Equality and intelligence

Equality 50/50 Men Women Symbols

Every so often it is possible to come across some right-wing blog or Facebook post which claims to have proof that women on average are less intelligent than men, or that black people are less intelligent than white people or that one nation is more intelligent than other. Naturally, if you’re a decent human being and a good person, your first instinct will most likely be to try and deny the factual basis of those claims and thus ending up in a flame war.

But is this really the best way to approach this issue? Let us try to think about it calmly and rationally. Let us try and set up a scenario where we come across a hypothetical Facebook post claiming that whites are more intelligent than blacks and that this can be the reason for some form of racism. It is easy to imagine the same being said about men and women – how the men are supposedly more intelligent and how this can be the basis for some sort of sexism. Of course, they wouldn’t call it sexism, they would say that it is natural for women to be ‘below’ – or less important than men since men are more intelligent.

So, in analyzing these types of posts and their implications, if we want to defend the principles of equality, factual claims about races, sexes and intelligence are not as important as one might think. Nevertheless, let us start with those, just to have some scientific rational perspective on the issues.

First, it might be worthy to notice that sometimes scientists and philosophers have even a difficulty clearly defining what intelligence is. It can be defined as:

 “The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”

Oxford Dictionaries

The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.

- Merriam-Webster

The ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions that are based on reason.

- Cambridge Dictionary

These are just definitions from dictionaries. If we also, for example, consider Wikipedia and all its sources, you can be sure that there will be more examples. Add in the psychology, sociology etc., and it will get even more complicated.

“Judgment, otherwise called "good sense", "practical sense", "initiative", the faculty of adapting one's self to circumstances ... auto-critique.”

- Alfred Binet

Another one, much simpler would be:

“The ability to deal with cognitive complexity.”

- Linda Gottfredson

Even more definitions can be found on Wikipedia page on Intelligence.

The point is, researchers have problems even saying what intelligence is. With all these possible definitions, it is no wonder that there is doubt about how to really, accurately measure it. After all, IQ test results are represented as a single number. Is it possible to encompass all these points of a view with a single number? Clearly, there seems to be a lot of room for doubt.

Even if you could conclusively prove that it is possible to encompass all this in a single number, how can you really be sure that any results are because of genetics? Different countries do value different things currently and it does stand to reason that their school curriculums are the result of cultural values. If education and cultural values of the entire world would be identical, then you could really exclude environmental and sociological factors.

Race and intelligence

Human hands working together - unclelkt / Pixabay

This is a BIG area of debate and science seems far from having any conclusions that rest on anything substantial. In short, research does seem to indicate that there are some differences based on race, but it’s far from clear WHY. I can imagine that you already know what’s the confusion – the confusion is whether those differences are the result of environment, society or genetics. Wikipedia summarizes the debate like this:

"… there is considerable debate as to whether and to what extent those differences reflect environmental factors as opposed to genetic ones, as well as to the definitions of what "race" and "intelligence" are, and whether they can be objectively defined at all. Currently, there is no non-circumstantial evidence that these differences in test scores have a genetic component… "

Source: Race and intelligence - https://en.wikipedia.org

To muddy the waters even more, even the RACE is not universally accepted and agreed upon thing.

AAPA 1996 "Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past." p. 714

Nevertheless, if we consider race as ethnic descent – people of Asian descent, African descent, European descent etc., we can look at how intelligence relates to that.

There is some evidence that on average people of African descent score lower on IQ tests than people of European Descent - and those of European descent score lower than those of Asian descent. To quote Wikipedia:

“In the United States, individuals identifying themselves as Asian tend to have higher average IQ scores than do Caucasians, who, in turn, have higher average IQs than African Americans. Nevertheless, greater variation in IQ scores exists within each "race" than between them.”

Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. SAGE. 2012. p. 1209. ISBN 9781412981521, via Wikipedia.

So, what does this mean? Well, even if we ignore all prior criticism about IQ not being equal to Intelligence and that Intelligence is not clearly defined, there is still the matter that we are dealing with AVERAGES. An average means that results are added and then divided by the number of participants, so average scores are about GROUPS. Average does not mean ALL members of a group. In short, those results tell us nothing about the individual. If we take a random person of Asian descent and a random person of African descent, we can potentially expect that both people of African descent have a higher IQ and vice-versa.

We can reasonably conclude that these tests do not show that ALL members of one group have higher IQ than ALL members of another group. Even a randomly selected person from a “higher” group will OFTEN have lower IQ than a randomly selected member of a “lower” group.

If we take this fact about averages into consideration, together with the fact that we are not sure WHY there are differences, the fact that IQ tests probably do not measure every aspect of intelligence and the fact that different cultures do value different things in raising children, we may reasonably say that there is need for much, much more research and that any observed differences could be result of the environment as well as genetics. Science seems far away from any conclusion WHY. What would seem to follow is – we currently cannot say with confidence – a person is black; therefore, she will not perform intellectually well as those of Asian descent, for example.

Those are the facts about race and intelligence that we reliably know so far.

Sex and intelligence

Gender equality

As with race, this issue is still being debated, and there are no clear-cut answers yet. As you can imagine, there are studies which show no detectable average differences between males and females. There are also studies who show greater intelligence in males, as there are studies which show advantages for women later in life. For details on these studies, visit the Wikipedia page Sex differences in intelligence.

There seems to be some evidence indicating that males generally have higher IQ, but other studies have found almost none to no difference. Other than general IQ, men appear to perform better on spatial ability tests and women appear to perform better in verbal ability tests.

