Moral Intelligence

Though moral intelligence does not qualify as an intelligence using Gardener’s criteria, we will explore conceptualizations of it in this paper. As with the emotional, social, spiritual and existential intelligences discussed above, others have found moral intelligence to be a useful construct (Borba, 2001, Lennick and Kiel, 2005). Many believe it is an essential element to individual and collective well-being and progress and a necessary part of a holistic education. Many philosophers also view moral intelligence as a vital and important part of human nature (Boss, 1994). In our current society and educational systems, its importance and necessity grows.

The great majority of U.S. social institutions focusing on civic engagement and morality, such as political and service clubs, community and neighborhood groups and houses worship, have declined significantly, along with social capital, in recent decades (Putnam, 2000). Lack of connections with our spiritual natures and other people leads to superficial relationships, a poverty of feeling for others, limited emotional responses, deceitfulness, theft and inability to concentrate in school (Karen, 2002). Morality and spirituality affect the ability to effectively attach to others, regulate emotion and moods, cognitively process and act responsibly (Stillwell, 2002).

Self-reported anxiety and depression among U.S. youth increase as our connections to our inner selves and others have decreased (Twenge, 2000). Increasingly children and youth are influenced by an aggressive, alluring materialistic consumer culture that dampens moral intelligence. As parents and families increasingly abdicate their responsibility to develop moral character in their children, educators are expected develop their students’ moral capacities.

Lennick and Kiel define moral intelligence as “the mental capacity to determine how universal human principles should be applied to our personal values, goals, and actions” (2005, p. 7). Their construct of moral intelligence consists of four competencies related to integrity, three to responsibility, two to forgiveness and one to compassion. The four competencies of integrity are 1) acting consistently with principles, values, and beliefs, 2) telling the truth, 3) standing up for what is right, and 4) keeping promises. Responsibility’s three competencies are 1) taking personal responsibility, 2) admitting mistakes and failures, and 3) embracing responsibility for serving others. Forgiveness involves 1) letting go of one’s own mistakes and 2) letting go of others’ mistakes. Compassion is defined as actively caring about others.

Borba defines moral intelligence as the capacity to understand right from wrong, to have strong ethical convictions and to act on them to behave in the right and honorable way (2001). She identifies seven virtues children need to develop related to moral intelligence—empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance and fairness.

The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Panel on Moral Education defines a moral person as one who respects human dignity, cares about the welfare of others, integrates individual interests and social responsibilities, demonstrates integrity, reflects on moral choices and seeks peaceful resolution of conflict (1988).

These three descriptions have similar items. Lennick and Kiel’s four competencies of integrity responsibility compassion and forgiveness tolerance are similar to Borba’s virtues of conscience and fairness, self-control and respect, empathy and kindness and tolerance and the ASCD definition of a moral person.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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