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Misunderstanding Equality

If confusion between moral and empirical claims persists, we will find ourselves asked to choose between the truth and our ethical preferences.

· 10 min read
Misunderstanding Equality
Illustration from Life magazine, illustrated by Paul C Stahr, and published on July 1, 1915. Alamy 

All men may have been created equal; most certainly they are not all alike.
~Theodosius Dobzhansky

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is perhaps the most venerated sentence in American history. And for good reason. The sentiments it expresses are a triumph of Enlightenment philosophy, and they still resonate hundreds of years later. However, a confusion about their meaning and significance has pervaded popular discourse, muddying moral thinking and leading to extravagant and implausible claims about human sameness. In extreme cases, this muddled thinking has motivated calls to suppress science that supposedly threatens “the dignity and rights of all humans.”

This might seem hyperbolic. It is difficult to believe that a misinterpretation of such a morally uplifting sentence could lead, however circuitously, to the suppression of academic freedom. And certainly, it is true that most people who want to limit academic freedom are not directly motivated by a misreading of the Declaration of Independence. However, they are motivated by a misunderstanding of the fundamental moral value it expresses. They have conflated the laudable ethical claim that all humans deserve dignity, respect, and equal moral consideration with the implausible empirical claim that humans are born with roughly the same characteristics and capabilities. This conflation has led to fear, antipathy, and even censorship of writings that examine human variation on socially valued traits because it has encouraged the erroneous idea that human variation is a threat to moral equality.

The far-Left, of course, has long been attracted to a view of humans as malleable and almost biologically interchangeable. And it has long argued that the contrary view—that humans are biologically limited creatures who vary widely in potential—is primarily an ideological weapon used to defend the status quo by arguing that inequality is natural and inevitable. Therefore, the moral misunderstandings and confusions that arise from the conflation of “created equal” with “created the same” are not new. Indeed, they have a long history and have inspired furious denunciations of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral genetics (as well as thoughtful and ethically insightful responses).

But this denial of biology, and confusion of the moral and the empirical that it requires, has become more ambitious and imperial. It is no longer a fringe ideology, and it is no longer content to attack conservatives or moderates, but also those remaining leftists who believe that we should take genetics seriously. Last year, for example, Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden’s book, The Genetic Lottery, was vehemently denounced by many left-leaning outlets for arguing that genes play a causal role in social inequalities. The New York Review of Books ran an essay which accused Harden of a series of scientific sins, including biological essentialism. Any fair-minded person who has read Harden’s book will struggle to discover the supposed sins the review describes, but the only novelty of such misleading reviews is that they target a left-leaning scholar. Similar reviews were routinely published in prestigious outlets about Charles Murray, Nicholas Wade, and David Geary, among others.

Yet this is not a trivial novelty. It suggests that the ideology of egalitarianism has become more pervasive, powerful, and reluctant to concede or compromise. Harden was so eager to avoid charges of “biological essentialism” that she casually accused right-leaning scholars of advocating white supremacy and eugenics while reassuring readers that she remained committed to progressive notions of social justice. If her book nevertheless provoked denunciations from disconcerted reviewers, one can only imagine the chorus of complaint and condemnation that a similar book written from a different political perspective would produce.

A recent editorial in Nature Human Behaviour further illustrates the ascendancy of this misguided strand of egalitarianism. Titled, “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans,” it argues that editors should (and will) be empowered to reject articles that contradict progressive political views about race, sex, and gender identity. Although this constitutes an appalling attack on the dispassionate pursuit of scientific truth, it is merely a public confession of the private practices of many journals. (Many scholars responded with forceful rebuttals, which is heartening.)

For present purposes, the important thing about the editorial is its consistent confusion of empirical and moral claims. This is evident throughout, but is made especially obvious when it contends, “Racism is scientifically unfounded and ethically untenable [italics added].” For this seems to suggest that some set of facts about the world would or could justify racism, which is not only morally abhorrent, but also a category error. It would be like writing, “Claiming that T. S. Eliot is a great poet is scientifically unfounded.” Or “Loving dogs is scientifically unfounded.” Neither moral equality nor racism nor any other value judgement is an empirical claim.

Many scholars—including Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Noah Carl, Steve Pinker, Arthur Jensen, Charles Murray, David Reich, and Kathryn Paige Harden—have forwarded some variant of the point that moral commitments are not directly dependent on empirical claims. When I say, “One should not confuse equality with sameness,” my interlocutor frequently responds that such a banal truism is unworthy of articulation. I wish this were true, and that this moral principle were self-evident. But it is not.

