I recently said to a friend that a certain person, in my opinion, was dumb to the point of being disabled. “That’s OK,” my friend said, “some people are making their way in the world like that.” This statement is (of course) wonderfully wise and accepting. I felt an urge to argue with it though. On some affective, animal-level, I disagreed: no, I wanted to say, it’s not ok to be stupid.
Like my friend, I pride myself on being open to different ways of thinking. I don’t do this just to be nice, but because I believe, in a way which I can articulate and support, that cognitive diversity (and the acceptance thereof) is good for society. My gut reaction to my friend’s statement contradicts this. Let’s explore.
To start, I do think that it’s somewhat natural for one to favor one’s way of being over that of others. So in this regard it’s not strange that I, being an “intellectual,” value intellectual stuff like literacy, abstract thought and systematic reason. Correspondingly, I view those who lack these abilities as somehow lacking as people, sub-ideal.
This explanation doesn’t completely cover the situation though. I value lots of stuff. For example, a certain competency on the tennis court. I would never think though that it’s not ok not to be good at tennis. In other words, for me, intelligence is more connected to “being ok” than other competencies. Thinking about it further, there seems to be some moral resonance here. Being intelligent, in my mind, has become connected with being a good person.
Is this legitimate? Is there a connection between intelligence and morality? I recognize that these are two value-loaded, slippery-as-soap terms. To gain some purchase, I’ll put it more specifically: is there a connection between intelligence, however that may be defined by a specific group, and engaging in practices which are deemed “right” or “good” by that group? My hyper-accepting friend would likely say no, there is no connection. I’m not so sure though.
It seems that to do what ‘s right one must be able to put his actions in context. He must know how doing X will change the world, either for better or worse. This requires an understanding of cause and effect and the computing power to run through possible outcomes in your head (what we may deem “imagination”). Both these traits seem to be associated with intelligence as conventionally conceived.
Of course, one must also care about the changes his actions will engender. It’s not enough to know that X will hurt someone. You must also be willing to take that pain into account. This trait (what we may deem “empathy”) does not seem to be connected with intelligence. A person can be dumb as a post and really, really not what to hurt anyone. Or a genius and not care at all.
Morality has both an intellectual and emotional component. And these aren’t always in sync. For example, caring too much about one element in the moral equation can blind us to probability. Or being too systematic can make us cold to the reality of suffering.
So to draw a quasi-conclusion, it seems that it’s not just intelligence and empathy, but also a certain balance that’s key to making “right” or “moral” decisions. I don’t know if I was taking this into account when I challenged my friend’s assertion that it’s OK to be cognitively different. Certainly there’s no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and morality. If I was subconsciously making this assumption, I wasn’t being very smart. At the same time though, just the fact of this analysis shows how deeply, for me, the ability to theorize our experience is connected to what it means to be human.