Philosophy  •  December 16, 2007   

Moral Dilemma of Intelligence

In my younger days, I simply assumed that other people were as intelligent as I was. I had no reason to believe otherwise. Nobody told me that my intelligence was superior to theirs. (Do I sound full of myself? Bear with me for now.) Compare this with someone who is physically superior. Most professional boxers, for instance, have a reasonable understanding of their superiority. This understanding is crucial in using their physical strength appropriately. If they did not understand their superiority, they could get into all sorts of trouble, but this does not hold true for intelligence. Why? Shouldn’t those with high IQs recognize their own intelligence and learn to use it appropriately in our society too?

What complicates this question is the fact that intelligence is arguably the most desired human trait in today’s world, and this makes the topic highly contentious. For instance, any suggestion that one race might have a higher average IQ would provoke a tidal wave of anger, even though racial superiority in athletic ability is openly celebrated. We can easily admit that someone is physically stronger. If we happen to be physically stronger, we can say so without sounding conceited. Unfortunately, this is not true with intelligence because we are all sensitive about it. Even if we were forced to admit our intellectual inferiority, as a defense mechanism, we would still claim different ways in which we are more intelligent.

What happens when you don’t recognize your own intelligence? You end up behaving like a professional boxer who does not recognize his physical superiority; you would be surrounded by people who are bruised and furious. When I was younger, that is how I behaved. I frequently tried to prove my intelligence, because I wasn’t sure. My insecurity about my intelligence manifested as bragging or boasting. If I had already known that I was indeed intelligent, I would not have behaved this way. Naturally, I was not popular. I was lonely and struggled to figure out why. There are serious consequences if you don’t realize and accept your superior intelligence. In my late 30s, I began to realize that my intelligence was superior to many people around me. They were getting bruised by me, but nobody was complaining. They silently stayed away from me, or they kept a safe distance, which lead to my loneliness.

At the societal level, we can see this reflected in the correlation between income and IQ; people with higher IQs earn more money than those with lower IQs. I would consider this a form of bullying. When someone with a higher IQ does business with someone with a lower IQ, it is more likely that the deal would result in favor of the former. People with higher IQs live more comfortable and enjoyable lives, while those with lower IQs tend to struggle financially. It’s no different from a society of gorillas where the physically strongest thrive while the weaker ones perish. We humans see gorillas as uncivilized, and developed laws that prevent people from exploiting their physical strengths. It’s perfectly legal to fight in court and force someone to pay up millions of dollars, but it’s not legal to punch someone in the face. This is because we assume everyone has a fair chance of winning if we fight with our intelligence.

If fairness and equality are virtues we strive for, we should prevent those with high IQs from taking full advantage of their intelligence. This is the opposite of Social Darwinism. In order to accelerate the evolution of human species, Social Darwinism favors those with superior genes. I am proposing that we do the opposite by helping the genetically disadvantaged. Since this is exactly what our current society does with respect to physical strength, it is only fair that we do the same with intelligence.

People like Mike Tyson are not allowed to pummel others with their physical strengths (except on the boxing ring). Our laws prohibit them from settling disputes with punches. Yet, those with higher IQs could unleash their power without reservation to crush others with lower IQs. Our society sees this as fair by assuming that we all have the equal capacity to be intelligent.

The same logic applies to other inherited traits too. Our laws prevent beautiful people from taking full advantage of their looks. Employment laws, for instance, prohibit employers from hiring people based on their looks (although there are a few exceptions like fashion models). The whole idea of “equal-opportunity” employment is to make the employment game presumably fair by evaluating people on the characteristics that can be learned and/or acquired by effort, not on those given genetically by luck. But intelligence too is a trait we inherit by luck. It is not fair that those with high IQs are not prevented from exploiting their luck.

However, I do realize that it’s practically impossible to have a law that prevents people from taking advantage of their intelligence. If we were to accept that intelligence is unfairly distributed, resolving conflicts through debates would be uncivilized. A fight between heavyweight and lightweight boxers is considered uncivilized in our culture, yet, in many logical arguments (our primary method of conflict resolution), that is precisely what happens. Using standardized tests for school admissions should be seen as uncivilized too. It would be like the tallest students getting the first dibs on the best schools. In this way, every social system would have to be reevaluated for its fairness. It would be quite chaotic. To avoid this chaos, our society will refuse to acknowledge the unfairness of intelligence. That is, equality of intelligence is a necessary myth for the stability of our society. Meanwhile, those with low IQs are bullied every day.

For the record, my IQ isn’t that high. The last test I took indicated that it is around 135, which means there are plenty of people who are more intelligent than I am. But even 135 is enough to bruise many people around me, which puts me in a double-bind: I am screwed if I accept that I have superior intelligence (I would be seen as conceited), and I am screwed if I don’t accept it and bruise everyone around me. Going easy on someone is a form of condescension that I could not accept without acknowledging my superiority. If I see everyone else as my equal, I should not hold back my intelligence in any negotiations or arguments.

If someone admitted to me, “I’m not as intelligent as you are, so I cannot win an argument with you,” my moral dilemma would be resolved, but not many people would. In contrast, many would acknowledge their physical inferiority if they stood in front of Mike Tyson. Regardless of the IQs, we are all conspiring to deny our innate differences in intelligence. If someone half your size insisted on fighting with you, what is the right thing to do? If you want to be honest and respectful, you should fight with everything you’ve got. But in a world where nobody can admit their physical inferiority, you would annihilate everyone weaker than you.

Noam Chomsky makes a public spectacle out of this. Some of his opponents call it “intellectual intimidation,” but they are not willing to admit their intellectual inferiority; so they get bruised by Chomsky. Those who are too humble to see themselves as more intelligent would bruise everyone around them as Chomsky does, whereas those who see themselves as smarter would be more careful about how they use their intelligence. Who is more conceited?

A similar paradox also exists in feminism. Feminists’ ultimate goal is equality, not a reversal of the power dynamics, which means conservative men who hold doors for women are anti-feminist. The men who support feminism should not hold doors for women, offer better seats at restaurants, or pay for women on dates, but in reality, these men are unpopular. Those who are well-liked and respected in our society privately accept their superiority. In other words, don’t ask, don’t tell. Women don’t want to ask how their men truly perceive them, because it would ruin all the romantic gestures and lavish gifts. Men don’t want to reveal how they truly perceive their women either because they enjoy feeling superior.

If you want to be respected as an intelligent person, you need to recognize your intellectual superiority but don’t tell anyone how you see yourself and others. Go easy on inferior people, but don’t let them know it. As condescending as this may sound, this is how most people want to be treated (but not be informed of how you perceive them).

I try to avoid arguments these days, but they are unavoidable in many situations, like in business, politics, and even love relationships. The question still remains in my head: When does our use of intelligence become abusive? I still don’t have a good answer to this.