Just a few days ago, the Atlantic published an essay skeptical of sex segregation in sports which concluded with the assertion that, “…as long as laws and general practice of youth sports remain rooted in the idea that one sex is inherently inferior, young athletes will continue to learn and internalize that harmful lesson.” The unstated premise of this argument is that empirical claims about differences between men and women are also moral claims about the relative value (inferior vs superior) of men and women.

It is therefore worth repeating that created equal does not mean created the same on all socially valued traits. For science will continue to reveal genetically caused differences among individuals, groups, and sexes. And if confusion between the moral and the empirical persists, we will find ourselves asked to choose between the truth and our ethical preferences. The good news in this otherwise gloomy scenario is that no such choice is required. Moral equality is not premised on physical or psychological sameness; it is premised on a commitment to human dignity. And no discovery about humans today, tomorrow, or a hundred years hence will refute Jefferson’s justly celebrated sentence.

Scholars should assert and defend the following basic truths and principles and reject the misguided notion of egalitarianism that currently prevails in many mainstream journals and outlets.

1. Humans are not (and will never be) the same on socially valued traits

This might seem painfully obvious. Albert Einstein was never as athletic as Roger Federer, and Federer was never as intellectually gifted as Einstein. Few people, even avowed Marxists, would deny this. Nevertheless, despite the obvious fact of human variation, both the amount and the causes of such variation are fiercely contested. Writers in mainstream outlets still appear to deny obvious biological differences. For example, in the Atlantic piece cited above, the author writes, “And though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their full potential.”

Most people are willing to grant that humans vary on many traits, from height to body mass to skin color, because of a combination of genes and environment. However, when addressing more socially consequential traits such as intelligence or criminal propensities, they demur. It seems indecent—perhaps even immoral—to suggest that some humans are smarter or more law-abiding than others because of a random shuffle of genes. But the data are overwhelming—almost every human trait of significance is heritable, meaning that variation in each is partially explained by variation in genes. Of course, heritable does not mean intractable or unchangeable. A heritable trait like myopia can be changed (rectified) quite quickly with simple technological interventions.

TRAIT/OUTCOME

HERITABILITY ESTIMATE 

General Intelligence 

50%

Conscientiousness 

40%

Self-control 

60%

School Achievement 

60%

Aggression/Rule-breaking

40%

The approximate heritability estimates of some socially consequential traits

However, the high heritability of many traits in affluent societies does suggest that human variation will be with us into the foreseeable future. The only way to equalize humans is through intolerably coercive means (or handicaps), such as those humorously depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s sardonic short story, Harrison Bergeron. The same almost certainly applies to demographic differences. Just as human individuals vary because of environmental and genetic causes, so do demographic groups. About sex, this is uncontroversial in the relevant literature, and David Geary’s erudite and comprehensive Male, Female remains the best overview. About other demographic categories, the literature is more ambiguous and contentious. The point here is not to forward confident opinions about controversial topics. Rather, it is to note that human variation is a basic, irreducible, and permanent fact of social existence. Literal equality is impossible.

2. Differences do not imply inferiority

Despite the claims frequently employed to attack scholars who discuss human differences, those differences do not make one person, sex, or group superior or inferior to another. In the Atlantic article about sex-segregated sports, the author seems to believe that if men and women are different (specifically, if men are on average stronger and faster than women), women are therefore “inherently inferior.” But this is a morally supercharged and unedifying way to frame an already sensitive topic, and only encourages unnecessary confusion between the empirical and the ethical.

Strictly speaking, “superior” and “inferior” can be neutral, empirical terms—one might argue that Rafael Nadal is a superior tennis player to Stephen Curry, since if Nadal and Curry were to play 100 matches, Nadal would win them all. This is verifiable, at least in principle. But in normal parlance, “superior” and “inferior” are usually morally or aesthetically valanced terms suffused with ethical significance. For this very reason, they are not appropriate to describe human differences.

In general, most people seem to accept this distinction. Few would argue that individuals born with disabilities are “innately inferior” to the able-bodied. The very suggestion is repugnant because physical health is not necessary for full moral respect and dignity. The Paralympics exist so that disabled athletes may compete against each other, but this segregation does not imply innate inferiority and more than segregation of sports by sex. Nor does the fact that most able-bodied humans would be defeated 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 by Rafael Nadal in a tennis match make them his inferior.

