Intellect versus Morality

Tuesday, February 26, 2008
When I was a younger woman, I was incredibly impressed with intellect. Not with education, which I considered a separate accomplishment, but with the raw gift of intelligence and all its applications.

In those days, I would forgive a myriad of sins if the perpetrator was smart. Arrogant? Unkind? Insincere? It's all good, as long as you've got it going on between your ears.

This tendency led to some really, really poor choices in terms of my interpersonal relationships, both platonically and romantically.

Thank goodness for the ability to learn, even though it took longer than it should of.

I have learned that being smart isn't everything. There are other qualities that matter more. Honesty. Kindness. Faithfulness. Morality.

The root of my learning is that people should be given credit for things they have control over. If you're an intelligent human being, your natural gifts are not to your credit - you received them by virtue of your ancestry and the roll of the genetic dice. It's not like you get to choose. So while you're a lucky, lucky person if you've got the genetic gift of intelligence, please recognize that the native ability is just that - luck.

What you do with your gifts is another issue. And it's the heart of the matter.

If you use your gifts to make the world a better place by helping others, being a contributing member of society, and displaying a generosity of spirit, then you're deserving of admiration and respect, regardless of your native intelligence.

If you use your gifts to enhance only your own situation, taking advantage of others and lining your own pocket, then you're a hideous arse-candle, deserving of of contempt, regardless of your native intelligence.

The older I get, the more value I place on the things people have control over - whether or not you're kind, whether or not you have a generosity of spirit, whether or not you're a good friend and neighbor. While I still enjoy intellectual stimulation, and enjoy being around intelligent people, I'm pickier now. You can be the smartest person on the planet, but that doesn't forgive your bad behavior. If you're a hideous arse-candle, then I don't want to be around you.

But if you're kind, generous, moral, then you're welcome in my life. Because that's what matters.

26 comments:

Michelle K said...

The older I get, the more value I place on the things people have control over - whether or not you're kind, whether or not you have a generosity of spirit, whether or not you're a good friend and neighbor.

That's actually my rule for whether something is mean or funny. If you have control over something (dying one's hair, joining a sorority, driving a BMW) it's amusing to make fun of it.

If you can't control something (gender, race, nationality) it's not amusing to make fun of it.

With the caveat that someone that has a trait can make fun of it.

So that's pretty much my meanness test. Pass it, you're okay in my book.

I wonder if there is a correlation between education and intellect and jerkishness? i.e. if you've got brains but not the education, you probably won't be a jerk. I know a lot of people who are very smart, but not necessarily well educated and definitely not well employed, and they're all salt of the earth types. But med students and some doctors? For the most part I'd just as soon kick 'em in the teeth as talk to 'em.

Shawn Powers said...

Yes, I know many, many intelligent idiots. And I don't mean in the cute, innocent, naive way -- but rather arse candles that should know better (and probably do) but are still idjits.

Yes, I agree with you 100%.

Janiece Murphy said...

Michelle, I like your yardstick for meanness. I think I'll apply it for a bit to see what kind of results I get.

I'm reminded of something I read once - "if he's nice to you, but mean to the waiter, he's mean."

vince said...

Another great post.

Michelle, I'd agree that education often breeds arrogance. However, I also have no use for people who spout off on things about which they could and should have educated themselves about, but have chosen not to. Willfully ignorant people are not allowed in my orbit. But neither are intelligent ass-candles (gee Janiece, you've sure broadened my language skills).

I have to admit when younger I was arrogant about being reasonably smart. I was the kid who read the books at the beginning of the year, then never cracked them again and got A's and B's in class. I'd help classmates who had problems, but I had this attitude of "gee, why are you so stupid that you don't get this?"

Then I took German in high school. And learned that I SUCKED at foriegn languages. I wanted to quit. My mom, God bless her, wouldn't let me. So I got myself thrown out of the class. Oops. Bad mistake. My mom informed me I was going to apologize and get my ass back in class because a) I needed to learn how to deal with things in life that were hard, and b) maybe my struggles with German would teach me to have more compassion and respect for those who found learning a challege.

She was right, and I learned.

Janiece Murphy said...

Vince, your mom sounds like my kind of folks. At least now that I'm older and wiser.

