Fortune’s Favor: An Introduction to Our Project

Fortune’s Favor: An Introduction to Our Project

Against my better judgment, I’m going to begin this blog by talking about Charles Murray. Is there any academic more widely reviled by mainstream social scientists than Murray? The Bell Curve was published in 1994: the first term of the Bill Clinton presidency was barely underway; The Fugitive was nominated for an Oscar; and most people didn’t have access to the Internet. Fast-forward 23 years later, and Murray’s presence at Middlebury was sufficient to provoke disruptive protests that turned violent, with one professor, Alison Stanger, suffering a concussion. Many, many commentaries have already been written about the protests, including by those sympathetic to the protesters, those sympathetic to Murray, those concerned about what this all means about intellectual freedom, or Trump, or campus climate, or kids these days, and by Murray and Stanger themselves. I leave it to the reader to make of the protests what he or she will.

The purpose of this blog post is most definitely not to argue about Murray’s work. Personally, as a psychologist with an active program of research in behavioral genetics, I find it a bit exasperating every time Murray is in the news, because commentators inevitably lump together the claims that made him notorious (racial differences in intelligence) with other claims that are not the least bit scientifically controversial (intelligence tests predict real-world outcomes, including educational attainment and job performance; variation in intelligence and educational attainment within populations can be predicted by genetic differences between people). Legitimate science and baseless assertions are rolled together into a single package of outrage that has been debated a bazillion times in the past 23 years, and I can’t (and won’t) rehash all of those debates here.

But, the Murray controversy does provide a nice introduction to my project, with Carmela Epright, for the Genetics and Human Agency initiative.  Because of his reputation, and the very public nature of his invitations to speak on campus and of the protests against his visits, Murray has provoked a lot of academics, from an array of disciplines and scholarly backgrounds, to try and articulate what exactly they find objectionable about research related to genes, cognitive ability, and economic outcomes. Most recently, here’s the faculty of Columbia Law School:

“For Murray, gene pools are primarily responsible for the stratification of American society, and ‘hand outs’ to the genetic losers are not only ineffective, they’re counter-productive… The through line of Murray’s polemic is one that rests almost exclusively on the notion of personal responsibility and desert: lower income people, particularly African Americans, bear responsibility for their disadvantage given that they are less intelligent, more lazy, and less God-fearing than more affluent people in the United States. By individualizing and naturalizing success and failure in American society, Murray underwrites the libertarian case that government measures to address systemic forces that create economic disparity (such as racism, capitalism, and neo-liberalism) are unnecessary.” 

There’s a ton to unpack in that statement, but I want to focus on the last sentence. The argument here is that (1) if economic outcomes, like income or wealth or receipt of public assistance, are “individualized” and “naturalized”, aka linked to genetic differences between people, then (2) this conclusion necessarily lends supports to (“underwrites”) right-wing policies aimed at dismantling social safety net programs.

I want to stress here that this characterization directly contradicts Murray’s own statements about how he thinks his work informs policy. In fact, the Columbia faculty statement on Murray is so profoundly different from Murray’s own words that I have to wonder if the professors who wrote that statement have read anything Murray has written since 1994. Here’s Murray in 2014 advocating for, among other things, a universal basic income:

“Certain mental skillsets are now the “open sesame” to wealth and social position in ways that are qualitatively different from the role they played in earlier times. Nobody deserves the possession of those skillsets. None of us has earned our IQ. Those of us who are lucky should be acutely aware that it is pure luck (too few are), and be committed to behaving accordingly. Ideally, we would do that without government stage-managing it. That’s not an option. Massive government redistribution is an inevitable feature of advanced postindustrial societies….” 

Two points in the above quote really jump out at me: (1) rather than a “through line of personal responsibility and desert,” as alleged by the Columbia faculty statement, Murray is suggesting that genetic influence on intelligence actually mitigates desert, because genes are a form of luck, and (2) far from advocating a radical free-market libertarianism, Murray argues that his work justifies “massive government redistribution.”

This is a pretty consistent line of reasoning for Murray, as evidenced from his Twitter feed:

“The higher the heritability of qualities determining success, the stronger the case for redistribution. As noted in The Bell Curve, BTW.”

Murray’s statements and the Columbia faculty statement epitomize two wildly different intuitions about the relationship between genetic influence and merit. If I claim that intelligence is influenced by genes, am I implying that more intelligent people are innately more deserving (as the Columbia faculty response to Murray presumes)? Or I am implying that more intelligent people, because their intelligence is a product of “pure (genetic) luck”, do not deserve quite so great a share of material goods, and we should redistribute wealth accordingly (consistent with Murray’s suggestion)?

My own intuition is probably more similar to Murray’s, but conversations with other people (most recently, the thoughtful Alison Ledgerwood) have convinced me that this intuition is not broadly shared. The intuition that “genes == inherent merit” is just as common, if not more so, as the intuition that “genes == undeserved luck.”

The problem with both of these intuitions is just that – they are intuitions. So, one goal of our project is to move beyond intuition, and reason more formally and more comprehensively about this question: What, if any, implications does behavioral genetic research on intelligence, educational attainment, and economic outcomes have for questions of distributive justice, i.e., how goods are allocated in society? This is a complex question, and new type of scholarship for me, which is why I’m glad to be collaborating with Carmela. She is a bioethicist who has already spent a lot of time grappling with a related problem — how mental illness (another complex trait under some degree of genetic influence) relates to moral and legal responsibility in criminal cases.

Finally, a major complicating issue for this entire question is that I’ve been talking about “genetic influence” or “genes” like there’s some bright dividing line between things-that-are-clearly-determined-by-genes and things-free-of-genetic-influence, when, of course, that’s not the case. Eric Turkheimer (organizer of the Genetics and Human Agency initiative) has spent a while addressing this issue, most notably here and here.  Eric was my Ph.D. advisor, and his work has obviously been hugely influential for my own thinking. Building on his foundational work regarding “what does it mean for something to be heritable?” (his answer: not much), we want to think about: What types of behavioral genetic results, other than heritability, can help us determine whether a given outcome, such as intelligence or educational attainment, is appropriately considered a matter of luck?

Writing about genes and intelligence and Charles Murray and social justice is an almost surefire way to receive outraged responses from both the left and the (alt)-right. Nevertheless, we look forward to hearing people’s (civil) thoughts about these ideas as the project progresses.

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