The Politics of Natural Ability

There has recently been a considerable amount of attention and controversy surrounding proposed differences in the natural talents of social groups. Most, though not all, of these claims tend to concern the relative intelligence of some social groups compared to others. This includes claims such as the greater male variability hypothesis, which maintains that more men than women tend to fall on both the higher and lower ends of the IQ spectrum; ongoing and furious controversy about the intellectual aptitudes of various racial groups; and arguments about the correlation between intelligence and success. Though the intelligence dispute is perhaps the most prominent, there are also ongoing arguments about more abstract natural talents, including which social groups possess a stronger biological work ethic and who is best able to cope with stressful situations.

The furor surrounding these issues is to be expected, as are the varied reactions to such claims. In general, the radical or postmodern left is hostile to any claims that different social groups have variable natural talents. To the extent that one can quantify any differences in talents, they are to be attributed to sociological and political inequalities, which enable some to unjustly get ahead. By contrast, figures on the political right—from meritocratic classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives to the far right—tend to be more willing to accept that differences in natural talents are inevitable and largely unchangeable. Many are understandably concerned that politically correct left wing attitudes are proving a barrier to the pursuit of scientific knowledge about social groups and that this will in turn hinder our ability to promote the general welfare of society, since accurate scientific data on natural talents like intelligence can be useful when developing social programs and assessing long term developments. On the other hand, left wingers are concerned that the far right might invoke differences in the natural talents of different social groups to justify illiberal and discriminatory policies. While we have made considerable progress towards establishing a more equitable society, many still alive today have lived in societies in which the pseudo-scientific theories of various social Darwinists were used to justify a host of racist policies. Many of these continue to have a negative impact on talented members of marginalized groups and undoubtedly contribute to injustices, which liberal polities would be wise to rectify. Sadly, social Darwinist arguments have not entirely gone away. Far right figures, such as Stefan Molyneux, continue to invoke alleged differences in natural talents to try to justify various sexist and racist policies. This lends some credibility to left wing concerns about granting political significance to such arguments, even if it does not disprove the idea that there may be differences in natural talents.

The Radical Left Position on the Natural Talents of Different Social Groups

Much of the political thinking surrounding differences in natural talents is irrelevant from the standpoint of consistent and egalitarian liberalism. We must distinguish between the political significance granted to differences in natural talents by egalitarian liberals, and the political significance granted to such differences by the radical left and right. These positions should be understood as idealized categorizations, rather than as reflecting the specific views of individual authors. Generalizations cannot do full justice to the variability and occasional ideological inconsistency one sees in real authors. I am deeply skeptical that many differences in natural talents either exist or are actually that significant. While there is some evidence of variability in natural talents between the sexes (but not for inequality in the overall talents of men and women), I have not seen any convincing evidence that there is much variability in the natural talents of different ethnic or racial groups. But any differences in the natural talents of social groups should not be determinative of their status in society.

The position of many on the radical left is that there are no natural differences in the talents of different social groups, and therefore one can ascribe no political significance to such non-existent differences. This of course does not mean that there are no meaningful differences between the developed talents and successes of different social groups. But these differences can be attributed to sociological and political factors, rather than to nature. They are artificial distinctions, produced because different social groups come of age in unequal contexts and enjoy unequal advantages.

It is indisputable that certain groups enjoy unequal opportunities to develop their talents, which stem from sociological and political factors. For instance, women continue to perform a greater share of the world’s unpaid labor, while many girls are still denied the opportunity to attend primary or secondary school due to the persistence of sexist norms and policies (https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/girls-factsheet-en.pdf ). The same is true for many racial groups. For instance, the persistence of economic inequalities makes it more difficult for many black students to attend elite colleges, even when their grades would merit entry. These economic inequalities emerged due to centuries of oppression in racist societies, and are unjustifiable. The sociological and political factors which produce an unfair distribution of opportunities between groups are something that a just, liberal society would work to ameliorate.

