(1) A public good. The intelligence of at least some people is a vital public good which we cannot do without if there is to be a future for the rest of us. The view of intelligence as a private perk is a measure of failure to recognise society as a connected system, which relies on individual talent as a collective asset. In the market economy, attitudes to intelligence are ambivalent, and mixed in with them is unease about it—as an embarrassment; proof of how far we still fall short of equality of opportunity to fuck up.

(2) A public bad. The presumption is: I am intelligent, therefore I am right. Reliance on intelligence as reassurance of being right is a critical source of error and failed arguments. It is also a licence to work to a different ethical standard from those of lesser intelligence. The psychologist Carol Dweck describes studies of students who have been explicitly congratulated on their intelligence, compared with students in the same circumstances who have been explicitly congratulated on their hard work: students who are told that their success is a reward for their intelligence show an increased tendency to rely on intelligence alone to get them by, without having to make any serious attempt to get to grips with the substance of an argument. They are less motivated to make an effort in subsequent tasks; if they are seriously challenged by a task, they become disheartened (disillusioned about their intelligence), being paralysed by doubts about it, rather than being stimulated to application, and less able to see tasks as enjoyable. They feel the need to convince others of their ability and, in order to do this, they may lie (for instance, about their exam grades).I52

And, all too easily, intelligence can be switched off—by, for instance, an instrumental view of intelligence as a way of bluffing one’s way through to performance goals such as grades, targets and qualifications. Dweck describes a comparison in which two sets of students were asked to carry out the same task of learning scientific principles, but given different reasons for doing so. One of the groups was given a performance goal (their ability would be evaluated by how they performed); the other was given a learning goal (the task would offer them the opportunity to learn some valuable things). After both groups had learned the material equally well, they were given a new set of problems, related to what they had learned, but requiring some serious new thinking:

What happened next was very interesting. Many of the students with performance goals showed a clear helpless pattern in response to difficulty. A number of them condemned their ability, and their problem-solving deteriorated.

In sharp contrast, most of the students with learning goals showed a clear mastery-oriented pattern. In the face of failure, they did not worry about their intellect, they remained focused on the task, and they maintained their effective problem-solving strategies.I53

Intelligence is an instrument, and it is therefore value-neutral: its value depends on what you use it for. A person suffering from paranoid delusions—or simply mistaken—can reinforce the error by the application of intelligence. A regrettable and ill-fated scheme for world domination can be made plausible and even temporarily successful by intelligence. If you are going in the wrong direction, intelligence, like technology and an effective bureaucracy, can enable you to go in that direction faster and more effectively. Intelligence is not sufficient to be a net asset, and if it is developed out of context, it is a regrettable handicap. What matters is the judgment on which it is based. And judgment is the accomplishment of the whole person—mind, spirit and all.

And intelligence may be a source of insecurity: am I really as intelligent as I was yesterday? It cannot be confirmed by looking in the mirror, but temporary reassurance can be derived from intense discussion whose aim is to participate in the game of being intelligent—of being more-intelligent-than-thou. Agreement is avoided, because the argument itself is your best chance of displaying your intelligence in its full glory. Intelligent debate, and the status and self-respect of being thought to be smart, fall greedily on what is left of our environmental capital. When Death comes to Earthlings, he will find them being intelligent.


Related entries:

Narcissism, Charisma, Pharisee, Humility, Local Wisdom.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: