viernes, marzo 24, 2017

Spiritual intelligence and ethics

Published on: RYPC Translations | Cite as

Spiritual intelligence and ethics

Gustavo Daniel Romero

Following the definition that Diana Cohen Agrest, PhD. in Philosophy, gives us, while “ethics is the theory about the moral event, morals refer to the group of predominant norms and behaviors in a society. In a sense, morals are imposed. Thus, we believe to be behaving morally, when, actually, we are just going with the flow. On the contrary, ethics is the reflection about the group of dominant behaviors and norms, and, by extension, it is the reflection about how our lives are to be conducted. It is a commitment we assume before ourselves, and it implies to care about how we should live and what we should do.”1

The word “moral” comes from the Latin voice "mos, moris", which means custom.

Ethics studies what morals are, how a moral system is justified through reason, and how it must be applied at the individual and social levels. It reflects about the moral event and seeks reasons that can justify the usage of one moral system or another.

According to a “classic” school, the object of ethics is the human behavior. It seeks to determine whether an act has been ethically good or ethically bad.

There are different moral systems, which have led to a “moral relativism” that is incompatible with logic, because the claim “everything is relative” is an absolute claim2. Besides, the dispute about good and evil proves that Ethics is a field of disputes. But it is also what proves, precisely, that Ethics is not something purely relative and that it is hard to chose in extreme situations.

This controversy proves that certain behaviors are better than others; absolutely better, not better for someone or in relation to certain cultural norms. The purpose of Ethics is to shed more light over this insight.

Are we gifted with a spiritual intelligence that guides our intuitive judgements about good and evil? Bioethics Professor Peter Singer, from Princeton University, comes to our aid.3

In fact, we notice in practice that both believers and non-believers appropriately discern between good and evil, contributing with their efforts to give relief to human suffering.

We can also find, beyond cultures and religions, elements that constitute the common heritage of humanity, which leads us to hypothesize that, as a result of human action, there has developed within men and women an innate spiritual intelligence that forges intuitions that allow us to discern between good and evil, with the purpose of permitting coexistence.

Hence, Dr. Singer proposes that we take a test that he applied in his research. What do you think? Are you up for it? Go ahead!

Examine the following three hypothetical cases. In each of them, fill the blank space with “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden”.

Case 1:
• A boxcar car is out of control and is about to run over five people that are walking by the railroad. A railroad worker is next to a switch track that can divert the boxcar into another track, where he will kill one person, but the other five will survive. To press the switch track is __________

Case 2:
• You are passing by next to a small girl that is drowning in a not-very-deep dam and you are the only person nearby. If you take the girl out, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. To take the girl out is __________

Case 3:
• Five people in a critical condition have just been taken to the hospital in a hurry and each of them needs an organ to survive. There isn’t enough time to ask for organs outside the hospital, but there is a healthy person in the waiting room. If the surgeon obtains the five organs from that person, he/she will die, but the other five, which are in a critical condition, will survive. To obtain the organs from the healthy person is __________

If you considered Case 1 as permissible, Case 2 as obligatory and Case 3 as forbidden, you have answered in the same way that 1500 people from the whole world that answered the dilemmas posed in this research! Because approximately 90% affirmed that it is permissible to press the switch track, 97% that it is obligatory to rescue the child, and 97% that it is forbidden to obtain organs from a healthy person.4

What is more, there weren’t any meaningful statistical differences among subjects with a religious education and those who lacked the latter. And the most remarkable fact is that when they were asked to justify the why of their choices, the subjects could not give solid explanations. It is relevant to highlight that among those with a religious education, there were as many that did not answer or gave incoherent explanations as among the atheists.

Studies such as this give empirical grounds to the hypothesis that we are gifted with a faculty that guides our intuitive judgements about good and evil: spiritual intelligence.

Of course, in everyday life we do not face dilemmas too often. This is why I propose to you that we analyze the “Ultimatum game”. Game theory is an area of Applied Mathematics, designed to understand the behavior of human beings when they interact carrying out decision-making processes. Even if, at the beginning, this theory was developed to understand the behavior of subjects involved in situations related to Economics, game theory is currently used in many other fields, such as Biology, Sociology, Psychology and Philosophy.

The Ultimatum game is an experimental game in which two players interact anonymously just once. It consists in the following: one player (A) is asked to share a certain amount of money (let’s say, 100 pesos in 10 bills of 10 pesos each) with another player (B), according to his own benefit, making a solely and definitive proposal. Player B, on the other hand, may accept or reject the offer. In the event that he doesn’t accept it, neither of the two players will win anything. On the contrary, if he accepts the offer, then the money will be distributed according to the proposal realized by player A.

According to “rational” intelligence, we can expect that player B will always accept the proposal that A makes to him, because, anyway, such proposal would improve his situation from the start (to receive something, no matter how little it seems, is better than to receive nothing).

And also, the most “logical” move for player A (even more so considering the preceding paragraph) is to offer to B the minimum amount possible to distribute ($10), thus maximizing his own profit.

Well, the amazing thing is that, in this experiment, which has been realized in many countries over several years, more than 50% of the people involved are willing to make an altruistic offer where both win the same (50% - 50%). And, secondly, that offers lower than 20% have significant probabilities of being rejected by player B (80% of the cases).5

What is the most plausible explanation for this behavior? It is that not only money is the motivation of the participants, but also distributive justice; which evidences that, in human beings, choices about justice criteria are more important than choices about benefit. And that these are not irrational behaviors, but decisions that answer to another type of rationality: the spiritual intelligence.

And what shall we say about the time when our mothers, were they religious or not, scolded us after we had done a mean act against a schoolmate, with the following admonishment: “Would you like that they did to you the same thing that you did to him? Well then, don’t do it again.”

In other words, it is the famous “golden rule”, formulated as “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you” (negative form), or, in another variant form, “treat others in the same way you would want them to treat you” (positive form), a universal notion of ethical perception. We hear it from different people, religious or not, believers, agnostic or atheists.

Let’s see through some examples, how this is expressed in almost all religions and/or moral/philosophical traditions in the history of humanity:

  1. Buddhism: “Do not hurt others in ways that you would consider harmful” (Udana-Varga 5:18)

  2. Christianism: Mateo 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (NIV, Matthew 7:12).

  3. Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you would not want others do to you” (Analects 15:23).

  4. Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause you pain if they did to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517)

  5. Humanism: “Do not do things that you would not want they be done to you” (The British Humanist Society)

  6. Islam: “None of you (truly) believes, until he wishes for his brother the same thing he wishes for himself” (#13 out of the Forty Hadiths of Imam Al-Nawawi).

  7. Jainism: “A man should conduct himself treating all creatures in the same way he would like to be treated” (Sutrakritanga 1.11.33).

  8. Judaism: “Love your neighbor as yourself" (NIV, Leviticus 19:18).

(Source: Scarboro Missions)6

However, in my opinion the golden rule should not be formulated as “do not do to others what you would not like others do to you” or “do to others what you like they do to you”, but more precisely as “do not do to others what they do not like others do to them” or “do to others what they would like others do to them”. Summing up, this means to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and not to impose them our own shoes.

Finally, you will agree with me in that, in order to determine whether or not spiritual intelligence is innate, we would have to make experiments involving very young children. Well then, I will tell you about the following psychological experiment that was published on PLoS One magazine, directed by Professor Patricia Kanngiesser from Bristol University, England, and her colleague Felix Warneken from Harvard University, USA.7

The game is simple: a three-year-old creature and a puppet (with the help of an adult puppeteer) recollect small cubes that are taken out from a box. Afterwards, the child receives a coin for each cube that has been recollected, with the condition that he/she shares his/her prize with the puppet, who helped him to perform the task.

The fact that young children, with very little social experience, rewarded their assistant according to its merits, tells us that the notions of justice and cooperation, characteristic of spiritual intelligence, appear in the earliest activities of children with their equals; therefore, we can affirm there is a natural predisposition in human beings to treat others fairly.

This tendency towards equity is fundamental, due to the fact that it is essential for maintaining stable relationships in a community.

Besides, one remarkable thing about this study is the fact that it focuses on the positive aspect of justice –in rewarding cooperation–, by asking children to share their prizes with a partner after completing a task together, unlike other experiments, which focus more in detecting whether or not people penalize those who behave unfairly with them.

This article was translated by Nicolás Manfredi and reviewed by Alfredo Francis, under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA)

  1. Diana Cohen Agrest, Inteligencia Ética para la Vida Cotidiana, Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, Buenos Aires, 2011, p. 15.
  2. It should be noted that the proposition “everything is relative” wouldn’t be a truthful statement, but rather just another proposition, and, as such, liable of being relative as well, because its analysis would be dependent on the point of view as well. From my point of view, this is a truthful statement that proves that relativism is wrong, because it contradicts itself; if everything is relative, how could we affirm anything? However, such reflection is a logical reflection, and, for some relativists, Western logic could also be a point of view, so that which is logical for some can be illogical for others.
  3. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979; second edition, 1993.
  4. Marc Hauser, Peter Singer, Moralidad sin Dios, available at:
  5. Martín Lousteau, Economía 3D, Buenos Aires: Ed. Sudamericana, 2011, pp. 38-41.
  6. Available at:
  7. Kanngiesser P, Warneken F (2012) Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43979. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043979.

Cite as (ISO 690:2010): ROMERO, Gustavo Daniel. Spiritual intelligence and ethics [online]. RYPC Translations, 24 March 2017. <> [accessed: ].