Lecture Review: Bradshaw on Moral Intelligence

Print This Post Print This Post

Effective Therapy:
A Major Force in Enhancing Moral Intelligence
John Bradshaw, MA

John Bradshaw is on a mission.  Speaking on March 12, 2010, in New York City, mostly about the contents of his new book, Reclaiming Virtue:  How to Develop The Moral Intelligence To Do The Right Thing At The Right Time For The Right Reason, he gave the audience marching orders to take his message out into the world of therapy offices, treatment programs, hospitals, other such venues and one’s own family to make the world a safer place.

Bringing to the lecture his unique blend of theology, philosophy, psychology, addiction studies, and personal recovery from alcoholism and sexual compulsivity, Bradshaw gave a rousing sermon on the nature of moral intelligence and what it takes to develop it.  During the breaks, he signed copies of his new book.

Bradshaw defined moral intelligence quite simply as “making the right choice at the right time for the right reason,” a skill that can be taught and learned.  Because “unbridled human nature can be very dangerous,” emotional literacy forms the bedrock of moral intelligence.  “Contained feeling is more important in making a moral judgment than logic.”

Lest one think that emotions don’t enter into moral decision making, consider an experiment in which subjects had to decide whether or not to throw a switch that could save five people on a runaway trolley by sending it to another track where it would kill somebody.  Most chose to sacrifice the one person.  But when told they could stop the trolley by throwing a very old person onto the track, no one wanted to do it.  Logic didn’t operate in the second decision.

In 1988, Bradshaw published Healing the Shame that Binds You in which he wrote about toxic shame.  In his recent lecture, he revisited the issue of shame as he did in the 2005 revision of the book, making a clear distinction between toxic and healthy shame.  Toxic shame is carried shame, a feeling that one is either beneath others (self loathing) or above them (grandiosity).  Healthy shame allows for the experience of being human, of making mistakes, and constitutes an important ingredient of moral intelligence.  Humility, modesty, teachability, civility, even manners require humans to experience a healthy feeling of shame.

Children who grow up in families with addictions, sexual and other forms of abuse, neglect, mental illness, or who are singled out because they are different (e.g., lesbian/gay, disabled), develop a distorted sense of themselves, believing that there must surely be something horribly wrong with them.  They live out lives of isolation, hiding their true selves from others by shunning social activities or by cultivating masks of functioning and achievement.

Returning to his long-running mission of spreading the word about healing, which Bradshaw has been doing for years in his inner child workshops and self-help books, he advises all that doing “original pain work” that heals toxic shame “allows for the development of healthy shame…to accept [one’s] perfectly imperfect human nature.”

Much of the time Bradshaw speaks from his own experiences, from his heart.  He performs and informs, leaving the audience with plenty to ponder and an interest in learning more about the concept and development of moral intelligence.  He was still signing books long after the lecture ended.