Luis Javier Salvador

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Survival of the smartest: Brains over brawn, why? (moral question)

Hello, fellow TED users,

First of all, I would like you to look upon this exposition more as a philosophical moral exercise than anything else. As you can expect, this is not in any shape or form a claim in favor of physical abuse or any other kind of abuse, for that matter.

We live in a society where people who take advantage of other people by means of their superior natural strength are rightly considered bullies (except in sports, of course). On the other hand, people who do the same by means of their innate intelligence are considered winners in virtually every possible circumstance. For instance, in the ruthless business world (among many others). Is it right to use this innate advantage to make mincemeat of less intelligent competitors, crush their hopes and destroy their lives? Why is this behavior not even frowned upon?

Some could say that in order to success in life or in business in particular, it's also required to work very hard, that a high IQ is simply not enough. Yet, a similar effort is made by the muscular guy in the gym. Consequently, level of effort doesn't seem to be the key to understand the difference in perceived morality.

Some others could say that strong people can success in sports and smart people in business and therefore, they should stick to what they excel in. Very well, but then we find that in every single sport or physical job, it's morally acceptable to use our intelligence to our advantage (even in weight-lifting, where a wise workout planning is vital), while in white-collar professions, it's unacceptable to use our physical strength to defeat our competition. So, appropriate field of work is not likely to be the key either.

(it continues in a separate new message at the bottom of the page)

  • Jan 25 2013: Salvador is right. Beat someone up and society puts you in jail. Trick someone into signing something they can't afford, society says you're an innovator. Society blames the victim and calls them irresponsible. Those who benefit from this state of affairs are those with the intelligence to direct the rhetoric to continue the victim blaming.
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    Jan 25 2013: your reasoning is based on a fallacy. you mixed two different concepts, one would be the physical / mental and the other is aggression / competition. in our society, bullying is indeed considered morally wrong. but nobody laments because security guards are often tall and muscular, or that tall people often has better chances to be leaders. of course, you hear people talking about it, but everyone understands that the difference is huge. we might not like the effect of being tall on the results of the elections, but it is not the same as beating the other candidate up.

    similarly, using brains to cheat or steal, to destroy or hinder another person is immoral. nobody thinks that stealing a password, or faking a contract is acceptable. but we accept that smarter people get the jobs that need brain. and we also, to some degree, accept that a smart man might get a job not because he is more able, but because smooth talk has its use. everyone understands that using charming intelligence to achieve things is not the same as hacking someone's computer.

    in short: as long as there is mutual consent, and there is no fraudulence, there are no moral implications. moral implications start to appear when there is aggression or violation of contract.
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      Jan 25 2013: I agree with much of what you say, but the point is the terms of the contract are mostly based on morality. Otherwise, we wouldn't think of beating competitors up as a bad thing. Today, there are many more instances where it seems acceptable to take advantage of intelligence (almost every single activity) than there are by means of strength. Which is a clear advantage for innate intelligent people over innate strong people. Survival of the smartest. And from an abstract moral standpoint, some could say it's not fair that the chances at birth of surviving and succeeding are not the same for everyone.

      But as I said throughout the course of this discussion, I don't think we can change that and probably shouldn't, of course.
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    Jan 25 2013: I feel it is simple and captured by the quote: " is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one that is the most responsive to change." Thebe Ikalafeng
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      Jan 25 2013: I like your vision on morality and agree that kindness should rank up there, but what I meant is that Intelligence ranks the highest in morality when it comes to competition in this ruthless world. Getting rid of competitors by means of intelligence is fine by most people, or at least, it is the approach that is least frowned upon.
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          Jan 25 2013: Thank you for that wonderful advice! I'll try to do that when possible :)

          Focusing on self-improvement is a sensible approach, as releases some of the pressure of catching up with others. Unfortunately, competition is ubiquitous in our society. For example, every time we get a job, someone else is rejected. Every time we occupy a parking space on a packed street, someone else won't. In general terms, every time we make money, someone around the globe loses it. We can't help getting caught up in competition, even if indirectly.

          But I guess we can reduce the exposure to it by following your advice.
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    Jan 24 2013: Another, more general way, of considering your question is whether it is acceptable to be yourself (with whatever strengths or weaknesses you may have) if that gives you an advantage in any respect over others. ANY difference between you and others could in theory help you do better than some other person. It could be any personal attribute.
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      Jan 25 2013: That's indeed another good way to see it.