The same that applies to individuals should also apply to demographic groups. The assertion that men are physically stronger than women is not a moral claim, it is an empirical claim. And just as Noam Chomsky is not inferior to Ronda Rousey because he is physically weaker than she is, so women are not inferior to men because they are physically weaker on average. A person’s moral worth is not measured by his or her strength or intelligence. And nor is that of a demographic group.

3. Reality cannot be racist or sexist

The Nature editorial discussed above claims that, “Racism is scientifically unfounded…” which implies that racism could be (or could have been) scientifically founded, and that reality itself could be racist. This is a perplexing suggestion—“racism” describes an irrational bias against people simply because they are assigned to a racial category by their shared characteristics. It is a value-based orientation to the world; it is not a fact about the world. One could no more discover that racism is true than that “getting rich is the meaning of life” is true. Of course, some people are racist; and some people believe that material wealth is the meaning of life. But these are facts about people’s attitudes, not about the world itself. The same holds for sexism. Men and women are different, but that is not sexist; it is simply a biological truth about a sexually dimorphic species.

Relatedly, responsible empirical claims about the world cannot be racist or sexist. Men and women are different for a variety of reasons, some cultural, some genetic. Those differences are not sexist. And neither is studying or discussing them. Or being wrong about them.

Humans are incredibly complicated, and the causes of human variation are difficult to disentangle, so the scientists who study such differences must forward plausible and testable hypotheses about the nature and causes of those differences, some of which will be falsified by later discoveries. This inevitably means that scientists who study human variation will make claims about human differences that are either (1) wrong, or (2) plausible but require more research. This is simply how science works. It is an evolutionary process that requires more hypotheses to be produced than will survive. There are no shortcuts. And this inevitably means that some hypotheses about human variation will over-emphasize genetic causes. Eventually, those will be eliminated or adjusted as new evidence is available.

Eventually falsified hypotheses, however, are not evidence of underlying malevolence or bigotry. They are an essential and healthy part of science. And the correct way to address suspicious hypotheses is to argue against them, not to denounce the researcher who forwarded them. Of course, this has limits. Human variation is an incendiary topic, and researchers, scholars, and journalists should of course be sensitive to legitimate concerns. The hypothesis that “men are less biased, on average, than women” may or may not be sensible, but it is not sexist. However, if that hypothesis were worded “women are irrational and hysterical,” then it would be reasonable to complain.

4. Moral equality must not be shackled to facts

One of the great dangers of the confusion between moral and empirical claims and associated accusations of bigotry is that they shackle our moral values to scientific facts. This dangerously and needlessly suggests that our growing knowledge of the world could reveal that a commitment to moral equality is empirically wrong. This in turn forces scholars to choose between honest, open inquiry and their moral commitments, lest they discover truths about human biology that undermine the inspiring creed of human equality. Unsurprisingly, many scholars struggle to navigate between this Scylla of rejecting the truth and Charybdis of rejecting inspiring moral principles. The good news is that they can choose a different route altogether.

Moral principles are not wholly dependent on facts. They are, one might say, transempirical commitments. Of course, this does not mean that morality is unresponsive to reality. We may believe that human happiness is the ultimate moral good. Thus, our moral commitment to promoting happiness—a transempirical commitment—would impel us to examine the emotional effects of our policies and behaviors and to adjust accordingly. But it does mean that our broad moral commitments are different from traditional empirical assertions. They are something to which we dedicate ourselves; and they do not need to change as our scientific view of the world changes.

At one time, many believed that humans were equal because they were equal “in the eyes of God.” Then Darwin and secularism arrived, and today many people no longer believe in a literal human creator. But that does not vitiate the force of the moral claim that humans are equal. In fact, most of us would be appalled by the assertion that, “Since we know that humans are just evolved creatures, they do not deserve equal moral consideration.” Our endorsement of metaphysical equality is not tethered to belief in a benign creator. This is why we can continue to celebrate the eloquent defense of human equality expressed in the US Declaration of Independence while embracing evolution.

The same applies to human variation. We do not yet know what we will discover about the extent and causes of it; but we do know that all humans are different from each other and that genes play a considerable role in many of these differences. Undoubtedly, we will learn much more about the nature of these genetic differences in the next century. But whatever we learn, it will not force us to relinquish a commitment to equality because that commitment is perfectly consistent with individual, sex, and group differences. Indeed, it makes no sense otherwise. For in a world of tedious sameness, the sentence “All [humans] are created equal” would be as insipid and uninspiring as the sentence “All humans are mammals.” Jefferson was writing poetry, not prose.

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