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A Critical Analysis of Kershnar’s Argument in Moral Value and Racial Differences

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In the year 2000, philosopher Stephen Kershnar published a paper titled Intrinsic Moral Value and Racial Differences (Kershnar, 2000). In the article, he argues that whites and Asians have greater per capita moral value than blacks, since ceteris paribus, autonomy is proportional to intelligence and moral value is proportional to intelligence. In this article, I will show how Kershnar’s argument is flawed.

Kershnar’s argument

(P1) Other things equal, intrinsic moral value is proportional to autonomy.
(P2) Other things equal, autonomy is proportional to intelligence.
(C1) Hence, other things equal, intrinsic moral value is proportional to intelligence. [(PI), (P2)]
(P3) Whites and Asians have greater per capita levels of intelligence than blacks.
(C2) Hence, other things equal, whites and Asians have greater per capita intrinsic moral value than blacks. [(Cl), (P3)]
(P4) Other factors do not offset this difference in per capita moral value.
(C3) Hence, all things considered, whites and Asians have greater per capita intrinsic moral value than blacks. [(C2), (P4)]

The inference in C1 is transitive property of equality where if A = B and B = C then A = C. Intrinsic moral value is proportional to autonomy (A = B) (P1), while autonomy is proportional to intelligence (B = C) (P2), so intrinsic moral value (A) is proportional to intelligence (C), so A = C justifying the inference. It also uses a form of proportional reasoning to show the A = C (intrinsic moral value = intelligence). P3 and C1 are then used to derive C2 through deduction. He then assumes the truth of P4, which then establishes C3, which states that, ceteris paribus, whites and Asians have greater per capita moral value than blacks, so C2 and P4 are used to derive the conclusion in C3.

Critical discussion of Kershnar’s argument is scant, being that over the 23 years since the paper was published, there are a mere 7 citations of the paper, 3 of which are from Kershnar himself. The implication of the argument is that the United States should deprioritze aid to Africa, since rendering aid there would be useless based on their average “intelligence.” He, of course, relies on IQ differences between blacks, whites, and Asians as grounds for his argument here. He brings up the myth of “general intelligence”. In any case, he states that differences in IQ being due to genetic or environmental factors doesn’t matter—since lowered IQ due to environmental factors result in “a lowered level of intelligence that results from environmental deprivation correlates with less autonomy, other things equal, every bit as much as a lowered level of intelligence that results from genetic factors” (Kershnar, 2000: 217). This claim, of course, is nonsense, as IQ isn’t a measure at all, nevermind a measure of “general intelligence.” Thus, C1 and P3 can be rejected, which would mean that, also, C2 then doesn’t follow.

Kershnar’s argument is basically saying that whites and Asians have more inherent value or worth than whites and Asians. Conclusion C2 which is derived from P3 is false and if is further based on a misunderstanding between the nature of IQ scores and so-called “intelligence.” Nevermind the fact that Asians are a selected population. Now I will discuss each premise.

Premise 1: This premise claims that intrinsic moral value (IVM) is proportional to autonomy. It is a reductionist view, which equates morality with autonomy. Numerous other factors also contribute to autonomy, and autonomy and moral value cannot be reduced to a single number. Nevermind the fact that IVM and autonomy aren’t measurable variables.

Premise 2: Like P1, P2 also assumes a reductionist view of of autonomy which equates it with “intelligence.” I don’t doubt that cognitive ability is related to autonomy, however, Kershnar’s claim that autonomy is proportional to intelligence is outright false, and so P2 must be rejected.

Conclusion 1: Even IF P1 and P2 are accepted (and I see no reason why we should accept them), it does not follow that IMV is proportional to “intelligence.” Many other factors contribute to IMV than merely “intelligence.” Thus, P2 and C1 are not entirely true.

Premise 3: This claim is just straight-up false. There is no reason to claim that differences in IQ scores are differences in “intelligence.” While Kershnar does assume that IQ is a measure of g, and also tries to argue that even if the observed IQ differences are due to either genetic or environmental factors that it doesn’t hurt his overall argument, it actually does. Due to what we know about the nature of IQ test construction and the ability to build in or out what the test constructors desire, we therefore cannot and should not accept the claim in premise 3. Furthermore, there are philosophical arguments (Spencer, 2014; Hardimon, 2017) that while race exists and is a social construct of a biological reality, we cannot be justified in claiming that, over and above physical differences, genes contribute to socially-desired/-valued traits. Even if there were differences in “intelligence” between races, this would not justify the claim that differences in Intelligence and autonomy translate to IMV. The rejection of P3 makes his argument crumble.

Conclusion 2: This conclusion is outright racist. It is racist since it assumes that intelligence is directly related to moral worth. The claim that certain racial groups have more intrinsic value than others has been, in the past, used to justify morally repugnant actions such as Jim Crow, slavery and segregation. C2 isn’t false because it’s racist—that’s merely a descriptive claim about C2—but it is false since it is based on false premises (C1 and P3). So C2 must be rejected.

