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09a. ‘Weak Minds’ Keynote lecture by Dr. Ken Levy
‘Weak Minds’ A keynote lecture by Dr. Ken Levy for the Extreme Beliefs and Responsibility workshop at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law at LSU Law School. He teaches four courses in criminal law and writes primarily in the areas of criminal law, criminal theory, constitutional law, and metaphysics.
ABSTRACT In this paper, I will consider a paradox. On the one hand, many right-wing extremists have some crazy beliefs—for example, wildly implausible conspiracy theories like birtherism and election denial. On the other hand, most of these right-wing extremists are not crazy—i.e., (severely) mentally ill. They are generally functional, sufficiently in touch with reality, self-supporting, and decent to their family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. How is this possible? What explains the disparity between right-wing extremists’ gullibility and their otherwise normal levels of intelligence, knowledge, and moral behavior?
I will argue that while three factors—religious indoctrination, political propaganda, and the deep-seated need for belonging—are an essential part of the solution to the “Crazy Paradox”, they are not the complete solution; all together, they still do not fully explain why otherwise rational people adopt such crazy beliefs. Plausible candidates for this missing factor include (in alphabetical order): economic anxiety, ethnocentrism, fear of the “other”, lack of intellectual curiosity, lack of intelligence, machismo, mental illness, peer pressure, racism, resentment (anti-elitism), a sense of powerlessness, strict upbringing, and tribalism. Still, while all of these contribute (in different measures) to right-wing extremism, they still do not add up to a complete explanation. The reason is that many others have been subject to most or all of the same influences and still do not share this worldview.
I propose that the missing factor, what most or all right-wing extremists share, is yet another deficiency that carries at least as much, if not more, explanatory power: weak minds. Weakness of mind makes right-wing extremists susceptible to some combination of the other deficiencies, but it is not on the same level. Weakness of mind underlies them all as cause to effect, as a disease to the symptoms. A close analogy to weakness of mind is weakness of will, which has intrigued philosophers all the way back to Plato. Like weakness of will, weakness of mind has significant explanatory power. Both help to explain in their own ways why sufficiently rational people do not always act rationally.