However, the radical left can be too insistent on denying that there might be natural differences in the talents of different social groups. They are motivated in this by a reasonable concern that any such natural differences will be invoked to justify inequalities, which are actually the result of sociological and political factors. Or, worse, to justify new discriminatory policies. But it is insufficient to simply declare that there are no differences in the natural talents of different social groups. In the long run, being unwilling to even ask about differences in natural talents strikes me as unsustainable. Research into these questions will continue, and will likely produce results that problematize the argument that there are no natural differences in the talents of different social groups. If the left does not consider these issues, it will cede a great deal of ideological ground to the inegalitarian ideologies of the political right. Moreover, I do not think there is tremendous cause for concern. Most studies establishing differences in natural talents—for instance between the sexes—suggest that, while there is variability in the talents enjoyed by different groups, this tends to be minimal. More importantly, variability in natural talents does not suggest that one group is simply more talented than another. It simply implies that different groups tend to be better at different things. One of the major problems from an egalitarian liberal standpoint is that our society often rewards certain talents at the expense of others. One benefit of accepting the possibility of differences in natural talents is that it may enable us to develop more powerful arguments to show that a sincere liberalism needn’t allow such differences to produce unfair and unequal results.

The Right Position on the Natural Talents of Different Social Groups

Let us consider the position of the political right. There is a fair amount of variability on the question of what political significance should be granted to differences in the natural talents of different social groups. But most agree that there are likely to be differences between the natural talents of different social groups, and that this should have some political significance. For some, notably classical liberals, the state need do little to rectify inequalities that result from entirely natural differences in talents. For instance, Jordan Peterson will often invoke the different natural talents of men and women, in order to criticize feminist arguments about inequalities between the sexes. A common example would be that sociological and political factors, such as the influence of patriarchy, lead to income inequality between the sexes. For Peterson and other classical liberals, any such inequalities are better explained by the different natural talents and inclinations of the sexes. The political significance of this argument for classical liberals is that the state need not interfere with the economy and gender relations to produce more equal outcomes for men and women. Classical liberals argue that differences in natural talents provide support for a meritocratic system of distributive justice, which coincides very much with how the market rewards various talents. While traditional classical liberals don’t favor discriminatory policies to prevent various social groups from participating in the market economy, they aren’t generally interested in policies that will ameliorate the inequalities which might emerge from possessing unequal natural talents.

Those on the far right tend take a far more radical position. They tend to regard alleged differences as a justification for the state to adopt a discriminatory attitude towards what they see as inferior social groups. As a result, individuals on the far right tend to make patronizing and illiberal arguments. For instance, they will argue that natural differences in the intelligence of various racial groups can explain why blacks are incarcerated at a far higher rate than whites. Or they claim that differences in the natural talents of men and women justify the return of patriarchal hierarchies. Such far right arguments by figures like Stefan Molyneux are designed not just to neutralize the claim that sociological and political factors play a role in generating inequalities, but often to implicitly—and at times explicitly—support illiberal policies, such as apartheid or racial and sexual discrimination by social institutions.

There is something to the classical liberal argument about the dangers of trying to rectify all inequalities resulting from nature. The objections to this position were perhaps best stated in Robert Nozick’s classic work Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick observes that anyone who truly wishes to rectify all inequalities flowing from natural talents will ultimately be pushed into supporting an immensely intrusive state, which may well buck any possibility of pursuing excellence. Nozick observes that someone who truly thinks differences in natural talents are unfair would be compelled to support hugely illiberal policies: for instance, making more physically attractive individuals uglier through cosmetic surgery. I do not think any reasonable person could support such a drastic egalitarianism. However, it is possible to overstate such worries, and to understate the significance of sociological and political factors in generating inequality by explaining everything through differences in natural talents. The far right arguments are grotesquely misleading and wrong. Individuals like Stefan Molyneux, who invoke alleged differences in natural talents to justify racist or sexist policies, are promoting positions that cannot be sustained by anyone concerned with fairness.

Egalitarian Liberalism and Differences in Natural Talents

The radical left believe that differences in natural talents do not exist, and are therefore not politically significant. The political right believe that natural talents do exist, and should have some political significance. There is a third way: an egalitarian liberal position on the political significance of differences in natural talents. Egalitarian liberalism holds—like the classical liberal position—that, if they exist, differences in the natural talents of different social groups have some political significance, but of a special kind. This runs contrary to the classical liberal claim that differences in natural talents justify the unequal opportunities and benefits individuals from those social groups possess. But differences in natural talents are purely arbitrary from a moral point of view. The political upshot of this is that a fair, liberal society should do a great deal to compensate those with different or unequal natural talents.

