Equally Smart: Intelligence Enhancement, the Difference Principle and Egalitarianism, Part I

This is the first part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In this post, I will introduce the issue at hand: how are enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification linked? What light do Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, shed on the issue? The second post will concern five enhancement distribution schemes, compatible with the difference principle.

Part 1: Smart Technology

Less traffic accidents. Increased GNP. Get rid of cognitive biases. Enjoy better art more profoundly. The alleged benefits of enhancing intelligence have allure, both in the lives of individuals and at a population level. But will intelligence enhancements remain a luxury, too costly for the masses to use? Would enhancement technologies inevitably inevitably lead to further stratification, or could their use improve the welfare of the worst off?

Technological advancements may have benefited mankind in a myriad ways, but their downside has been an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In 1820, the highest-earning 20% of the world’s population was making thrice as much as the poorest 20%. In 1960, the richest fifth earned 60 times what the poorest did, and by 1993, the ratio had increased to 150. At present, these demographics have ceased making sense: at present, we could end world hunger by confiscating the funds of Bill Gates only – and leave him ten billion dollars as pocket money. The vast difference technology has made in the lives and lifestyles of those who can afford it doesn’t benefit the world’s poorest much. Instead, it has served to create lifestyles further and further removed from theirs. In this light, future leaps in the technology of enhancing our cognitive capacities seem a threat to the crumbling remains of equality we’ve been able to hold on to.

Potential methods for raising our IQs include medical interventions such as drugs and genetic manipulation, technological advancements such as transcranial stimulation, external hardware & software such as wearable devices, and implants; as well as conventional methods such as education, mental training, and nutrition. For my purposes, it’s enough to label enhancements in two categories: cheap (like caffeine) and expensive (like brain surgery). At present, higher IQ has been associated with higher socioeconomical background, for reasons such as better access to adequate nutrition. Also, well-off people have means of further enhancing their cognitive capacities that not everyone does, such as better schools (in the barbaric countries where tuition is charged) and private tutoring.

Enter Rawls

In A Theory of Justice, his 1971 classic, John Rawls outlines what he calls the difference principle. According to the difference principle, equality is the starting point. Everyone is entitled to the same amount of what Rawls calls primary goods: goods that every rational person can be expected to want. Inequal distribution of goods is only acceptable when it improves the conditions of the worst off. In theory, this should mean that no one has a rational reason to object to inequality, if everyone benefits from it.

Rawls divides the primary goods into social and natural goods:

“For simplicity, assume that the chief primary goods at the disposition of society are rights, liberties, and opportunities, and income and wealth. […] These are the social primary goods. Other primary goods such as health and vigor, intelligence and imagination, are natural goods; although their possession is influenced by the basic structure, they are not so directly under its control.”
(A Theory of Justice, 1999 edition, p. 54.)

Intelligence has been primarily a natural good: while socioeconomical status has an impact on it, its distribution is independent of society. However, as more effective enhancements are developed, intelligence becomes increasingly a social good. We can imagine a society where most people with high IQs got theirs via enhancement; the “naturally gifted” would be an anomaly. This is no worry in and of itself, but in a Rawlsian analysis, it does subject intelligence to the same demands of either equality or benefit to everyone as rights and income.

What, then, does the difference principle demand of the distribution of intelligence enhancements? Given that equality is the starting point of the difference principle, starting distribution on the basis of leveling existing inequalities seems intuitive: enhancements could be offered to people who suffer from their below-average IQs, as well as to people otherwise underprivileged. The former would not count as an enhancement for all – many would consider it the medical treatment of a disability – but the line between treatment and enhancement is blurry at best, nonexistent at worst. Definitions of normalcy and disability are largely cultural as well as historical, and drawing the line between treatment and enhancement based on the concept of normalcy in the present-day world would not be sound. For this reason, I will not be paying much mind to it in this essay.

The question is, how do we justify and distribute intelligence enhancements to people with average or above average intelligence, taking the difference principle into account? Should the enhancement be distributed as just any commercial commodity, on basis of ability to pay for it? Naturally, the price of the enhancement in question bears significance: is the enhancement cheap enough that (almost) anyone can afford it, or is it so expensive as to be beyond the reach of all but millionaires?

One approach, should the cost of the enhancement be reasonable, would be to offer it to all members of society free of charge. A similar scheme is already in action in Scandinavia and a large handful of other countries in the form of a national immunization program. Should the enhancement be deemed to increase welfare enough that using taxpayers’ money on it could be justified, it could be distributed at local healthcare centers in a similar way. However, as difficulties in worldwide distribution of vaccines have shown, it would be challenging to carry out a program like this globally.

Another concern is technology diffusion. Proponents of human enhancement have pointed out that new technologies tend to spread out from the wealthy early adopters to the masses at a reasonable speed. As the price eventually lowers, the technology becomes virtually universally adopted, thereby justifying the introduction of enhancement-as-expensive-commodity. However, leaving out the fact that not all new tech will reach those who are the worst off, we have the problem of innovation speed vs. the rate of technological diffusion. It is likely that the future will resemble the present in that new tech is invented faster than existing tech reaches the masses, leaving the wealthy with more and better enhancements.

