This article was originally published in the Oxford Student newspaper.
Boris Johnson’s recent comments about intelligence and economic inequality have caused widespread debate and controversy. Speaking at the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies, he commented that “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85” and “some measure of inequality is a valuable spur to economic activity”. Yet while his ‘greed is good’ attitude was lampooned by critics concerned about a return to neoliberalism, it is his readiness to accept ‘natural inequality’ as a result of disparity in intelligence that is perhaps most concerning.
Especially poignant was the manner in which Johnson mocked individuals with lower IQs. “Would the 16% please put up your hand?” he suggested, urging those of “our species” with an IQ below 85 to identify themselves. For the Mayor of London to ridicule individuals with an IQ below 85 (especially as an IQ below 70 is a diagnostic marker of intellectual disability) is offensive and indicative of Johnson’s attitudes towards equal opportunities.
Yet it was not this aspect of Johnson’s address that caused most outrage and the media’s response failed to challenge the suggestion that it is acceptable for an ‘intelligent’ person to have a better quality of life than a ‘less intelligent’ individual. This is likely because these views are widespread in society today – they are the thinking behind grammar schools and a common argument for disparity in pay between careers.
When did we decide that economic inequality was acceptable providing it was a result of variation in intelligence? When analysing intelligence, scientists agree that IQ is determined by at least two main factors which are both outside of an individual’s control. The first determinant is genetics; studies have shown a large hereditable component in IQ scores and it is believed that a variety of genes contribute to intelligence. As a result of this, to support a society whereby those who were most intelligent are rewarded economically, while those who are less intelligent are not, would support a society whereby an individual’s genes determine their quality of life.
The claim that genetics should determine your economic situation sits uncomfortably for many and with good reason. We agree that genetic variation in physical ability should be accounted for – and fortunately those who are less physically abled are supported by society. Yet whilst we accept that pre-determined genetic traits shouldn’t determine your life prospects, it is still argued that economic equality based on intelligence is acceptable.
Scientists also agree on a second determinant of IQ – your environment as a child, and the education you receive at a young age. Like genetics, upbringing is entirely out of an individual’s control and therefore it seems entirely unjust that it should affect an individual’s life prospects. In fact, this is the basis of social mobility; the idea that family background shouldn’t determine an individual’s later life. Why then should your intelligence, which is shaped by upbringing and is equally uncontrollable, be encouraged to affect your life prospects?
Disparity in quality of life can only ever be justified if it’s a result of choices an individual has made. Nobody ever chooses to have a low IQ in the same way that nobody chooses to have a hindrance on their physical ability. It would, of course, be impossible to have a situation where all individuals were able to work in all jobs – it is clear that some careers do require a certain degree of intellect. However, whilst this is true, it is entirely unacceptable to claim that economic inequality as a result of intelligence is a fundamental part of society.
In order to be truly committed to equal opportunities, we must invest time and resources to all career paths, not just those that are intellectual. University should not be automatically hailed as the most prestigious option for children – no society needs only academics and likewise no society should only value academia. Jobs that require a high IQ should not unquestionably be placed at the top of the economic pay scale because not everyone is suited to them, and we should be grateful that they are not.
Of course, the extent of which intelligence effects an individual’s life prospects is hard to quantify and consequently difficult to act on. But as long as we have a society which disproportionately awards wealth to the most intelligent then we propagate injustice. To vary pay as a result of intelligence is as unjust as economic variation based on any other pre-determined characteristic. Individuals have different talents and merits, and it is not only to the benefit of equality, but to society as well, if we respect that.
We must remember that having a high IQ is just one talent in a huge array of others. A society with true equality of opportunities would cater for economic success in all the possible talents that an individual may be gifted with, instead of disproportionately rewarding intelligence. Society relies on a wide variety of skills and talents, and to only value intelligence would be both foolish and untenable.
Johnson’s comments were well-intended; he spoke clearly about how he wanted to destroy barriers which restrict the potential of poor children, such as their family background. To aim for equal opportunities regardless of your family wealth is a commendable aim. However, to then accept that children, instead of having their future economic situation determined by their family’s wealth, should instead have their economic situation determined by their IQ is not an improvement. It only shifts the burden of injustice onto a different group of individuals. Inequality as a result of intelligence is no fairer than inequality as a result of family background – both are entirely outside of an individual’s control.