumption of immoral action, economic agents are considered to be fundamentally self-centered. The idea of empathetic utility, for example, is all but ignored. Rawls’ veil of ignorance is easily defeated by an argument from empathetic utility and market efficiency.

In this article I would like to suggest that the presumption of some malice is justified. Secondly, I would like to suggest that a presumption of malice can be a rational and generally useful action, even if it is erroneous in some particular case, or even if it is prone to systematic error, provided that error occurs at a sufficiently small rate.

Why would it would it be justified to assume malicious intent? I am aware of three systems of thought which justify the assumption of malicious intent. Importantly, all three of these systems of thought depend on the idea that an actor is neither purely malicious nor purely incompetent, but has some mix of both all the time.

First, it might be justified to assume malice even when it is an unlikely explanation as a defensive mechanism. It can be beneficial for risk-averse actors to assume the most dangerous possible explanation because if the actor is able to cope with this explanation then the actor can ostensibly cope with any explanation. For example, I like to say that I try to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Secondly, it might be justified to assume malice is usually the dominant factor unless there is reason to think otherwise. If a person holds malicious dominance as their null hypothesis then and there is not information provided to reject the null hypothesis then the assertion thereof is justified, as long as the origination of the null hypothesis is also justified. The null hypothesis of malicious dominance could be rationally established from personal experience, from beliefs due to education, religion, or other reasons, or ostensibly even from actual data, although I can’t find any such data.
The third reason malice might be justified is potentially the most obvious reason but it is also potentially the weakest form of justification, bordering on something more like an  unjustified rational action rather than something which is actually justified. This would be the case when an individual has information they perceive to signal malice or competence. The trouble comes in because their perception of the signal may be false, but it also may not be false.

  • 1

Leave a Comment