Genes vs. Money

Why should we be concerned of intelligence enhancements not being distributed equally, some would exclaim, when intelligence is already divided unequally? Why is an unequal distribution based of genetics any more acceptable than an unequal distribution based on wealth, since neither are just?

The inequality associated with inborn giftedness has been discussed, among others, by G. A. Cohen, an egalitarist critic of the difference principle. Rawls and Cohen agree that inborn giftedness isn’t morally relevant and therefore doesn’t deserve a reward. To paraphrase Cohen’s critique of the difference principle, persons gifted enough for an exceptionally important or productive job need not be encouraged to take the job with remuneration; instead, they can be expected to do the job where they most benefit society out of a sense of duty. Having internalized the importance of egalitarianism, they will not ask for a higher pay: if they are capable to do the job spurred by an increased salary, they are capable to do it without an increase in income.

Cohen sees the gifted as having more responsibility about nurturing equality, due to the larger number of options they have. Inherent in that thought is a view of intelligence as a positional good – as something that’ll give one the upper hand. Should intelligence be a positional good, enhancing it would only make sense if not everyone did. Your enhanced intelligence will only be an asset in getting that scholarship if it’s not ubiquitous. Intelligence clearly has positional aspects, but I do not think it is purely a positional good: it can also be pursued as something with inherent value. Problem-solving skills have value beyond competitive pursuits, and higher population-level intelligence has been associated with, for example, fewer traffic accidents.

So, unlike pure positional goods, intelligence isn’t wasted if everyone enhances it. Still, its positional aspects must be taken into accont when developing regulatory or distributive policy. For example, if intelligence enhancements became ubiquitous, should one wish to refuse the enhancement on basis of personal conviction, their access to certain career choices could be hampered.

A remarkable difference between wealth-based and genetic distribution of intelligence is that in the former, privileges accumulate on the same persons. People with inborn intelligence do not necessarily have other privileged positions. The affluent classes, however, already have a significant upper hand in society, which enhancement would only increase. Furthermore, after having their intelligence enhanced, the privileged classes could use that intelligence to gather further positional goods. Some worry that the gap between rich, supersmart people and their poor, average counterparts would widen to the point that the sense of social duty the wealthy may feel towards the less privileged could diminish. This would not bode well for Cohen’s egalitarism.

The distinction between natural and social goods can shed light on the complex relationship of inborn and enhanced intelligence. In Rawlsian theory, inborn intelligence is a matter of luck with little or no social significance, while enhanced intelligence can be regulated by the society. The difference principle would only allow wealth-based distribution of enhanced intelligence in the case that this would have beneficial consequences for the underprivileged.

Is Medical Enhancement a Special Case?

Finally, an issue that needs to be tackled is whether medical enhancement is a special case. The wealthy already are better able to develop abilities like intelligence: private schools and tutoring, better healtcare and nutrition improve their learning, while access to tech and service personnel frees up time from everyday chores. Why limit access to medical enhancement if we nevertheless encourage these existing privileged indulgences?

That’s not to say we cannot try to diminish the gap between rich and poor by limiting some inequality-generating phenomena while allowing others. However, even if we do, it’s unclear why the limitations should be directed towards enhancement, specifically.

A powerful argument for intelligence enhancement argues that forbidding enhancement would constitute leveling intelligence down: according to this argument, nobody benefits from the rich not fulfilling their intellectual potential, intelligence being a good in and of itself. Even if high intelligence cannot become ubiquitous, making it possible for even just a part of the population is important. Rawls would be likely to agree, provided that this would have none of the unwelcome social consequences discussed above.

Proponents of intelligence enhancement further argue that the enhanced minds could do such things for the common good that, for unenhanced people, would take considerably longer to achieve or be beyond their capabilities altogether. To recap, should intelligence enhancement be available only for the privileged, we must weigh whether their enhancement would constitute an improvement in light of the difference principle. Which one would have more relevance in the lives of the worst off in society: their resulting positional disadvantage, or the possible beneficial accomplishments of the enhanced?

In the next part of this essay, I will discuss five models of adopting enhancements that are compatible with the difference principle.

Bognar, Greg (2012), “Enhancement and Equality”, Ethical Perspectives 19 (1): 11–32.
CIA: “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth”, in The World Factbook.
Cohen, G.A. (1995), “The Pareto Argument for Inequality”, Social Philosophy and Policy 12: 160–185.
Levy, Neil (2007), Neuroethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, John (1991), A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rawls, John (1993), Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sandberg, Anders (2011), “Cognition Enhancement: Upgrading the Brain”, in Savulescu, ter Meulen & Kahane (eds.), Enhancing Human Capacities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Sandberg, Anders & Savulescu, Julian (2011), “The Social and Economic Impacts of Cognitive Enhancement”, in Savulescu, ter Meulen & Kahane (eds.), Enhancing Human Capacities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
United Nations Development Project (1993), The Human Development Report 1993.
Williams, Andrew (1998), “Incentives, Inequality, and Publicity”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 27 (3): 225–247.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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