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Why Is It Okay to Be Ugly, But Not Stupid?

posted 2010 by Peter Wastholm

Wisdom and beauty form a very rare combination. -- Petronius Arbiter

In Western society, we generally don't find it acceptable to criticize people for being ugly. Typically, the stated reason for this is that a person can't help the way he or she looks. At the same time, however, most people don't even flinch when someone complains about another person being stupid. This is interesting, since arguably both physical attractiveness and intellectual capacity (and their respective opposites) are largely innate qualities, dealt out at birth in some grand cosmic lottery. Fundamentally, a person can't help being stupid any more than he or she can help being ugly. Actually, even less.

Beauty may be highly subjective -- or "in the eye of the beholder," as the saying goes -- but, for a given culture and a given time period, certain physical traits will be generally accepted as attractive, and others as less so. There are even some physical qualities that are considered beautiful regardless of culture, like youthfulness and symmetry. Therefore, a person has a reasonable chance to assess his or her level of physical attractiveness, and thereby establish a "baseline" from which to improve (by, for example, gaining or losing weight, applying more or less makeup, or even subjecting to medical procedures). With intelligence, establishing such a baseline is much more difficult.

The reason for this is that intelligence is like a race in which all participants are running backwards: everyone can see how much further along they are than the ones behind them, but no one has a clear view of how many are ahead of them, or of how far they are from the finish line. It's entirely possible for every single runner in the race to believe that he or she is in the lead, or at least up there with the very best, and that he or she is considerably closer to the end than to the beginning. In fact, it's very likely that most runners believe this: it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Intelligence and knowledge are similar in this respect. No matter how much or how little I know about a particular subject, I'm likely to underestimate how much I don't know. To someone else, though, who happens to know something that I don't know I don't know, I exhibit a glaring lack of knowledge.

So, what am I saying here? That we can't change how intelligent we are, so we might as well give up? -- No, but I am saying that even understanding that we're not as intelligent as we think we are is pretty difficult, so perhaps we should cut others and ourselves some slack. Perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to judge those who struggle to grasp abstract concepts that we ourselves find natural. Perhaps we should try to remember from time to time that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that it's therefore quite likely that, in some other area, we are the stupid ones.

Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. -- Will Rogers


CommentInteresting Thought  ·  posted Jan '20 by smdc

I've often thought about the objectiveness of personal beauty but rarely have I thought about the inner objectivity of stupidity. I feel stupidity shouldn't be used as a universal blanket. I could be "stupid" in automotive repair, but I could also be "smart" on costume construction. The mind and the body are subjective subjects.
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