Many such arguments draw on the pioneering thinking of John Rawls, the most famous twentieth century liberal. An egalitarian liberal accepts that there may be inequalities in natural talents between individuals and social groups. But, unlike a classical liberal, she contends that these inequalities have little to do with the individual or social merit of the subjects concerned because natural talents are distributed in an arbitrary manner, which has nothing to do with anyone’s moral worth. It says little about a person that he was fortunate enough to be born with an IQ of 150 and wound up as an engineer. Nor should we condemn those without such innate capacities, if they end up working in professions that are less socially and economically valued. Moreover, the egalitarian liberal will observe that which natural talents tend to be valued depends a great deal on arbitrary circumstances, which themselves have nothing to do with nature. For instance, men’s athletic talents tend to be economically valued over those of women. This is often justified by pointing to men’s superior strength and athletic potential. But this is a bad argument. The value attributed to competitive athletics is itself highly arbitrary: if our society happened to attribute greater social value to activities in which women tend to excel (as it should), then we would be less prone to valuing the sexes unequally. The same can be said of other natural talents that happen to be unevenly distributed across social groups. In many circumstances, those talents are only valuable because we have collectively decided to attribute value to them. There is nothing natural about such a process of attribution.

The political consequences of this are that—contra the radical left argument—arbitrary differences in natural talents should acknowledged and granted political significance. But only as a first step to acknowledging that the unequal outcomes generated by such differences have nothing to do with the moral merit of individuals. Fair and liberal societies would not accept the classical liberal dictum that unequal natural talents justify unequal outcomes, let alone the far right arguments for enacting illiberal racist and sexist policies. The far right arguments are especially repugnant because they imply that arbitrary differences in natural talents justify enacting policies that punish people for circumstances beyond their control. Such arguments should be abhorrent to anyone who takes liberalism and human rights seriously. If different social groups happen to have different natural talents, the job of a just society would be to ensure that each of them still has access to fair opportunities, so their different skills can be rewarded and acknowledged. Not to do so would be to allow morally arbitrary factors a huge and unjustifiable influence over determining who gets what.

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20 comments

  1. I’m sorry, Matt!

    Men and women do not belong to different social groups. They belong to different biological groups. It makes a huge difference.

  2. Thanks, this is a really thoughtful and balanced article on an important issue. When you say at the end, though, ‘If different social groups happen to have different natural talents, the job of a just society would be to ensure that each of them still has access to fair opportunities, so their different skills can be rewarded and acknowledged,’ doesn’t that cede the point that different skills (even ones we get from the ‘genetic lottery’) should be rewarded in different ways?

    More fundamentally, I think Rawls’ idea of the ‘genetic lottery’ (and the attendant implication that significantly inherited abilities aren’t earned) is an interesting one, especially since it put natural abilities at the same level (morally speaking) as, say, inherited wealth. One problem I have with it, though, is that it seems to do rather more than he intended it to, especially in the lights of the last few decades of genetic research, which has taught us that a lot more of our characteristics are inherited (or have a significant component of heritability) than we used to think.

    So, in the 70s it might have been possible to say, ‘Well, you don’t deserve anything for your IQ, since that’s significantly inherited,’ and that would leave room for moral merit to accrue to people for things like hard work or kindness. Nowadays, though, it seems clear that even personality traits like conscientiousness and empathy have a significant genetic component. So if none of these characteristics are entirely earned, where does that leave us? Presumably in a position that we can’t make strong moral claims about any characteristics that people have.

    It seems to me, then, that what distinguishes characteristics that we reward (as morally praiseworthy) from those we don’t (as just as matter of happenstance) can’t just be there ‘earned’ nature, at least not any more. I can’t tell you where the distinction does derive from, but I can say that I feel perfectly comfortable rewarding people who are kind and conscientious (and more than people who don’t), even though I now believe that there’s an extent to which these traits are inherited.

    And those are just the considerations of moral philosophy. There are also more pragmatic concerns; for example, there’s a strong argument that society works better if people have clear incentives to develop and exercise their capacity for conscientiousness (say), something that would be difficult if we went around simply compensating people for a poor natural endowment of it.

    One final note on a separate point, the point about group differences. As I pointed out in my own piece for Areo a while back, there are groups that very obviously are less intelligent and hard-working than average: the sets of people who are less intelligent and hard-working than average. On some level, we know that there are sets of people who are less capable (physically and intellectually) than the mean. Does that entail that they should be disenfranchised or repressed? Of course not – indeed, it may mean that should treat them especially kindly, as I think we quite rightly strive to do these days.

