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Intelligence can be used as a means to deceive and exploit vulnerable people. I believe, however, that proper thinking should always lead to righteous deeds.

What is the word that describes the intellectual ability which produces only virtuous acts?

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Despite having provided an answer myself, I don't think there actually can be a definitive answer. Any suggestions will connote more strongly with either intelligence or righteousness. Added to which most people either see the two concepts as naturally tending to co-exist, or as tending to be in conflict. Few people see the two things as unrelated attributes. – FumbleFingers Mar 1 '12 at 14:36
+1 This is a good point. I think you better say use, not produce: "intellectual ability used only for virtuous acts". However, I don't think there is a suitable phrase. Maybe we have to fine some metaphor or other way to express this idea. – Kris Mar 1 '12 at 14:48
@FumbleFingers: Agree with u in general, though the two things are indeed unrelated attributes and OP's point is quite right. – Kris Mar 1 '12 at 14:49
I agree with FumbleFingers, the question doesn't have a definite answer. For example, the top voted answer so far suggests wisdom; but you have wise criminals with abundance of wisdom and few virtuous acts. Another one to throw in the mix and used more recently is 'emotional intelligence' perhaps not virtuous but they would know that! The semantics of intelligence is constantly being revised as no-one is intelligent enough yet to understand intelligence or what it is. – osknows Mar 1 '12 at 22:59
This might be better on the philosophy stackexchange. For a start, you have the problem of what is virtuous? I can think of half a dozen utterly inflammatory examples - is that a virtuous use of my intelligence? It helps describe the problem, but it will probably start a flame war. – Optimal Cynic Mar 2 '12 at 4:49

9 Answers 9

up vote 14 down vote accepted


the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action;

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I prefer this. Wisdom it is that keeps you from wrongdoing. – karthik Mar 1 '12 at 14:06
Yes, I think wisdom is the most proper quality to label it. A wise man is the one who is able to see what is right and what is wrong and uses this knowledge in a noble way. Isaac Asimov once said that "The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." ( – Mostafwani Mar 2 '12 at 2:01
Only the wise do truly awful things, for nobody trusts a fool with that kind of power. – Optimal Cynic Mar 2 '12 at 4:46
Wisdom and Intelligence are two different stats :) – vsz Mar 2 '12 at 7:21

From OED:

right-minded, a.

1 Having a mind naturally inclined or disposed towards what is right. Also transf.

Hence right-mindedness.

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same question: Why would being ethical imply the presence of intellectual prowess? One may be smart, yet vicious. Many such examples.. I think the OP is looking for something that says, he is smart and yet virtuous, and it is his smartness that makes him that. What variety of smartness is that? Right-mindedness may mean virtuous, but not all virtual people intellectually above the usual. Think of say, Sherlock versus Moriarty! – karthik Mar 1 '12 at 14:22
@karthik: Well, yes. But the reality is both "intelligence" and "righteousness" are highly subjective and nebulous concepts. But I suspect about 2/3rds of the population think they are in the "top quartile for righteousness", whereas only about 1/3rd think they're in the top quartile for intelligence. Which not only shows most people aren't that good at maths - it also gives a lot of people reason to overestimate the number of "smart but evil" people out there. – FumbleFingers Mar 1 '12 at 14:24

Ethical itself is used in several senses, two of which cover the meaning you are looking for:

1 of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these: ethical issues in nursing | ethical churchgoing men.
• morally good or correct: can a profitable business be ethical?
• avoiding activities or organizations that do harm to people or the environment: an expert on ethical investment | switching to more ethical products | adopt ethical shopping habits | ethical holidays.

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Why would being ethical imply the presence of intellectual prowess? One may be smart, yet unethical. Many such examples.. – karthik Mar 1 '12 at 14:08
I would be looking for a word like "ethicality," but maybe such a word doesn't exist. – Tom Au Mar 1 '12 at 15:37
Although ethical people would try to act morally, an action that lacks sufficient intelligence may work the way around. – Mostafwani Mar 2 '12 at 2:28

Acumen might work. The definition is "The ability to make good judgments and quick decisions, typically in a particular domain: "business acumen"."

Or discernment, which is 1. The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment. 2. Keenness of insight and judgment.

Both of these mention "good judgment," which is not exactly the same as producing only virtuous acts, but it is close.