When I was young and stupid (and arrogant about how "smart" I was, same as you), I'm sure I would not have seen the value in learning humility.

Michelle K said...

Janiece,

I live by that mantra, only apply it broader. i.e. don't trust anyone who is mean to waiters or custodians or secretaries...

Carol Elaine said...

You hit it on the head, Janiece.

I love intelligent men. Just love them to pieces. Cute geeks and nerds rev my engine and always have.

But in my book, if someone is brain-smart but is a hideous arse-candle? That makes him/her D-U-M-B. Because truly intelligent people realize that being good to others is worth more than being brain-smart.

Jim Wright said...

Yeah, what carol said. I've met plenty of dumbasses - and just as many smart assholes.

You don't have to be a jerk to be an intellectual, that's just dumb.

OK, I'm done now.

Janiece Murphy said...

Dumb-Ass is a term that should defined. And it doesn't refer to your intelligence. At least not here.

Nathan said...

I offer the waiter my seat, ask him if he'd like a glass of water and I massage his feet while waiting for his order to be ready. I pay for his meal and then tip twice the cost of the bill.

I regularly take the mop away from the janitor and tell him to go catch up on his Soap Operas while I tidy up.

I wait in the street for the Garbageman to show up and I always give him cookies.

I can't get today's pictures photoshopped to save my freakin' life.

I am a Cherub.

Janiece Murphy said...

Nathan, I find I'm skeptical.

PixelFish said...

I had that same tendancy too for a while. I think it comes from being a smart-ass kid. You tend to put value on intelligence because that's how other people tend to phrase their valuations of you.

(BTW, I read an article about a study recently where they determined that children did better after they were praised for effort, as opposed to praised for the achievement or praised for the smarts it took. I wish that study had come out when I was a kid, because I think that might have helped a great deal. As long as I could coast on what I had, I didn't mind, so long as people thought me smart.)

To quote one of my favourite movies:

"Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me."

Janiece Murphy said...

Pixel, you make a good point. Being bright was placed at a premium in the household I grew up in, too.

John the Scientist said...

Me too, becuase education was the way my mom got off the farm. She didn't forget where she came from, though. And neither have I.

But the overempahsis on brains in most spheres of my life from my mom led me to look for brains before personality in my early datign life, and that led to a very painful experience.

Heh. Anne might know the party involved. Or at least have been taught by her mother. It is indeed a small world. ;-)

Michelle K said...

Growing up my mom gave me a difficult time if she didn't think I was "living up to my potential" however, my brother was good when he made an effort.

Add to that the fact that I was a geeky unattractive kid in the gifted program (i.e. the special class that lets other students know whom to bully) and I learned right quick that nice is a whole lot better than smart.

Not that I'm opposed to smart, but I never saw it as much of an advantage.

(and that ends this TMI about Michelle portion of your commenting!)

Cindi in CO said...

My parents considered a C to be a failing grade because, "You are not average."

I was regarded as a freak my a majority of my peers, and by Jr. High I had pretty much decided that if I ever wanted to have a boyfriend, or even more than one friend, I would have to dumb it down. A lot.

Because at my school, it was okay to be smart if you were also pretty, but if you were akward and different, then you were a dog who didn't deserve basic human kindness.

And so concludes my portion of TMI for your comments.

Michelle K said...

cindy,

At least you figured that part out! (laugh) I just kept plowing ahead doing things like taking Calculus and advanced chemistry as a junior, so there was no saving me at all!

Of course, I had a graduating class of 42, so it's not like people were going to forget who I was or anything...

Michelle K said...

Just to make it clear, I totally do NOT regret the fact that I enjoy learning for the sake of learning, but if I'd been able to fake normal, it would have made my teen years a lot less unpleasant.

Cindi in CO said...

Michelle,

Also to clarify, I never really made it to "normal". Because by that time, I had a few anger issues, so I went with "bad-ass loser".

In the long run, I imagine that your way was better. :)

Janiece Murphy said...

Cindi, yeah, I'm thinking that pursuing education in lieu of the self-desructive behavior we engaged in was probably the "smarter" choice.

But because Dad was arrogant about being intelligent, he (inadvertantly - or perhaps purposefully) attempted to pass that on to us.

You got angry and self-destructed, I bought it and emotionally self-destructed. At least until I became my own person...