  3. The troubles with the approach of compensating those of lesser ability are manifold.

    Firstly, you choose to punish the capable, the hard-working and the intelligent and reward the stupid, the lazy and the feckless.

    Secondly, how will you determine who belongs in which category? Should an especially able and intelligent black man have his earnings reduced as punishment for his talents, or should he be granted benefits for being black? The danger of assessing the abilities of individuals on the basis of which arbitrary groups you can place them in is that very often yourbsystem won’t fit.

    Or perhaps you would prefer to subject every individual to a battery of tests to determine what employment, earnings and promotions they should be permitted? In which case, it is in the individual’s interest to ensure that they always score low on ability and highly on whatever oppression Olympics you set up as criteria – thereby creating a race to the bottom.

    Whichever path you advocate, it is the sort of folly that only an intellectual, shielded from the realities of life, could advocate.

    1. Given Rawls fought in the Second World War and lost many of his siblings to disease early in life, I hardly see how he was “shielded from the realities of life.” I would say it made him more intensely away of the inequities of the world, and determined to rectify them.

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      1. I was not just talking about him.

        Tell me: how do you reconcile combating discrimination by using discrimination? And just how you would avoid any society that adopted such policies from running itself into the ground? On what basis would you sort and sift human beings in all of their individual complexity into a handful of homogenous groups based solely upon characteristics that are beyond their control?

  4. The Left, with their “no such thing as different natural talents” seems to believe that the rich could only possibly have gotten rich by theft (which then justifies redistribution)–ie that there is at present no meritocracy anywhere in our society, just power relations. I shudder to think how badly things would run if we assigned jobs by lottery.

    1. In fact I imply in this piece, and its parent, that theft had nothing to do with it. Luck does. And this is the problem. The way society is structured now is very much like a “lottery” where accidental talents and social circumstances enable some to get ahead while the inverse prove a barrier to many. A just society wouldn’t allow such an arbitrary birth lottery so much significance in determining where people end up.

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      1. While it may be luck to be born smart, so many jobs these days require special talents (not just IQ). Some require obsessive attention to detail. Some require the ability to make vast social contacts. Let us assume this is all luck which genes you got. Nevertheless, unless we reward the best in each talent category we will not have a functioning society. Do you want to rectify the luck of genes by giving untalented and not bright people the job of surgeon or pilot? I don’t.

  5. I admire you for taking on this issue – I think the classical liberal argument that innate differences will determine justifiable distributions of power in society, coupled with the insistence on innate differences between sexes (and even worse, race) amounts to a highly intellectualized defense of a world where women and people of color are worse off for ‘natural’ reasons. I hope to pitch Areo with a piece on this topic soon because I think in many ways critics who compare the IDW to the alt-right are not mistaken. Nobody in the IDW is a racist or a sexist. But the abstract defenses of inequality as a fact of nature coupled with group differences paint a stark picture of social condemnation unfit for individualist, democratic modern societies where we simultaneously put forth colorblindness and natural difference as values with no perception of the contradiction there formed.

  6. How do you square the following two quotes from the article:

    “The far right arguments are especially repugnant because they imply that arbitrary differences in natural talents justify enacting policies that punish people for circumstances beyond their control.”

    “..a fair, liberal society should do a great deal to compensate those with different or unequal natural talents”

    Presumably the redistribution of wealth and opportunity that you’re hinting at would punish those people who’ve attained their wealth and opportunity on the basis of their valued talents (by taking away some of said wealth and opportunity). Taking from one on the basis of their talents and giving to the other on the basis of their talents is just another way of “punishing people for circumstances beyond their control.”

    Redistributive policies, unless wholly voluntary, are unjust. The state, were it at all concerned with justice, would refrain from playing Robin Hood.

  7. To call Stefan a far right figure is nonsensical. Oh, well, Steven Pinker was called alt-right; so inowadays being called that means nothing.

    1. Considering he has offered apologetics for apartheid and the destruction of aboriginal people-you can hear about the former in the video I linked to-I’m not sure what else you can call him.

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    1. I am not sure what you mean. It anything I am suggesting we need to accept the scientific consensus on such questions. Natural facts are natural facts. What matters is how people and institutions deal with those facts; and that is where the moral and political dispute comes in.

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  8. “I am deeply skeptical that many differences in natural talents either exist or are actually that significant. While there is some evidence of variability in natural talents between the sexes, I have not seen any convincing evidence that there is much variability in the natural talents of different ethnic or racial groups. But any differences in the natural talents of social groups should not be determinative of their status in society.”

