Jeremy Stein - Journal

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Why is Intelligence a Virtue?

As a society, we care about culpability.  If a person has their first seizure while driving and injures a pedestrian, we feel badly for that driver.  If the same person had run down the pedestrian intentionally, we’d expect them to be severely punished.

We consider it to be wrong, even immoral, to credit or fault a person for involuntary attributes such as race, gender, disability or health.  What kind of a monster blames someone for getting cancer?  What kind of a chauvinist credits someone for being male?

We believe that people should be valued for their choices and their deliberately-acquired attributes, not the involuntary ones.  We applaud hard work and kindness.  We criticize smokers, criminals, and people who align with the wrong political ideology.  We agree that people can be praised or criticized for their deliberate attributes, not for involuntary ones.


There are some weird cases where we credit people for something completely involuntary.  The one I most notice is intelligence.  Level of intelligence is a given attribute of a person and there’s little one can do to increase it.  Yes, you can learn new things, but your ability to learn new things and the speed at which you apply that knowledge is due to your underlying intelligence.

Why do we so often commend people for being smart?  They had little to do with it.  Shouldn’t we be ashamed to mock someone for being stupid?  If they were truly bestowed with low intellect, we should treat them as handicapped and attempt to accommodate this disability.

Somehow intelligence perseveres in our collective consciousness as a virtue. It justifies the wealth of the successful intelligent businessman and mitigates the poor choices of the intelligent school bully.  We all want to think of ourselves as smart and we idolize those who have proven to be so.

Smart people have an advantage.  Much like being in a favored race or gender, being able-bodied, or being born into in a wealthy family, this advantage isn’t deserved.  Perhaps it’s time to stop giving smart people so much credit.

July 18, 2020 No Comments.

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