Intelligence and Conscientiousness

Another interesting editorial from Bruce Charlton, Reliable but dumb or smart but slapdash? Comparing and contrasting g and C as measurable, inheritable traits. Both intelligence and conscientiousness are associated with more success in life, generally considered, and are independent of one another in the statistical sense.

Charlton has an interesting statement in his editorial that conflicts with my experience.

The usual conceptualization sees IQ as a gift and C as a virtue; i.e. intelligence as an ability available to be used when necessary and personality traits such as Conscientiousness as a moral disposition to make better or worse behavioural choices. The mainstream idea would be that people are not responsible for the level of their intelligence but are responsible for their behaviour. So apparently it makes sense to praise Conscientiousness as virtuous but not similarly to praise IQ.

I can certainly imagine this point of view, but I have most often found that smart people are often quite proud of their intelligence, and bristle at the idea that it may be inherited. I have very often heard smart and dumb used as terms of moral abuse, when it would be more appropriate to see intelligence as like height, something that can be stunted, but how tall you end up is largely beyond your control.

That being said, I also wonder whether the concept of virtue used here is a little thin.

...while personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice?

Modern systems of ethics seem crippled by their insistence on choice, in a way that is stripped of all context, as if one could choose one way or another with equal ease. Personal experience suggests that some options are much harder than others to choose, very frequently the option I myself think is more right is often the hardest one to actually do. It often seems to me that modern ethics resolves this difficulty by redefining right and wrong in terms of freely chosen or not freely chosen, leaving us worse people with easier consciences.

This distinction between free and forced choice does indeed exist in Aristotelian philosophy, but it is conditioned by psychology rather than being absolute. For the virtue ethics of the Aristotelian tradition, progress in becoming a better person can be discerned by the increasing ease with which you can do the right thing, until it becomes second nature to do so. I would probably separate personality and character as well. Personality, especially as measured by the OCEAN model, has a lot to do with style of social interactions, whereas character is more of the ability or tendency to do the right thing at the right time. I imagine the confusion arises because many secondary virtues are designed to make social interactions smoother. However, that is not really what virtues are about.

I liked this short summary from Everyday Thomist:

Alasdair MacIntyre, a famous philosophical advocate of virtue ethics, says that virtue ethics can be summed up in three questions:

     Who am I?
     Who do I want to become?
     How do I get there?

Virtue ethics is unique because it sees ethics as concerned not so much about discrete actions (should I do X or not), but how every action fits into a total life narrative. Virtue ethics acknowledges that people change over time—they become better or worse people depending on what they do.

This kind of ethics regards change as psychologically difficult, and seems to be entirely compatible with the ideas that we born with dispositions and propensities to behave in certain ways and that these dispositions and propensities are stable over time. To extend the biological metaphor, virtue is very much like losing weight. Lots and lots of studies have come out recently claiming that diets and exercise are mostly worthless for losing weight. Furthermore, experience shows that some people never struggle with weight at all, some lose the battle entirely, but a few do seem to be able to lose weight and keep it off. Body shape seems to run in families as well.

Thus we could say that fatness is largely inheritable, and that relative fatness is stable over time (but tends to increase absolutely with increasing age). Changing fatness is very difficult, but possible. Personality traits seem to be much the same.