Race, Intelligence and Egalitarianism

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Philosopher Peter Singer.

Jeet’s post below about Beatniks with low IQs refers to a debate in the American blogosphere about race and intelligence. Click on Jeet’s link to Matthew Yglesias and from there you eventually come to a series of posts by Slate writer Wiliam Saletan, who started the latest controversy over this all-too-familiar topic. Saletan’s series has already generate several rebuttals, most of which have focused on whether or not the scientific claims he is publicizing are true. That’s a perfectly valid response. However, in addition to all the scientific issues, there is a philosophical problem with Saletan’s series: it runs together two different meanings of equality. Once this ambivalence is pointed out, it illustrates a larger problem with “race science” research and the debate around it.

Ideas about equality take many different forms, but in terms of the race and IQ debate, two that are often run together are equality of ability and equality of consideration. One is a factual claim about people’s abilities, as when we say two athletes are equally matched. The other is a moral principle that is meant to guide our decisions, as when we say that a law should apply equally to everyone, regardless of their race, gender or religion.

Peter Singer, the well-known philosopher, does a good job of separating these two understandings of equality as they appear in the race and intelligence debate:

The appropriate response to those who claim to have found evidence of genetically-based differences in ability between the races or sexes is not to stick to the belief that the genetic explanation must be wrong, whatever evidence to the contrary may turn up: instead we should make it quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.

Once we see that moral egalitarianism is an ethical principle, not an assertion of fact, it becomes clear that no amount of scientific research could ever debunk it. Ask yourself: is your opposition to racial bigotry really conditional on any given minority’s IQ scores? Surely Singer is right: members of all ethnic groups deserve equal consideration and moral respect regardless of how well they do on intelligence tests—or in Olympic events, or line dancing, or any other activity we might think of. That’s because, to be worthy of equal moral consideration, it is sufficient simply to be human. As Singer puts it elsewhere, “Equal status does not depend on intelligence. Racists who maintain the contrary are in peril of being forced to kneel before the next genius they encounter.”

Once we have the distinction between factual and moral equality clearly in mind, it is worth asking whether Saletan-style discussions of race, genes and intelligence challenge one or both kinds of equality. Consider three possibe forms such discussions can take:

1. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while stressing that equal moral consideration remains a foundational moral principle, one that is not possibly affected by any scientific findings.

2. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while remaining silent on the principle of equal consideration.

3. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while simultaneously criticizing or calling into question the principle of equal consideration.

Approach number one makes a controversial scientific claim, one that I doubt for reasons that have been well explained here and here. Nevertheless, however much I might disagree on scientific grounds with someone who adopted approach one, I would not morally criticize them, as they would not be calling moral equality into question.

Approach number two is just as scientifically controversial as the first one, but more ambiguous about moral equality. Nevertheless, there may be times when it is appropriate to discuss a hypothesis about race and intelligence without also mentioning equal consideration. Such might be the case, for example, when writing for a scientific journal.

Approach number three also makes a controversial scientific assertion. In addition to that, however, it makes a gratuitious moral claim, one that derives no support whatsoever from any possible answer to the race, genes and IQ question. Moreover, the moral claim at hand is disturbing. To suggest that racial minorities are not entitled to the minimal entitlement of equal consideration quickly leads into dangerous territory. For these reasons approach number three, in addition to being confused, is also highly objectionable.

Which approach does Saletan take? Consider the following passages in which he mentions equality:

The same values—equality, hope, and brotherhood—are under scientific threat today. But this time, the threat is racial genetics, and the people struggling with it are liberals.

Today, the dilemma is yours. You can try to reconcile evidence of racial differences with a more sophisticated understanding of equality and opportunity. Or you can fight the evidence and hope it doesn’t break your faith.

Saletan is clearly taking approach number three: not only is he inquiring into race and genetic IQ differences, he is linking the scientific “findings” on the issue with the possibility that we might have to give up on moral equality. As he puts it in an addendum to his series, “I wanted to discuss whether egalitarianism could survive if [genetic IQ differences among races] turned out to be true.”

The premise of Saletan’s series is based on a conceptual confusion. Yet it is also representative of how the most extreme race and IQ researchers have framed the significance on their findings. As Saletan notes, one of his primary sources, J. Phillippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, gives presentations on his research at conferences organized by American Renaissance, a pro-segregation magazine. Another prominent race and IQ researcher, Richard Lynn, has addressed the same group, telling them that the lower average IQ of black people supports restricting Caribbean immigration to England.

It is not fair to put Saletan on the same level as Rushton and Lynn. As anyone who reads his writings knows, Saletan is an egalitarian at heart, one who has taken temporary leave of his senses. Nevertheless, Saletan’s series inadvertently represents a sleight-of-hand that race-science extremists also make. They simultaneously put forward both a scientific and a political argument, and misleadingly suggest that their politics derive support from their “science.”

No doubt it is because the arguments against moral equality are so weak that Rushton, Lynn and others cloak their political arguments in the guise of science. If they put their political claims forward without scientific cover, it would only reveal the casual bigotry on which the rejection of moral equality rests.