15 September 2017

Does the idea of ‘social justice’ lead to atrocities?

A couple of years ago there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘Intelligence — born smart, born equal, born different’.

According to the Radio Times review of the programme,
The analysis of inherited intelligence is something of a moral maze ... [Does research on this topic] really threaten all our utopian ideas of equality?
Francis Galton
(1822 - 1911)
In 1869 Francis Galton published his book Hereditary Genius, exploring the possible genetic basis of high ability. The idea of hereditary ability had already been of long standing when Galton’s book appeared.

The concept of an ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ) as a measurable predictor of academic success only started to become of serious interest with the rise in state education and the desire to grade people on a nationwide basis. However, IQ soon became unfashionable again, perhaps because some studies suggested there was a significant inherited component to it, which did not fit with the politics of the time. And so research on IQ was gradually expunged from academic awareness.

IQ began to be referred to as ‘the false hypothesis’, as if it had been intrinsically bound up with the assertion of hereditary ability, whereas in fact the heredity idea had been around since well before the nineteenth century. Dismissing the concept of IQ as dubious also made the idea of heredity per se taboo in academic circles, and it now appears to have become something that is not even ‘talked about in polite society’.

According to a review of the programme in the Daily Mail, Galton’s ideas
were taken up with lethal enthusiasm in many countries in the early 20th century, leading to the theory of eugenics, sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ and, ultimately, Nazi genocide.
This of course is the standard way in which the concepts of heritability and innate intelligence are nowadays made to seem controversial, to the point that it supposedly becomes reasonable to suppress discussion of them. The argument is that they are somehow responsible for the Holocaust, as well as other atrocities.

An alternative argument, which seems no less plausible, is that what made the Holocaust, the Gulags, and various other genocides and human rights abuses possible was support for the tenet that

the collective has a right to interfere with individuals, provided it is done for the benefit of society.

If it were true that commitment to this tenet makes atrocities more likely, and one applied the same line of reasoning as is used to justify suppression of the discussion of IQ, it would follow that concepts such as ‘the interests of society’, the ‘right of the majority’, ‘social justice’ or ‘state planning’ should be regarded as ethically dubious, since their use tends to provide support for the tenet. This would point towards such concepts being avoided in discussion.

However, in practice this line of reasoning is never applied, or even considered.

A version of this post was published in 2014.