Boaz on the virtue of the judgment of the masses

The New England Review makes an old essay by Franz Boas, “The Mental Attitude of the Educated Classes“, available online.

When we attempt to form our opinions in an intelligent manner, we are inclined to accept the judgment of those who by their education and occupation are compelled to deal with the questions at issue. We assume that their views must be rational, and based on intelligent understanding of the problems. The foundation of this belief is the tacit assumption not only that they have special knowledge but also that they are free to form perfectly rational opinions. However, it is easy to see there is no type of society in existence in which such freedom exists.

I believe I can make my point clearest by giving an example taken from the life of a people whose cultural conditions are very simple. I will choose for this purpose the Eskimo. In their social life they are exceedingly individualistic. The social group has so little cohesion that we have hardly the right to speak of tribes. A number of families come together and live in the same village, but there is nothing to prevent any one of them from living and settling at another place with other families. In fact during a period of a lifetime the families constituting an Eskimo village community are constantly shifting about; and while they generally return after many years to the place where their relatives live, the family may have belonged to a great many different communities. There is no authority vested in any individual, no chieftancy, and no method by which orders, if they were given, could be carried out. In short, so far as law is concerned, we have a condition of almost absolute anarchy. We might therefore say that every single person is entirely free, within the limits of his own mental ability, to determine his own mode of life and his own mode of thinking. Nevertheless it is easily seen that there are innumerable restrictions that determine his behavior.