      But the fact remains that intelligence enjoys a higher moral regard in our society than all other attributes. It seems as if when your get outsmarted, you don't have the right to complain (except when deceit is involved.)
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        Jan 25 2013: Do you really think intelligence enjoys a higher moral regard than all other attributes? I wouldn't think so.

        Is it what you value most in people, for example?
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          Jan 25 2013: Of course not. But that's not really what I meant. What I meant is that you can outsmart people and get away with it more easily than if you outmuscle them, for example. People would view you as a winner even if those poor people went bust because of you.

          You don't receive the same accolades either if you take advantage of your natural good looks, to give you another example.

          It seems as if intelligence ranks highest in the morality scale (when it comes to competition.)
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        Jan 25 2013: I really don't like the use of the word "intelligence"...........Lots of intelligent people would never outsmart others out of anything....

        Probably words like...."cunning, sly, savvy, shrewd, clever, astute etc....." would be, imho, better word choice.

        To bring in a quote: "Wise they are for doing bad, but for doing good they actually have no knowledge" book of Jeremiah chapter 4 verse 22.

        I believe wisdom, the highest form of intelligence (smartness), allows the bearer to live and enjoy life without competing or bringing harm to others. On the contrary......they help their fellow human.

        Having said that, I do agree that some employ their IQ.....for badness......I imagine these are the individuals you, and the whole world for that matter, refer to as "intelligent". Man that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
  • Jan 24 2013: Survival of the fittest, of the smartest... are all wrong. We all have a right to survive and to live as one humanity and human race. There have to be set rules to the extent to which we are greedy, willing to squeeze the extra profit out of anyone....
  • Jan 24 2013: I think you are looking at the situation in too narrow a context.

    The moral judgment should be put in the context of fairness and appropriate conduct.

    In fields where physical strength is part of the job, such as the military, firefighters and emergency medical staff, it is acceptable and even required for people to use their physical strength to gain advantage. People with inadequate physical strength are rejected. Maintaining physical fitness is required for promotion.

    In white collar jobs, physical strength has almost nothing to do with the job. It would be inappropriate to use physical strength to gain advantage, just as it would be inappropriate to use bribery or sexual favors.

    The other side of this, that it seems universally acceptable to use intelligence to gain advantage, does seem curious. One aspect of this is that it would be nearly impossible to prohibit this. Another is that we are constantly trying to improve everything we do, and that requires intelligence.

    Competition is a good method of improving the human condition. This has been demonstrated and accepted, and is probably unavoidable in any case. This does result in the less competent sometimes being crushed. But success depends on characteristics other than intelligence. Hard work, determination, creativity, a positive response to early failures, social skills. Your question could be applied to any of these.

    Why? Because that is the nature of competition.
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      Jan 25 2013: I agree with you on the fact that It would be inappropriate to use physical strength to gain advantage in white-collar jobs, that would be kind of absurd. Although, it's interesting to note that one of the reasons why we find that absurd is because we have a moral code that tells us what is right or wrong.

      But the truth is intelligence can be used to one's advantage in both physical and intellectual activities, whereas strength is reduced to a limited number of activities. As a result, strong people don't get the same opportunities to succeed in life as smart people do, which is, from a strictly moral standpoint, unfair. That's why I said "survival of the smartest", which is not to say that we can change it.

      Success depends on characteristics other than intelligence. I agree, however, you can actually train "hard work", "determination", "social skills", etc...but cannot change your innate intelligence. In my view, intelligence ranks up there when it comes to success by itself. So, brains over almost everything, not only brawn.

      But as you correctly said, there's no way to prohibit the use of intelligence and it wouldn't make much sense. However, that was not quite my point, rather the socially accepted abuse of less intelligent beings, even if we can't change it.
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    Jan 24 2013: (Part 2)

    In addition, taking advantage of one's strength does not necessarily imply physically hurting anybody. A puny little man can be immobilized and hindered from performing his duties without being physically hurt (of course, he would be in other ways). Besides, even if he is physically hurt, intelligent individuals can also cause harm to people in a similar degree. As a result, degree of harm doesn't appear to be the differentiating factor either.

    Indeed, there is no denying that the use of intelligence is instrumental in developing new technologies and medicines that will help us all move forward and prosper. After all, the cerebral cortex is what sets us apart from most of the species. But let us not forget that this discussion only concerns morals, not natural/artificial selection. The undeniable fact that, today, intelligence is of higher importance than strength should not in any way give us the moral right to abuse the less bright individuals.

    To conclude, from a moral standpoint, why does it seem socially acceptable to ruin other people's lives by way of our intelligence but not of our strength? (of course, neither should be considered acceptable.)