Of course, there is a debate on the nature of tools and testing used, because some tests find a difference for men, other for women, and some show no difference.

“Large, representative studies of US students show that no sex differences in mathematics performance exist before secondary school. During and after secondary school, historic sex differences in mathematics enrollment account for nearly all the sex differences in mathematics performance. A performance difference in mathematics on the SAT exists in favour of males, though differences in mathematics course performance measure favour females”

Source: Wikipedia - Sex differences in intelligence

Based on all this it seems that we may reasonably conclude that if differences do exist, they appear to be very small because if the opposite were the case, tests would not be son inconclusive and it would be a clearer case one way or another.

Not only all of that but above notes for the race also apply here as well, as you might imagine. These all are AVERAGE results for groups. This does not tell us that ALL members of a group have an advantage over ALL members of another. Given the closeness of results, it doesn’t even give us much confidence that a random person of one sex would have a higher IQ than a member of another sex.

Also, what was true for the race is also true for sex – we seem to have no idea which part environment/upbringing and which part if any, genetics plays in overall results. More research is clearly needed.

Impacts on equality

We as a human society have this notion of equality. But what is equality actually? What do we mean when we say that human beings should be equal?

Well, equality in social contexts is often misunderstood and is sometimes thought to be same as in Mathematics. In mathematics equality means 1 = 1. Two quantities of something are equal. In human society, equality is something else.

When racists or sexists make their posts and comments they often argue that equality is a lie, humans are not equal and therefore we cannot have the same opportunities – in this argument, they are often either deliberately or not the confusing type of equality found in mathematics with the type of equality society should strive for.

Clearly, humans are not equal in the mathematical sense – we are not identical. There are differences based on whether a person is a man, a woman, black or white. Some of us are short, some are tall, some are aggressive, and some are calm. Again, we are NOT identical. But this doesn’t mean that equality does not stand, for the equality in social contexts means that we all should have the same rights, same opportunities regardless of our sex, race, religion and so on. It is a principle of fairness. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a good explanation what is meant under equality.

But, given that the humans are indeed different, how can we expect equality? How can we expect to counter any argument which argues for inequality based on some ability – and today most often used is intelligence argument, as witnessed above?

Well, we can deny any racist or sexist claim that men are superior or that white people are superior simply because people are INDIVIDUALS. As we saw earlier, even if it were proven that on average group of people of European descent does worse in intelligence tests than group of people of Asian descent and that those differences are a result of genetics – we must analyze people as individuals – and based on the small differences, we cannot guarantee that a random person from one group will do better than a person from a different group. Since we cannot guarantee this result, it is impossible to maintain that based on sex or race we can make a claim about intelligence. We must look at people as individuals. Based on this, we cannot treat people differently without getting to know them.

Some women are more intelligent and more aggressive than some men. Some people of European or African descent are more intelligent than some people of Asian descent. This very fact protects us from racism or sexism and makes them invalid.

Now, let’s take it a step further. Say that in the future it is conclusively proven that women are more intelligent than men. Or that people of Asian descent are more intelligent than people of African or European descent. Let’s say that it is also proven that this is the case based on genetics, meaning that genetics is responsible for these differences in intelligence. What would that mean?

We might be horrified to learn something like that, but would that be a reason to abandon equality? Well, shortly said, the answer is no. Equality would still apply.

You might notice that we do not allow people with IQ of 100 or above to be the masters of those who have IQ below say 80. Why is that? Well, it’s because intelligence doesn’t really have an impact on equality.

If we are to have any sort of equality which is not arbitrary – but is applicable to all, we cannot base equality on some properties that humans might or might not have.

“In Kant's moral philosophy (1785), the categorical imperative formulates the equality postulate of universal human worth. His transcendental and philosophical reflections on autonomy and self-legislation lead to a recognition of the same freedom for all rational beings as the sole principle of human rights”.

- Gosepath, Stefan, "Equality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/equality/>.

There is also the matter of needs – needs which are common for all human beings, irrespective of their membership of some group. Race or sex is irrelevant.

“The Right to Equality proper is a right of equal satisfaction of basic human needs, including the need to develop and use capacities which are specifically human.”

- D. D. Raphael

All humans need certain things to live. This is true regardless of our religion, sex, race or – intelligence. It is impossible to say that because one has a higher IQ she is more entitled to these things than a person of lower IQ. How come? Well, because to base the right to access these things on intelligence would be arbitrary.  The fact that a person NEEDS water or air does not change if that person is white, black or more intelligent. She needs the water, period.

An advanced form of this argument can be found in the writings of philosopher Peter Singer, author of “Animal Liberation” and “Practical Ethics”. He goes much further and argues for Equal consideration of interests. Equal consideration of interests means that we should consider all interests of all affected by an action equally. We are not permitted to consider other things – like whose interests they are. To take his argument further – intelligence has nothing to do with interests – to have a job, to freely compete in society on same terms as others. We need to consider the interests of those involved and give no extra weight to the fact they are a member of some group.


  1. There are no conclusive results which DEFINITELY favour one race above another or one sex above another when it comes to intelligence
  2. Even if it were - intelligence is not relevant to a question of equality.
  3. Equality is based on needs, interests and the fact that we are all individuals and should be approached as such. This is a defence from racism and sexism – either a blatant one, or more sophisticated – based on intelligence

Read more

  • Peter Singer: Animal Liberation
  • Peter Signer: Practical Ethics
  • Equality by Gosepath, Stefan - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Sex differences in intelligence – Wikipedia
  • Race and intelligence – Wikipedia
  • Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind
  • Simon Blackburn: Being Good
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