    AAHG!!!. “variability in natural talents between the sexes (but not for inequality in the overall talents of men and women)” “variability in the natural talents of different ethnic or racial groups” “differences in the natural talents of social groups should not be determinative of their status in society”…. Groups don’t have talents!!!! Only individuals do!!!! There very plainly is variability in talent between individuals. Where a talent put to use redounds to the benefit of members of a society then there is every reason for the degrees of possession and use of that talent to be, partly, determinative of the status in society of persons possessing and using greater or lesser amounts of that talent – because talents don’t exist apart from the person whose talents they are. A talent is part and parcel of a person. A talent put beneficially to use is a beneficial person.

    The great defect in leftist thinking is the, apparently, ineluctable incapacity of the leftist mind to distinguish between the epistemological status of groups as against the ontological status of individuals. A group is an intellectual construction. An individual is an existential fact.

    There is no such thing as the “average IQ of blacks” (or men or women or cats or dogs). There is such a thing as the “average OF the IQs (plural) OF (some) blacks” (provided we can agree on what criteria to use to classify persons in the sample of IQ scores as “blacks”). Such a statistic may be useful in calculating the odds of observing some particular proportion of, say, “blacks” among, say, “asians” in an engineering classroom at MIT so as to say whether it’s consistent with the proportion of persons possessing the necessary talent for mathematics who are also “blacks” relative to the proportion of said persons who are also “asians” in the general population, or whether the explanation for their relative proportions in the classroom must lie elsewhere, but such a statistic does not establish that some group called “blacks” (or men or women or cats or dogs) has an IQ at all, let alone an IQ of some particular number.

    “If different social groups happen to have different natural talents, the job of a just society would be to ensure that each of them still has access to fair opportunities, so their different skills can be rewarded and acknowledged”. Utter nonsense. Groups aren’t people and cannot enjoy or take advantage of opportunities, nor can a group receive a reward or an acknowledgement . Only people can. I can only charitably assume that what the author meant to say was, “If different people happen to have different natural talents, the job of a just society would be to ensure that each of them still has access to fair opportunities, so they can earn reward and acknowledgement if they have a mind to, regardless of whatever group someone might like to classify them into.”

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    1. Why do you think this approach isn’t normatively or ontologically individualistic. If anything it implies that arbitrary factors which have little to do with an individual’s moral behavior should have no bearing on their status as subjects of distributive justice. If anything the argument against other moral and political traditions-such as Utilitarianism and classical liberalism-is they don’t take such factors seriously enough. Arbitrary historical and natural facts about how women or other races were treated are still allowed or have to much bearing in determining outcomes for individuals.

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      1. Also I should point out that your ontological individualism, while a perspective I share, is by no means self evident. From Hume to Derek Parfit there is a long intellectual history of figures who challenge the idea that the self-surely at the core of any individualistic philosophy-may not exist in any firm sense. I personally disagree with these positions, but it is hardly self-evident that they are wrong.

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    2. Groups don’t have talents!!!! Only individuals do!!!!

      Groups don’t have height, only individuals do, therefore it would be wrong to say men are generally taller than women.

      Because, you know, statistics and stuff, is just maths.

  9. The metric would be that you can compensate for inequities in natural talents to the point where that would create disincentives which would make the unfortunate less well off than they would be otherwise. What that might entail is of course highly determined by context and circumstance. It may well look different in distinct societies with unique histories.

    I would maintain that he best place to start looking for concrete steps would be Martha Nussbaum, who discusses a list of human capabilities which could be fostered to generate an adequate level of fair equality of opportunity. This list has actually proven quite useful in development contexts such as India, where it has provided useful theoretical guidance on how to make the poor and disadvantaged better off. It is also general enough to be context sensitive.

    This lecture summarizes the main idea nicely.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYfFGDhbHUk

    You can also check out one of my forthcoming books-Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law-for a more elaborated argument if you have a few bucks to spare.

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  10. “Fair and liberal societies would not accept the classical liberal dictum that unequal natural talents justify unequal outcomes.”

    How is this meant to be implemented? I as an ugly man would get compensation for my lack of natural talent for modelling?
    Majority of Western democracies do have policies on a fashion of reversed discrimination. And only US has racist history to the extent that these policies could be justified as a compensation. Main point of critique from classical liberal point of view is that said policies are more often than not, arbitrary.

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