Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute
What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


Morality as Intelligence

One part of intelligence is the ability to take old patterns of thought and feeling -- existing patterns of knowledge and response -- and apply them appropriately to familiar circumstances, producing predictable results. Another part of intelligence is the ability to observe when these patterns no longer work and, informed by feedback from our environment, to create new patterns of thought, feeling, knowledge and response that work better in the novel circumstances we face.

We could say that intelligence involves maintaining and using a palette of workable information and behaviors and, whenever they don't work, creating new information and behaviors that will work and adding them to the palette. Of course, we call this creation of new information and behaviors learning. Learning is the throbbing heart of intelligence.

I propose that morality is the application of intelligence to the clarification of good, bad and evil behaviors -- those behaviors that generate benefit and those behaviors that generate harm. Moral systems may differ in what they consider beneficial or harmful, and whose benefit or harm should be considered. However, they all involve consideration of benefit and harm, maintenance of a palette of such behaviors (in the form of principles, patterned responses, and so on), and moral learning that changes the content or application of the palette.

Societal Moral Learning

At a society-wide level, this learning, when it happens slowly (perhaps over centuries), can look like moral absolutism, like the culture is stuck, incapable of learning. But cultural moral learning always happens. If a culture's existing institutions refuse to learn, the culture at large bypasses them so that it can learn, usually by evoking new institutions to supply the newly-needed moral palette. If truly needed new moral instutions are repressed, the society dies and is replaced by a culture that manifests the newly-needed moral palette. The point is that moral learning will take place. Given sufficient time, it is inevitable.

Our Collective Moral Crises

Moral learning can be triggered by positive forces like imagination or curiosity. It can also be driven by negative forces, by dissonances: new demands, crises, or perhaps a challenge from someone with a different moral palette.

Both these motivations for moral learning, positive and negative, exist in our culture. With the expansion of education and science, we find growing interest in using our moral intelligence to pro-actively evolve our moral sensibilities. We can see this trend in the educational movements for values clarification and critical thinking. This is learning-before-the-fact, motivated by interest and prescience.

Simultaneously we are being forced by circumstances to learn, to wrestle with and transform our moral understandings. For one thing, the advent of global communication and pluralistic societies has brought every moral system into close encounter with every other moral system. Often more powerful cultures simply overwhelm weaker ones, submerging their morality along with everything else. This happens, for example, when Western market economies overwhelm indigenous cultures. Luckily, remnants of these cultures remain, for we will probably need their moral sensibilities urgently in the near future.

But pluralism isn't the only factor impelling us towards moral learning. Population growth, technological development, and mass-market economics have conspired to magnify the effects of virtually all human behavior. We are entering an Era of Consequences. 200 years ago the consequences of many acts, such as disposing of garbage or accumulating social power, were readily absorbed by nature or hidden away in small communities. With each passing year, however, those same acts produce increasingly immediate and often disastrous results. Routine habits like driving our cars, offhand comments by world leaders, public ignorance of the side-effects of technology and policy -- any of these could bring our civilization crashing down around us. And more people every day are realizing that.

Lofty moral concerns once modeled by saints and admired but unheeded by ordinary mortals, have now become imperatives for the survival of our culture. We find we have to trace the Golden Rule through vast webs of causation, rippling through ecosystems, cycling back through global markets (like the DDT we sell to the Third World that comes back to us on cheap produce), climbing into the lives of our children, even subverting our own bodies just a few years hence. One humankind, one fate. We no longer have to be saints to believe it, only awake.

Suddenly we have to pay much more attention to everything we do. Many of us feel moral claustrophobia. We rebel against increasing demands to attend to the endless moral, political, social and economic consequences of our every act. (The whole debate over "political correctness" is rooted in this reality.) And yet, increasingly, we find we have no choice but to attend. The collapse of our environments, our economies, our societies, our own well-being tightens the noose, demanding attention. Chernobyls Are Us. Drug-resistant strains of bacteria arise from our collective use of antibiotics. The jobs leaving our communities for foreign lands are doing so because we choose to buy cheap foreign products. And what, pray tell, will be the consequences of designing human beings, to order, gene by gene? There are experts -- bioethicists, business ethicists -- but who do they serve? -- and what good can they do in a democracy if the public does not morally learn, as well?

Never before have so many people faced such steep and complex moral demands. If we can't engage our moral intelligence, if we can't increase our moral understanding and sophistication, if we can't learn our way into a good future, the chances are very high, indeed, that a tragic future will barge into our lives uninvited. The social forces drawing us toward that undesirable future -- ignorance, greed, lust for power, laziness -- are not new. It is just that they now have tools of mass destruction at their disposal. It will take quite a leap in our collective moral consciousness -- and in our moral co-intelligence -- to keep up with and ultimately transform those forces, in ourselves and in our culture.

Reaching to the Synergy at the Heart of Morality

The need for morals as a distinct field of human knowledge arises out of the fragmentation of ourselves from The Other, our groups from society, our cultures from nature. When these are whole, when the well-being of one arises from the well-being of the other, when a seamless awareness and rapport exists among all these -- when there is intrinsic balance and goodness, then there is no need for explicit systems to instill extrinsic justice and goodness.

To the extent synergy is absent from groups and communities, they need morality to ensure their survival. To the extent awareness and rapport are missing from us as individuals, we need morality to sustain the relationships and communities upon which we depend.

What I want to suggest here is that, despite the obvious need for morality in societies as they are currently constituted, there is a place beyond morality. There are states of awareness, for example, in which the relatedness of life has expanded and intensified until it has burst, leaving only a seamless compassionate understanding in its wake, that sees how everything fits... that, therefore, knows why each act is, in a sense, inevitable... and that consequently creates inner and outer spaces that invite more compassion and understanding on everyone's part, rather than trying to stop bad acts which it knows were inevitable in the presence of such lack of understanding and compassion. To say that this involves morality is to stretch the definition of morality to the breaking point. This is not morality. It is a level of awareness which has no need for morality, just as a master chef has no need for a cook book.

I will symbolize this zone beyond -- and at the heart of -- morality with the phrase wholeness-synergy-awareness. Since wholeness-synergy-awareness is not the defining quality of our culture, we as a culture face the challenge of nurturing our moral co-intelligence, individually and collectively. Since co-intelligence is, by its nature, interactive and holistic, it may give us the opportunity to choose to evolve towards wholeness-synergy-awareness.

With that in mind, we may find it valuable to reflect on the paths we will need to walk in our co-evolution towards a more holistic sensibility about "goodness." I offer the six paths of co-intelligence as a fruitful source of guidance and inquiry:

  • Collaboration
  • Resonance
  • Engaging our full capacities
  • Collective and systemic approaches
  • Wisdom and
  • Connection to greater sources of Intelligence

I will not elaborate on these here, hoping that personal reflection and shared inquiry, rather than solid answers, will better serve to move us ahead at this point.

See also

Co-Intelligence and Morality

Co-intelligent moral sensibilities

Ken Lebensold's co-intelligent new moral vision.

If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2003, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)