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Race, IQ and moral worth
Those of us who entertain the plausibility of hereditarianism (that genes contribute to racial IQ gaps) are often accused of claiming that some groups are “inferior” to others. “So what you’re saying is that black people are just inferior to white people?!” the critic will sputter, Cathy Newman-style.
There are several responses to this accusation. One goes as follows. We already have overwhelming evidence that individual differences in IQ are partly heritable, which means that some individuals have higher IQs than others partly because they possess different genes. Do you accept this evidence? Yes? Well that means you believe that some individuals are just inferior to others. Fascist! Eugenicist! Social Darwinist!
As someone who’s been subjected to the accusation more than perhaps any other living person, Charles Murray has a go-to rebuttal: IQ is not the same thing as moral worth; in fact, it’s members of the “anti-racist” elite who most frequently conflate the two.
Yet some hereditarians have pushed back against Murray’s claim. Emil Kirkegaard points out that intelligence is surely correlated with moral worth (people with higher intelligence are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to be net tax-payers). Nathan Cofnas argues that “in some respect” less intelligent people are inferior. If two people were drowning and I could only save one, he notes, “I’d consider relative intelligence”.
In a little-known paper from 2000, the philosopher Stephen Kershnar goes as far as saying that “racial and ethnic groups differ in their per capita intrinsic moral value”. His argument is based on the assumptions that “intrinsic moral value is proportional to autonomy” and “autonomy is proportional to intelligence”. Though he also invokes group differences in criminality, noting that “differences in per capita autonomy do not appear to be offset by other grounds of intrinsic moral value”.
So is Murray wrong about IQ and moral worth? I don’t believe he is. No one can seriously dispute the correlations between IQ and pro-social behaviour; nor that they have at least some causal component. However, the fact that the are probabilistic rather than deterministic is crucial.
Intelligence, to quote Linda Gottfredson, is “a very general mental capability”. And it can be put to good use or bad. Examples of it being put to bad use are obvious: white-collar criminals, high-functioning psychopaths, well-educated proponents of totalitarian ideologies.
When Nazi leaders were put on trial in Nuremberg at the end of the Second World War, they were given IQ tests. Surprisingly (to some people) most of them had very high IQs. (The reason it’s not surprising is that getting ahead in any political hierarchy requires intelligence, so almost every country’s leaders are positively selected for that trait.)
Among the 21 individuals tested, the average was 128 – just under 2 standard deviations above the mean. Interestingly, the highest score of 143 was attained by Hjalmar Schacht, an economist who helped spur Germany’s “economic miracle” but who resigned his post in 1939 and was later arrested by the Gestapo. Schacht was acquitted of all charges at Nuremberg.
Despite these men’s high IQs, their moral worth was far from exceptional. Indeed, it would be reasonable to argue that, through their actions, they showed themselves to have little or no moral worth (the guilty ones, I mean). Someone might reply that all humans have the same moral worth, but I would seriously contest this proposition.
Even if you deny that people guilty of such crimes should be put to death, you must admit that they have less moral worth than people who’ve done nothing wrong. Take Cofnas’s drowning example. If Adolf Hitler and an innocent person were both drowning and you could only save one, should you be indifferent because “all humans have the same moral worth”? Surely not. It’s right to save the innocent person because Hitler is less worthy.
The high intelligence of Nazi leaders clearly demonstrates that IQ and moral worth are not the same, even if the former has a probabilistic causal effect on behaviour that contributes to the latter. With that said, I still need to address Cofnas’s argument.
If two people were drowning and all you knew was that one of them had a higher IQ, should you save that one? A consequentialist would presumably say “yes”, on the grounds that the one with the higher IQ would be likely to do more good and less harm during the rest of his life. I’m inclined to agree, though I don’t think an answer of “you should be indifferent” is completely indefensible. It’s certainly more defensible than in the Hitler case.
Nevertheless, tweaking the set-up slightly shows there’s nothing particularly special about intelligence. If two people were drowning and one of them had a slightly higher IQ but the other was a lot more hard-working, which one should you save? Arguably the other. If two people were drowning and one of them had a slightly higher IQ but also happened to be a serial killer, which one should you save? Again, the other.
This thought experiment is useful for illustrating that humans differ in moral worth – but that’s all. It doesn’t show that IQ is the same as moral worth any more than it shows being hard-working is the same as moral worth.
When it comes to groups, the notion of moral worth becomes even muddier and, I would argue, non-sensical. Let’s say that individuals who score higher on traits that predict pro-social behaviour do have greater moral worth, all else being equal. Then, yes, the average amount of moral worth will differ between groups.
However, this does not mean there’s such a thing as “group-level moral worth”. It simply means that averages exist.
One group cannot be said to have more or less moral worth than another because moral worth is a function of the actions taken by individual agents. A group is not an agent that can be responsible, and hence blameworthy, for particular actions. If several individuals work together in pursuit of some immoral scheme (as the Nazi leaders did), each is responsible for his own participation; there is no “group responsibility”.
What’s more, race would in this case be only one of many ways of classifying individuals. For example, you could divide the population into IQ deciles and say that the top decile had the greatest average moral worth. In fact, you could divide it into an arbitrarily large number of quantiles and in each case say the top one had the greatest average moral worth. Doing so would not be particularly illuminating.
While people differ in moral worth, the mere fact that someone has a high IQ does not guarantee he is of great moral worth (a mass murderer with a high IQ is of little or none). It may be reasonable to argue that, all else being equal, higher IQ equates to greater moral worth – though this is true of all socially valued traits, so there’s nothing special about intelligence.
If the traits that predict pro-social behaviour vary among individuals, one can compare averages for different groups. Yet such comparisons do not imply there’s such thing as “group-level moral worth”. A virtuous person from a group with a low average is still virtuous and hence of elevated moral worth.
Overall then, Murray is right. IQ is not the same as moral worth and it’s a mistake to treat it as such.
Image: USAAF, Ruins of Nuremberg, 1945
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