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Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. – Tom Au Mar 1 '12 at 15:38
+1 for discernment – user14070 Mar 1 '12 at 21:03
As a nonnative speaker what follows is not necessarily accurate. By reading the definitions of the two words and some examples of their usage, I found that they are kind of protective qualities. It's that if someone holds such characters, he can be hardly deceived. This is my understanding, so correct me, please, if i'm wrong. – Mostafwani Mar 2 '12 at 2:24
I think you are correct about discernment. Acumen seems to be a more active, decisive quality. – JLG Mar 2 '12 at 17:37

I would suggest the following words in the order of my preference:

  1. Savoir faire, a noun loaned from French that means "knowledge of just what to do in any situation".

  2. Sagacity: acuteness of mental discernment and soundness of judgment.

  3. sophisticated.

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Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. – Tom Au Mar 1 '12 at 15:37
The first and third words are more about smartness. I would keep away anyway from sophistication due to closeness with sophistry. On the other hand, I think Sagacity is a very good word that fits the meaning. According to TheFreeDictionary, sagacity is "the quality of being discerning, sound in judgment, and farsighted; wisdom" – Mostafwani Mar 2 '12 at 2:46
Agree with you on that "sophisticated" is the least appropriate choice for the question. But "savoir faire" might be good, as quoted from the Cultural Dictionary": Ease and dexterity in social and practical affairs: “Peter is a friendly person, but he lacks the savoir faire required for a successful career in the foreign service.” From French, meaning “to know how to act.” – braids Mar 2 '12 at 4:44

After suggesting that "proper thinking should always lead to righteous deeds", you ask, "What is the word that describes the intellectual ability which produces only virtuous acts?". In the absence of well-defined terms and qualified circumstances, such an ability must be termed a fixation, a monomania. Ordinary humans never produce unmixed results; in the life of any real person, bad actions will be found among the good.

Less generally, the answer depends on what definitions are given. For example, taking proper to mean "suited or acceptable to the purpose or circumstances; fit, suitable", righteous to mean "justified morally", virtuous to mean "full of virtue (in accord with moral principles)", and moral to mean "conforming to a standard of right behaviour", it is a tautology that proper thinking will lead to righteous deeds, and no intellectual ability is needed beyond that of being able to think properly. This may be termed as having the power of reason. For example, in a famous gardeners wikipedia article we find (emphasis added):

...the Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) ... was an era of scientific awakening with a strong belief in the power of reason as the primary source of legitimacy and authority.

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If morality governs your actions, then virtuous acts should (in theory) result:

morality, n.

2a : a doctrine or system of moral conduct

3 : conformity to ideals of right human conduct

4 : moral conduct : virtue

There appears to be some confusion between ethics and morality, which can be cleared up by this statement (from here): ethics is theory; morality is practice.

There may not be a word for moral intelligence, but there is a word for when your morals fail to match up with your ethics: hypocrisy.

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Just like ethicality, morality without full comprehension of circumstances may not necessarily to righteous doings. – Mostafwani Mar 2 '12 at 2:38
@Mostafwani I think you're trying to use the terms in a vacuum; please see my extended answer. – Gnawme Mar 3 '12 at 0:05

Wisdom comes from experience + knowledge.

I like to think of knowledge that comes from books, ideas etc

Experience speaks for it self

Thus wisdom is priceless.

Wise actions. If you are referencing to people that do virtuous deeds, then it is safe to say there is an element of wisdom which is present within their character. Having virtues comes from experience. Look at people like Gandhi & Nelson Mandela. Their virtuous come from there experience, and both are/were intellectuals

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But why does this answer the question? – Matt E. Эллен Mar 2 '12 at 10:09
Wise actions. If you are referencing to people that do virtues deeds, then it is safe to say there is an element of wisdom which is present with in their character. Having virtues come from experience. Look at people like Gandhi & Nelson Mandela. Their ventures come from there experience, and both are/were intellectuals. – Arthor Mar 2 '12 at 12:57
you should be able to edit your answer and put the useful information into it. FYI you mean "virtuous deeds". – Matt E. Эллен Mar 2 '12 at 13:06
@MattЭллен - Yep you are right, thanks. – Arthor Mar 2 '12 at 15:31

I second discernment.

I also like propriety (~ appropriate - right action/nonaction)?

Problem is, words derived from proper have acquired an "associative load" of tut-tuttery and tightened sphincters (pursed lips, etc.). But so what? Words become tarnished with use; they can always be polished up/rehabilitated.

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Another option - appropriate the Chinese term(s) used by Confucius - he was big on this sort of thing. – rjj Mar 2 '12 at 3:32

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 2 '12 at 11:04

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