The Situationist

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I

Posted by Mahzarin Banaji on April 5, 2007

I have authored a preface for a book that is being edited by Eugene Borgida and fellow Situationist contributor Susan Fiske called Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in Court. For The Situationist, I am posting a two-part series derived from that preface.

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John ErskineJohn Erskine, founder of Columbia University’s core curriculum in the 1920s, wrote an essay with the title I admiringly filch [The same title was used for a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays, edited by Leon Wieseltier (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2000).] in which he poses this question:

“If a wise man would ask, what are the modern virtues? and should answer his own question … what virtues would he name? … When the wise man brings his list of our genuine admirations, will intelligence be one of them? We might seem to be well within the old ideal of modesty if we claimed the virtue of intelligence. But before we claim the virtue, are we convinced that it is a virtue?”

Throughout the essay, Erskine bemoans the English and American lack of faith in intelligence as a virtue, contrasting it with the special place accorded instead to goodness as a virtue. Although he sees some bucking of this trend (for example “we do not insist that the more saintly of two surgeons shall operate on us for appendicitis”), Erskine’s thesis remains that intelligence is not given its due in Anglo-Saxon tradition.

To be clear, neither Erskine nor I use the term intelligence to mean a general mental faculty — tapped by how fast I can type (I can type very fast) or whip through multipleRobert Sternberg and Howard Gardner 2 choice questions (we didn’t do multiple choice in India) – that 19th and many 20th century psychologists called intelligence. Instead, what I mean, with the benefit of the writings of Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner, and what Erskine meant even without, is a broad set of competencies, skills, and knowledge.

In the introduction to his collection entitled “American Character and Other Essays,” Erskine defends criticism leveled against the central thesis of the essay in question: “I still feel that the essay says clearly what I meant – that to be as intelligent as we can is a moral obligation – that intelligence is one of the talents for the use of which we shall be called to account – that if we haven’t exhausted every opportunity to know whether what we are doing is right, it will be no excuse for us to say that we meant well.” [emphasis mine]

Speaking to Phi Beta Kappa at Amherst College, he said that “to know is to achieve virtue . . . . Between this rising host that follow intelligence [speaking of immigrants], and the old camp that put their trust in a stout heart, a firm will, and a strong hand, the fight is on. Our college men will be in the thick of it. If they do not take sides, they will at least be battered in the scuffle. At this moment they are readily divided into those who wish to be men – whatever that means – and those who wish to be intelligent men, and those who unconscious of blasphemy or humor, prefer not to be intelligent, but to do the will of God.”

GraduationPerhaps more so than in Erskine’s time, today we recognize the importance of being intelligent rather than merely earnest. But I hazard that even today we still separate intelligence from goodness of heart; we not only assume the two to be divorced, we continue to place value on the latter. We expect our judges and jurors, lawyers and prosecutors, and other guardians of the law to strive to be good, to be as pure of heart as humanly possible. We don’t set the same standards of intelligence and competence, asking as intently: what do they know, and knowing what they know, are they fit to judge?

As a science of the mind has grown, any simple separation between intelligence and goodness has become untenable, as has the privileging of either. More so than ever, to be good requires intelligence about matters that our predecessors, even those here just yesterday, not only didn’t know but couldn’t know. So the standards are indeed higher of what it means for us to be intelligent, and one reason they are legitimately higher is the vibrant presence of the mind and behavioral sciences. At every turn, the data from these sciences teach us something about ourselves so new, or challenge a view of ourselves that is so appealing (and so wrong), that it isn’t possible — not unless one is despairingly lacking in curiosity (if not goodness itself!) — to ignore the evidence.

If a proper offering of justice is a public purpose, a justice system that isn’t constantlyPresident Lincoln Fairness striving and evolving in its use of new knowledge is in trouble. To avoid it, what can we know, to start with? Modern psychology provides at least two clear messages: our minds and behavior are fallible; our minds and behavior are malleable.

First the bad news. There are known and established limits on the human ability to introspect and know, limits on the ability to compute and assess, limits placed on us by the situations of our existence, by the experiences we have, by the fact that our brains and minds evolved in the ways in which they did. I have argued that the bounds on rationality, the very ones that keep us from being smart also keep us from being good. And to avoid the problem of having to define what is good, I’ve used as the gold standard each person’s own conscious report of their preferences, beliefs, and values. If obvious deviance from our own statements of what is good and virtuous is brought to light, we are faced with a question that should be a primary motivator in the law: what are we willing to do, given our drifting from our own goals of fair and just treatment?

Craig AndersonA striking example of “we are what we see” is Craig Anderson’s review of the effects of viewing aggression on producing aggression. The length and breadth of that work is a persuasive sampling of our bounded rationality – that we mimic even unwanted aspects of our environment because of the laws of learning, because the stuff is out there. We mimic it whether we intend to or not. Why is it that science has put all the nails in the coffin of this problem but nobody is willing to perform the last rites? Most likely, because the message from the evidence on the effects of viewing aggression runs up against the first amendment. But even somebody like myself, a first amendment fanatic, believes that nowhere is there better expertise than among the great legal minds of this country to work out the issues raised by this robust body of science. If hate speech is something we have attempted to tackle alongside the first amendment, why not this?

From study after study pointing to the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, in a thousand different ways, the pillar of 20th century social psychology was erected to show that good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people! If this insight alone could be incorporated into the way the law intuits about humans and their situations, we’ll have catapulted ourselves into a place radically different than the primitive assumptions that show up in our thinking about the few bad apples in Enron, the bad Americans of Abu Ghraib that we can’t seem to shake off.

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Part II of this post will discuss the “good news” associated with our moral obligation to be intelligent.


6 Responses to “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I”

  1. Excellent piece! I’m looking forward to the “good news”. Also, we now do multiple choice in India – we just make it really really hard and there are at least 5 choices. :)

  2. joefelso said

    Intelligence and goodness are slippery terms. If we support one over the other, or both together, it is according to a social definition of the terms. In our times, we apply both “good” and “intelligent” broadly, often as something people are rather than as descriptions of particular acts. Intelligence particularly is now roundly regarded as a thing–a possession that can be quantified and not an attribute of a particular act that may or may not be repeated in the next act. I value goodness and intelligence as aspirations–I try to act intelligently and behave in ways that might be described as good–but the traits themselves seem no more than a generalization based on a number of acts. The generalization doesn’t diminish the obligation to consider goodness and intelligence anew with each action. Though “the science of the mind” has diversified what we mean by intelligence, it also mythologizes and idolizes intelligence and has gone a long way toward privileging all its many forms. If intelligence and goodness are indeed inseparable, perhaps we should have the intelligence to recognize that good is not something we can be but something we can do.

  3. HMW said

    US military-intelligence propaganda agencies deploy behavioral science through media assets.

    Their goals are not the same as their target audiences and that manipulative advantage brings up issues of deception and democracy which are moral issues.

    And this is an important reason to be ‘intelligent,’ to not end up an expendable pawn in someone else’s game NOR allow your neighbor to be turned against you by professionals.

  4. […] The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I […]

  5. […] The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent revisited – Part I [The Situationist] – “First the bad news. There are known and established limits on the human ability to introspect and know… The bounds on rationality, the very ones that keep us from being smart, also keep us from being good.” […]

  6. […] perspective does not focus on intentions.  As Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji has argued, our moral obligation is more demanding than that:  “if we haven’t exhausted every […]

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