Howard Gardener on Spiritual, Existential and Moral Intelligence

Although Howard Gardener does not believe spiritual intelligence meet his criteria, he feels an existential intelligence might be a possibility, and it has been referred to by him as a possible ninth intelligence (1999b). Existential intelligence is described as “capturing and pondering the fundamental questions of existence” (Gardener, 1999a, p. 22). Those with existential intelligence, such as the Dalai Lama, could be labeled as wondering, cosmic and metaphysical smart. They ask questions such as who are we and what is our purpose. Existential intelligence meets all but one of Gardener’s basic criteria: neurological evidence of its existence. This desire to understand the basic questions of life has been an aspect of human nature throughout recorded history.

The social, emotional, spiritual and existential intelligences discussed above, all are distinct yet related to moral intelligence. Moral intelligence is also not one of Gardner’s eight multiple intelligences, as he explains in a chapter entitled “Is there a moral intelligence?” (1999b). He did not seriously consider moral intelligence as a candidate when he developed his original list of intelligences. Gardener regarded his list as morally neutral and value free. Though he felt morality important, even more important than smartness, he did not feel it an intelligence.

However, in this later work, he states that on some criteria the moral domain may qualify as an intelligence, but concludes it does not, partly because its essence as an intelligence has not been established. If there were a moral intelligence, he states that people with it might display the following strengths:

  • Ready recognition of issues related to the sanctity of life in its diverse facets
  • Facility in mastering traditional symbolic rendering and codification that deal with sacred issues
  • Enduring commitment to reflecting on such issues
  • Potential for going beyond the conventional approaches to create new forms of processes that regulate the sacrosanct facets of human interactions. (p. 70-71, 1999b)

Gardener argues that the concept of intelligence must be limited and should not include important areas such as “personality, motivation, will, attention, character, creativity and other valued human capacities (2007, p.121). He feels stretching intelligence to include moral behaviors and attitudes creates several problems, one being the cultural specificity, complexity and diversity of good and bad (2007). Though the social, emotional, spiritual and moral domains can be measured with some degree of consistency on inventories and some genetic influence is evidenced as identical twins reared apart share similar traits, yet according to the present evidence and criteria Gardener established for his intelligences, these candidates do not qualify as a separate intelligence.

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About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is recently retired as a head and professor of the School of Education at Northern Michigan University.
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