Premise 4: This premise is straight up ridiculous. It is false because it assumes that other factors don’t off-set IMV. IMV is influenced not only by individual characteristics or traits, but also by social and cultural contexts and factors such as education and upbringing.

Conclusion 3: C3 is derived from C2 and P4. As already discussed, C2 is outright racist but it being racist isn’t why it’s false, it’s false since it is based on false premises. P4, again assumes that no other factors influence per capita IMV.

Refuting Kershnar’s argument

Now that I have analyzed Kershnar’s premises, I will now provide an argument against Kershnar’s argument.

P1: Autonomy isn’t solely determined by cognitive ability.
P2: IMV isn’t solely determined by cognitive ability or autonomy.
P3: The claim that whites and Asians have greater per capita intrinsic moral value than blacks based on differenced in cognitive ability is unfounded and outright discriniminatory.
C: Thus, the argument that whites and Asians have a greater per capita IMV than blacks is invalid and so Kershnar’s argument isn’t sound.

P1 states that autonomy isn’t solely determined by cognitive ability. There are many other factors that determine autonomy, like socio-environmental factors which are independent of cognitive ability. P2 asserts that other factors contribute to an organism’s moral value. The idea that cognitive ability is related to one’s moral value has been used in the past to justify discriminatory policies and forced sterilization of people found to be “low IQ.” This is one reason why IQ tests should be banned, since they have been used to justify discriminatory policies and sterilization in the past. Further, infants, children, people with cognitive disabilities and animals are considered to have moral value, even though they don’t have the same cognitive capacities as adult humans. P3 claims that Kershnar’s overall claim that whites and Asians have greater per capita IMV than blacks is unfounded, along with the fact that it is outright discriniminatory. Here is an argument for P3:

P1: If claims of IMV based solely on differences in cognitive ability are justified, then discriniminatory beliefs and practices are also justified.
P2: Discriniminatory beliefs and practices are not justified.
C: So claims of IMV based solely on cognitive ability aren’t justified.

Thus, the conclusion of the original argument against Kershnar’s argument follows—like in my argument to ban IQ tests, if we belief the hereditarian hypothesis is true and it is false, then it will lead to certain discriniminatory policies and beliefs. Since Kershnar’s argument is, basically, an argument using hereditarianism for our moral values, then this, too, is another reason why IQ tests should be banned. Nevertheless, Kershnar’s argument isn’t sound and it is refuted.

Conclusion

An implication of Kershnar’s argument is that we should not give aid to African countries (I argue that we should) and that, if we saved Europeans and Africans, that it would be more morally praiseworthy to have saved Europeans over Africans (Engelbert, 2015). Engelbert’s (2015: 186) note 16 also talks about the “repugnancy” and “absurdity” of Kershnar’s argument.

On the absurdity point: Kershnar’s argument that more intelligent beings possess greater autonomous agency is based almost entirely upon thought experiments involving comparisons between humans and non-human animals, or between humans with normal cognitive abilities and those with serious disorders that inhibit mental functioning. Thus, the notion of “intelligence” he utilizes bears little resemblance to the use of the term in psychometrics (from which he draws his claim that racial groups differ in “intelligence”). Kershnar provides no reason for thinking that autonomy, understood in the way moral philosophy uses the term, is proportional to intelligence in the psychometric sense. On the repugnancy point, it’s also worth noting that Kershnar’s extrapolation of comparisons between “human beings and pigs” (2000, p. 222) to comparisons between Whites and Blacks is full of troubling implications.

Nevertheless, Kershnar’s argument is outright racist, but that doesn’t mean that it’s false. I have outlined the reasons why it’s false, his assumptions are hardly argued for (like the claim that autonomy is proportional to “intelligence”), and so, Kershnar’s argument must be rejected. I also have provided a counterargument against Kershnar’s, which thusly invalidates it. Now here is one final argument against Kershnar’s:

P1: All human beings have inherent moral value and worth regardless of their cognitive ability and race.
P2: Autonomy is a fundamental principle of moral value.
P3: Autonomy isn’t solely determined by cognitive ability but also by factors like cultural background, personal experience, and social context.
C: Thus, it is morally wrong to claim that whites and Asians have greater IMV than blacks based solely on cognitive ability, since it violates the principle of non-discrimination.

At the end of the day, Kershnar’s argument seems to be deployed in order to deny aid to African countries. However, giving aid to African countries will decrease their birthrate, as empirically shown in other countries. C3 in Kershnar’s argument is both scientifically and morally flawed. For reason—among the others laid out above—Kershnar’s argument is unsound and must be rejected. Kershnar’s argument applies hereditarian “science” to moral worth of racial groups, which is another reason why the argument doesn’t work, since hereditarianism isn’t a valid science.

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