“By contrast, those on the Left tend to prefer more transparently social determinants, such as ethnic or economic background and push against anything which seems to ‘naturalize’ inequality by explaining it biologically.”
ne of the features of contemporary discourse that has never made a great deal of sense to me is the hoopla over the significance of genetically heritable intelligence. Figures on the political right, from Charles Murray through to Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux, tend to ascribe great unicausal significance to Intelligence quotient (IQ) as a determinant of inequality. At its best, some of this research is empirically interesting. At its worst, it can lead to nasty arguments about racial inequities. By contrast, those on the Left tend to prefer more transparently social determinants, such as ethnic or economic background and push against anything which seems to “naturalize” inequality by explaining it biologically. A strong example would be the controversy over elite post-secondary schools accepting students largely—or almost exclusively—from the most affluent classes. The general tendency is for each side to trumpet its preferred empirical findings and dismiss any criticisms presented by the other as politically motivated or shallow.
My feeling is that much of this discourse is actually politically irrelevant. There is no doubt that people differ in their natural talents, such as intelligence, though even on this point we must be careful. While human potential may have an innate quality, the capacity to meaningfully develop such potential into talent owes a great deal to fortunate circumstances. Empirical approaches to intelligence make for interesting research questions, and there are conclusions about which intelligent people may disagree. More pressing to me, however, is whether these findings should have normative significance as they pertain to debates about inequality and socio-economic status. And here is where things get well out of whack.
Even if it did turn out that IQ determined socio-economic status, we would have no reason to accept that as a just outcome.
Fairness and the Distribution of Natural Talents
“Thus it is incorrect that individuals with greater natural endowments and the superior character that has made their development possible have a right to a cooperative scheme that enables them to obtain even further benefits in ways that do not contribute to the advantages of others. We do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting place in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.” – John Rawls in A Theory of Justice
The argument about intelligence and inequality is often presented in a rather coarse manner. Proponents of the argument that IQ—itself often assumed to be an uncontroversial indicator of intelligence—is a natural determinant of one’s socio-economic station smuggle a sizable moral assumption into their claim. This smuggled assumption is that if something is natural, then it should not be cause for political controversy. They assume that if smart people get ahead and the rest fall behind, this is inevitable—and there is little we should do to correct for it. But this is by no means obvious. And, as I shall show, this line of argument is actually quite unpersuasive. Even if it did turn out that IQ determined socio-economic status, we would have no reason to accept that as a just outcome.
Debates about inequality resonate with us because they are intimately related to questions of fairness. The mythical story told in many capitalist societies is that if one gets ahead it should be on the basis of an ambiguous quality called “merit.” Individuals who are rewarded more than others must deserve it in some sense; otherwise, there would be a serious moral controversy about inequality. Max Weber showed as early as in his 1905 work The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that this meritocratic mythology has deep roots in Christian thinking about God’s tendency to reward the good and punish the sinful. However, this thinking is now secularized and applied to the decidedly non-theological entity of the capitalist market. The problem is that decades of empirical research has shown that many people do not get ahead purely or even largely on the basis of “merit”—whatever that even means. A vast and growing amount of wealth is inherited by elite families, such as the Walton family and the Koch family; wealthy people do plenty to hedge the political system to their benefit, and huge advantages—including genetic advantages—are passed onto the children of affluent parents. Faced with this tendency, many increasingly accuse the system of being unfair since it privileges the advantaged over the disadvantaged. This is, obviously, a serious problem in countries committed to the liberal principle that all are created equal and that all must be shown equal respect by the law and government. In such a context, appealing to IQ or some other metric of intelligence can seem like a handy retort. The anger over glaring inequities can be explained away by gesturing to a factor that feels meritocratic; in this view, those who got ahead were simply smarter than their competitors.
The problem is that it is hard to think of something that owes less to personal merit than intelligence. It is a paradigmatic trophy awarded by the genetic lottery. That it may owe something to having intelligent parents, who are likely already well off, in fact, makes the problem worse. This is because it suggests the lottery is not randomized but skewed to concentrate rewards and globalize disadvantages. For these reasons, the liberal political theorist John Rawls rightly described intelligence and other natural talents as “morally arbitrary.” They had nothing to do with a person’s merit as ascertained from a moral point of view. They were simply natural facts—much in the same way that some people were born tall and others shot. What was morally significant were not these natural facts but how institutions chose to deal with said facts. As Rawls wrote:
“We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action.”
This last point is key. It highlights the assumption built into the argument of those fixated on IQ: that natural facts correspond to a just hierarchical order that we must accept, rather than question. But that is clearly not so; human sickness and premature death are also natural facts, and we would have little trust in a society that encouraged us simply to resign ourselves to them. A just society is not one that simply accepts or valorizes nature; it is one that improves upon it to the benefit of all.
It is difficult to think of a more unfair and unjust society than one where mere genetic lottery is permitted readily to determine who gets what. Such a society would have decided that the actual choices a person makes—not to mention what degree of respect everyone should be entitled to (as a matter of securing political legitimacy)—are inconsequential. Some might retort that this is still meritocratic in the sense of allowing the “best” to rise to the top. But what is meant by best is not “good” or “virtuous” or even “useful.” What is, thus, meant by “best” is “most gifted by nature,” which many commentators seem to think mystically warrants reverence analogous to Achilles being blessed by the gods. A just society genuinely committed to liberal principles of moral equality and fairness should have little to do with such sentiments. It should not ask “What gifts has nature shown fit to bestow you?” but instead “What arrangement of goods and honors would best reflect a commitment to our deepest principles?”
Here, I think we should follow Rawls again and recognize that liberal socialism is the way to go. A just society would permit inequalities to generate wealth—but only to the extent that these inequalities work to the benefit of the least well-off. People would be rewarded and praised for developing their natural talents, such as intelligence. This is both because taking the time to do so demonstrates good character—and because it is socially useful to do so. However, it should also be acknowledged that the gifts granted to the particularly intelligent are granted to them by fate. As such, these gifts ought not be viewed as some indicator of anointed superiority.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof