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Moral Intelligence

© Vincent di Norcia 2003

Moral Intelligence reflects the fact that we aren't born moral (or immoral), and that we have to learn how to be good. Learning to be good people involves communication, feedback, socialization, and education. And it never ends. For no one has learned to do everything right all the time. None of us is perfect.

Too often, I fear, we think of ethical choices and behaviour in terms only of good intentions or sincere motives. But good will isn't good enough. It all too frequently ends us up in the wrong place. The gap between the final result and original intent is often vast. Aiming to do the right thing is no excuse for doing the stupid thing. Free will is no excuse for bad choices. What we need is an intelligent approach to doing the right thing. That is what moral intelligence is all about.

Moral Intelligence measures our motives and methods by their results. Humans are smart animals. We accept feedback. We can learn to close the gap between the good we intended and the good we achieved. Morally, we need to learn to act intelligently, and to attain the best achievable level of good practice, as in every other part of life. We have to access the best available information, minimize the risks, and optimize the benefits for all involved. That is what moral intelligence is like in action.

The best is not the perfect. The good, often limited and inadequate, is often the best we can do in the situation. Limited resources and constraining circumstances may mean we have to 'satisfice', and accept an outcome that falls far short of our ideal. Doing the good thing is better than trying to be perfect and failing. Aiming for All or Nothing, usually means getting nothing at all. Doing some good is better than nothing.
Moral Intelligence suggests that we should care for a few Core Ethical Values, learn to solve Social Problems, be guided by Intelligent Practice Maxims, and Avoid Common Pitfalls. Each of these notions is explained below.

Core Ethical Values
Moral Intelligence means, Caring for
  • Life, Human and Natural

  • Wellbeing, Social and Economic, Respecting Property

  • Open and Honest Communication

  • Basic Civil Rights

Every core value represents positive reciprocity, a form of mutually beneficial social interaction, or exchanges. If everyone benefits, to a mutually satisfactory degree it is better than if only a few benefit, or if some are seriously harmed. Win / Win or Benefit / Benefit relationships are better than Win / Lose, Benefit / Harm relationships. And they are positive reinforcers too. Ethics, that is, is good for you; that's why we usually prefer, and even enjoy, mutually beneficial activities.

The Core Values also have a Negative side, like some very old rules:
  • Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal, Do Not Lie,

And one modern rule:
  • Do Not Violate People's Basic Democratic and Social Rights

This is a minimal list, of core values. It is a starting point, not the finish line. Add and improve, as you feel the need.

Intelligent Practice Maxims
Several practical maxims can help guide our Moral Intelligence as we try to show our Care for the Core Ethical Values listed above. These are dynamic practical notions. They involve us in complex interactive social relationships, and changing, diverse circumstances. Uncertainty, limited time and resources tend to be the norm. Discerning and assessing the right options are not easy or automatic. Given all these limitations we need to act intelligently, as well as from sound moral values, like the core values in the core ethic. We also need practical guidance on how to navigate such complex environments. That is why I have suggested a few practical maxims. The main practical maxims I suggest are these five:
  • First Do No Harm (that is, Minimize the Risks)

  • Solve The Problem (see Section 2)

  • Make an Informed Choice

  • Seek the Common Good of affected Stakeholders as a Whole over time

  • Act, Observe, & Improve (Moral Intelligence means we're always learning)

Intelligent Ethical and Social Problem Solving
[This is only an outline of a flexible problem solving approach. It is not a fixed sequence. Feel free. Be smart. Start anywhere and move in any direction, as the need requires.]
  1. Identify the Main Ethical / Social Problems
    • Articulate the Core Values involved

    • Access the Best available information, expertise

    • Identify Affected Stakeholders and Discuss the Problem with them 

  2. Search for Good Solutions
    • Involve Stakeholders in a Constructive Solution Search

    • Stress Agreement / Minimize Differences

    • Canvass all available options

    • Foresee Outcomes & Risks

  3. Decide, Act, Learn
    • Choose the best achievable solution from a range of satisfactory solutions

    • Monitor outcomes

    • Learn from mistakes and Improve

Avoid Common Pitfalls
Ethics is a sensitive and complex matter. It demands extensive, sophisticated social and practical intelligence. But it is all too often encumbered by confused assumptions, impossible ideals, and misleading myths, such as...
  • The Tendency to prefer the Perfect over the Good, to confuse doing the best you can, with trying to become a Saint.

  • The Calvinist 'If it is Hard It is Good' Myth. On the contrary, since core ethical values smooth social life and facilitate mutually pleasant social relations. If most people like to do it, my guess is, it's OK to do it.

  • A Tendency to focus on a few mistakes and faults, and miss the fact that most of our choices and conduct are morally satisfactory.

  • The tendency to speak of 'moral dilemmas' instead of moral problems. A solvable problem, however challenging, is not a dilemma. Dilemmas denote only unsolvable, 'between a rock and hard place' quandaries.

  • The assumptions that morality is merely a private, personal or religious matter, and moral choices are merely subjective and relative. But Core Ethical Values are in fact fundamental, shared values. They make social life possible, and indeed enjoyable.

  • Treating organizational roles and procedures as morally neutral, and contrasting ethics with economic values. But what benefits everyone involved economically, or in the organization, is by that very token, morally satisfactory.

  • Treating technical excellence as morally neutral. But to design and create an efficient car, plane, computer, drug, food, that benefits people and has next to no social or environmental risks, is a morally laudable thing to do

  • Confusing morality and the law. The law is no more, or less, moral than any other part of life. Legal compliance is a legal matter. Whether it reflects a moral obligation is an independent, ethical question, to which the answer is not always obvious.

The Intelligent SEER Maxim
Intelligent, Responsible Decision-Makers should act so as to best show their Care for the Social, Economic and Environmental Rights and Interests of Stakeholders.

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For more information please contact me at the address below.
Vincent Di Norcia
294 Cundles Rd West
Barrie, Ontario, Canada L4N 7C9
Phone: (705) 725-1280

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