Just jumping on the ole TMI Bandwagon!

Michelle K said...

cindy,

I wouldn't count on it. ;)

My college years (all six of 'em!) we're not the healthiest time in my life. (Let's just saw I discovered punk in college, and much that went with it.)

Funny thing is that despite everything, I still managed to get decent grades in college--and I took a LOT of interesting classes (hence the 6 year program. Apparently Greek & Roman mythology and Journal Writing didn't count towards either a sociology degree OR a biology degree! Imagine that!)

But--and this is important--I wouldn't give up those years for anything. As horrible as they may have been, they made me who I am today, and taught me patience and understanding and kindness--traits that I might not have learned otherwise. And I certainly wouldn't be where I am today, and I wouldn't give up my life now for the successes my mom thinks I should have worked for.

So as hard as it was at the time, the end result was worth it.

Cindi in CO said...

"So as hard as it was at the time, the end result was worth it."

Michelle, I agree. I'm okay with who I am, and without those difficult years, I'd be someone else entirely. (oh, eloquent, that)

I think the most important thing I learned during my rebel, homeless wild-child years was that you cannot judge a book by it's cover. People have circumstances and situations you know nothing about, so don't jump to conclusions about them or their lives.

Michelle K said...

cindy,

Couldn't have said it better. :)

Jeri said...

My family too trained me to be arrogant about intelligence. And like Cindi, my folks read me the riot act when I got a C, considering it failure. "You are not average, average is failure".

In HS I was not popular, but in college I did ok.

The Internet is sort of a "Revenge of the Nerds" writ large - because attractiveness online has to do with not only the basic qualities Janiece mentioned, but also literacy, humor, writing skills, technical know-how, etc.

MWT said...

Heh, and then there was the double whammy of not being allowed to complain about it amongst your friends, because "WTF are you whining about? You've got a C!"

anissa_roy said...

I know I'm jumping in three years after the fact, but this is one of those topics I can't walk away from without putting in my two cents (or more likely, my buck-fifty).

I was a smart kid whose parents were disappointed when she made B's because A's were expected. I had almost zero socialization with other kids until I hit school, and then I regarded them as a strange foreign species. They felt the same about me because I preferred and sought out the company of adults.

Books and learning made school bearable for me, and I was fairly arrogant about my intelligence. Fortunately I had a VERY down-to-earth gifted teacher, brilliant and funny and completely unimpressed by the enormous IQ's of her students. Effort, sincerity, and morality impressed her. I finally made friends my own age in her class, and she encouraged me to go to the arts magnet school that changed my life.

I had two choices of high school: the fancy college prep school, and the arts school. I thank the gods I chose arts school. Intelligence was a convenient thing to have there, but what gained prestige was artistic ability, and that was something that was not effortless - it took actual WORK to accomplish. You have write poorly - or at least mediocrely - for a while before you can write well. And then after writing well for several years, you begin to write very well, and look back on your work of even 2 years ago and say, "What the hell was I thinking?!?" The desire to create art may be a gift, but the actual making thereof is a process that never, ever ends. No artist I know has ever achieved 100% perfect representation of what they envisioned. The best ones learn how to accept 'damn close' and be proud of it. Learning that was humbling for me.

That experience means a lot to me, as you've guessed. There's also the fact of my girlfriend of the past 11 years. She used to be intimidated by my intellect - being of about average intelligence, by my reckoning, and it didn't help that she's a kinesthetic learner in a school system relying on written and audio instruction. Only once we lived together did she fully understand that I'm not "better" than her because I'm smarter. It's occasionally a hindrance, because I get frustrated easily when I can make the leap from point A to point E instantly, but I can't verbalize how to go through B, C, and D on the way in a manner that lets others join me.

She is the kind of person I would have once dismissed as not smart enough for me. But the only real difference in my experience is that her 'processor speed' is a little slower than mine. She experiences the world much more deeply and emotionally than I do, and she connects me to things I'd miss with my head in the clouds. So loving her has been an important lesson in the "smarts ain't everything" class.

I value intelligence a lot less now, knowing it's an accident of birth, than I did when I was little and thought it made me The Shit. Like you, I've come to value other traits that tell you more about who a person is than their IQ score.