Do we have a moral obligation to be intelligent? That is an important question we each must answer in the affirmative. I believe, based on the promises we make to each other, we are, indeed, obligated — not needed or required — to be intelligent because a mass of more intelligent people means smarter solutions beyond the levels of base emotion and political and religious sloganeering. Intelligence knows no attachment.

Intelligence is the ghostly valve through which we bleed to discover the unslakeable need to know more. We become intelligent by reading literature and by exposing ourselves to minds, values, communities and histories that are not our own.

Intelligence finds it own balance by connecting circles of disparate ideas that appear, on the surface, to have no shared meaning with the core goal of making everything fit better together for community social advancement. Intelligence binds those ideas together and creates new connections for understanding. Is intelligence a value? Yes.

A problem today with the continued dumbing-down of the university experience is the acquiescence of values from the personal to the commercial: Why do I have to understand what I read when only the diploma matters? In 1914 the great John Erskine wrote an article called The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent where he argued for an end to the “warfare between character and intellect.”

Then, Erskine’s undergraduate student at Columbia University in the 1920’s, Lionel Trilling, took up Erskine’s cause and continued to examine the idea of morality and intelligence in the modern-day world throughout his superstar 43-year teaching career at Columbia University (where Trilling made his own history by becoming the first Jewish faculty member in the Department of English). In his final unfinished essay on Jane Austen, Trilling wrote in 1968:

…In reading about the conduct of other people as presented by a writer highly endowed with moral imagination and in consenting to see this conduct as relevant to their own, they had undertaken an activity which humanism holds precious, in that it redeems the individual from moral torpor.

In 2000, 25 years after Trilling’s death, Leon Wieseltier edited and introduced selected essays by Lionel Trilling and published them together in a book under the title: The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. One of Wieseltier’s best quotes is: “Pity the man who can explain everything.”

With that cogent warning, Wieseltier continues combining circles of intelligence and morality at play within the minds of Erskine, Trillling, Wieseltier, and now, us.


  1. Wow, this was a great read. I like your argument, very persuading. At first I was asking myself “morally obligated?” And, yes, we are morally obligated to be intellegent. Intellect is the force that allows us to have our own unique personality – so long as we put it to the right use. I say this as an example of when you stated how intellect is obtained by placing yourselves among different minds. I enjoy this blog, very well thought out subjects.

  2. Hey Chris —
    Thanks for the insightful reply.
    I am with you that intelligence is a force to be forged singularly and in solidarity.
    I appreciate your friendly support!

  3. This is just brilliant David! This blog seems to be a gold mine.
    When my friends ask me ‘’why do you read so much?’’ I don’t have an answer except – ‘’I like it’’. Now I know what to say – ‘’because I feel morally obligated….’’
    I realy do – there is so much to learn!

  4. Really nice read allthough I don’t understand the quote “pity the man that can explain everything”, is it because he can no longer learn new things? Even though I didn’t understand the quote the rest is really nice.

  5. Hi Peter and welcome to Urban Semiotic!
    Yes, you have it right! The open intellectual knows one can never know everything — there is always much too much to learn.
    We must pity those who believe learning and education have a verifiable end while living.
    We must always be open to ideas the thoughts and that means understanding and thinking and pondering never end.

  6. I would say that as a citizen of society you have a moral obligation to be intelligent as a denizen of a location you may have very few. Some societies demand that you have the ability to rationalize your position to ensure others liberty. However I guess this isn’t yet universally relative as many countries don’t make significant rationalizations to ensure most efficient functionalism.

    I agree with you about the ‘University degree incentive is for the diploma’, but I’d say that this is a result of catching more people (or reducing the costs/requirements) so they complete more degrees, there are probably still the same relative number of people, as in the past, who take a degree for the knowledge and ability, rather than the monetary power.

    Contrasted to work; many jobs are just about meeting demand to gain money. But there are certainly people who rationalize purpose in their work for reasons other than survival.

    I used to think the same thing in regards to universal obligation, possibly because I’m also an INTJ…. However with the onset of responsibility, I thought that intelligence is a means for many things, such as greater choice. But with choice comes the stress of insecurity and opportunity costs to many people, so some may just opt out of it and take to a life with less choice and focus on blind security.

    I would say that if you are a part of society which demands intelligence morally and you are not interested/capable of intelligent you have a responsibility to encapsulate your own liberty so ensure others liberty, perhaps through religion.

    The problem of less intelligence orientated students taking university courses for no outcome other than income may simply be due to a balancing act of a system. Due to increasing technology there has been a result in increased resources, but not more incentive for greater intelligence. People want to consume more but they don’t want more choice.

    I’d also like to bring up my opinion that many morals are culturally relative and won’t be maintainable in an extensively rationalized global society. There are some which may be more objective, such as, perhaps the . For example a lot of western morals clash with Asian morals at a functional level because of the way they divide labor. So what your obligation may be in a society could be purely to ensure the liberty of others by whatever means that society is limited by.
    Hopefully not too black and white.

    1. Jeros —

      Thank you for your interesting and perceptive comment.

      I agree with you on the relativity of morality — and that’s a universal problem, really. We can agree not to kill each other in theory, but all the rest of it quickly becomes dogmatic.

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