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Social Justice is a Social Construct

Brian Barry, born in 1936, has spent his career as a "contemporary moral and political philosopher." One would think that a person with such an academic background could put forth a logical argument for his position as laid out in his latest book, Why Social Justice Matters, 2005.

Barry states: "But why produce a theory of social justice? In the poorest countries, people do not need a theory to tell them that there is something wrong with a world in which their children are dying from malnutrition or diseases that could be prevented by relatively inexpensive public health measures. Even in the richest country in the world, just north of the academic enclave in New York centered on Columbia University, lies Harlem, where it has been estimated that a black male born and brought up in some areas has less chance of reaching the age of 65 than a child born and brought up in rural Bangladesh. Some Americans (perhaps even a majority) purport to believe that this is not in some way a reflection on the way in which their society is organized, but only on the moral (and maybe also genetic) degeneracy of the denizens of the ghetto. I doubt if many people elsewhere would fail to draw the conclusion that all is not as it should be with American institutions. But is it that inequality is wrong or only that poverty is bad? Political philosophers and ordinary people disagree about that. They also disagree about what obligations, if any, the rich have towards the poor (either domestically or internationally), at any rate as long as the rich did not come by their wealth by manifestly illegitimate means such as theft or extortion. To answer questions like these we need a theory — a theory of social justice."

In science, a theory has to be falsifiable, be based on testing, retesting and consensus of the accuracy of the data through peer reviewed journals, etc. Is that the type of theory Barry is alluding to, a theory to prove that redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor can be scientifically proven, or is he putting forth a just so, pseudoscientific, feel good narrative that he merely wishes would bring about the utopian world he desires?

He states, "
A similarly detailed study, this time of twelve American families, gives us a fascinating insight into the multifarious ways in which advantage and disadvantage are perpetuated over generations. The bottom line, however, is that 'parents' social class position predicts children's school success and thus their ultimate life chances. I shall trace the processes by which the transmission of class position occurs in chapter 5 and I shall show there that people's chances of falling or rising from their location at birth in the social order have declined in the last twenty years to such a degree that some sociologists have begun to talk about 'social closure'."

This may very well be true, but it was also the very same argument made by eugenicists 100 years ago. Worried about the quality of the workforce, and poor environments being perpetuated generation after generation, it was proposed to keep these people from breeding. In addition however, we now have an increasingly stratified society where people marry people more like themselves—or associative mating. People are more mobile, run in similar crowds, and increasingly the smart marry the smart and the dumb marry the dump. And whether primarily innate or environmental, this imbalance will not change through a simple transfer of wealth from one class to another—the upper classes in the end hold the power.

Barry continues, "The theory of social justice put forward here applies to all countries and provides a universal standard against which they can be judged…. The whole point of a universalistic conception of justice is that it provides a basis on which both those inside and those outside a country can criticize practices and institutions that reflect local norms, which typically endorse discrimination, exploitation and oppression."

The pursuit of scientific theories is outside the bounds of norms, or what people think "ought to be." Humans have individual worldviews, and an inegalitarian worldview is as valid as an egalitarian worldview. Science can only answer certain questions such as how hunter-gatherer tribes used egalitarianism to form alliances to propagate the tribe's genes. Science cannot answer questions about how people should treat others. In the last few years, all moral, ethical or egalitarian systems have failed to provide answers as to the desirability of distributive justice, discrimination, exploitation and oppression. Science can only provide evidence for real facts, not evidence for what should be—that is left to religion and blind faith.

"I said that filling a job in a way that is non-discriminatory and non-nepotistic is fair. What makes it fair? The simplest explanation is that a job is a scarce resource. (It must be scarce if there is more than one applicant for it.) And the way in which this scarce resource is distributed should not depend on irrelevant characteristics such as race or 'pull'. A society in which the best-qualified applicant gets the job is more just than one in which other factors enter into the appointment—as long, at any rate, as we keep our attention focused narrowly on the field of applicants. The proviso is crucial, however, because it may be that a society would be more just overall if this rule were departed from and preference were given to candidates who were less qualified but had faced greater obstacles in acquiring the relevant qualifications. In other words, if the opportunity to acquire qualifications is unjustly distributed, it may be worth compensating for that injustice even at the cost of departing from the rule for the fair allocation of jobs among applicants."

As an employer that is self-interested in the family, nepotism makes perfect sense in that more money is kept within the extended family. Second, an employer usually tries to hire the best applicant and feels that this is more just than giving a job to someone less qualified. Justice, like ethics, is arbitrary and nothing more than a consensus of acceptable behaviors and practices agreed to by a group of people (or attempted to be imposed on people who happen to be associated with an organization like a realtor or doctor). Justice is merely a social construct and has no absolute criteria to guide people universally.

Barry then gives us good reason NOT to follow his advice: "On the basis of just a few facts about a child, such as its social class and its race or ethnicity, we can make a good prediction of where it will finish up in the distribution of earnings, the likelihood that it will spend time in jail, and many other outcomes,
good and bad." This sounds like class and racial profiling he is advocating. Why then would I want to hire someone who is probably low on intelligence and conscientiousness, may be a criminal, and has low aspirations and drive? Barry seems incredibly confused here.

He then makes the astounding statement that "
Genetic luck is often thought of as some kind of 'native ability' that can be treated as an independent resource, measurable by something like an IQ test. I shall show in chapter 9 that this is, generally speaking, nonsense. But there is, undeniably, some genetic bad luck, such as Down syndrome and fragile-X syndrome."

The research is extremely solid and has not been overturned by any environmental causes. Intelligence is about 80% genetic when one reaches adulthood, and the family environment or SES has very little impact on one's mental ability in adulthood (The Relationship Code, 2000). The research over the last thirty years has been all one sided—that is genes are the dominant contributor to mental ability and the other 20% is simply unknown (the non-shared environment, that is SES becomes irrelevant).

Barry tries to dismiss genetic contributions with simplistic just so stories: "[B]
arring miracles, every difference in mental capacity must correspond to some neurological difference. However, such findings become pernicious when they are seized on by right-wing ideologues as evidence that differences in ability are 'innate'. As the quotation above reminds us, they show nothing of the sort, because cortical development arises from environmental stimuli. In fact, the more we learn about the power of the early environment, the more plausible it becomes that, in the absence of some definite neurological deficit, all children have the same cognitive potential."

What he seems to be alluding to is that developmentally, the brain goes through changes as children grow and follows similar paths in all children, but of course there has to BE an environment for this to happen. Locking a child in a closet for several years or starving them would derail normal development. However, with any typical environment from low SES to high SES, no environmental differences have been found that can account for the large variation in intelligence between people and between races (The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability by A. R. Jensen, 1998). All of the research shows genetic differences account for the major differences in 'cognitive ability.'

He then claims, "The first demand of social justice is to change the environments in
which children are born and grow up so as to make them as equal as possible, and this includes (though it is by no means confined to) approximate material equality among families. The second demand—which is more pressing the further a society fails to meet the first demand—is that the entire system of social intervention, starting as early as is feasible, should be devoted to compensating, as far as possible, for environmental disadvantages. Thus, the authors whose discussion of the acquisition of linguistic competence I discussed earlier wrote that 'the accomplishments of the higher-SES [socioeconomic status] children are hardly surprising when we consider their cumulative experience'."

And yet, decades of research and programs such as Head Start or No Child Left Behind has shown no narrowing of the gap between Blacks and Whites even though enormous sums of money have been thrown at the problem to close the gap—and still it persists without much change and is even widening once again. And to confuse the issue even more, Barry claims it will take generations before this so-called social justice problem is corrected, while admitting that middle and upper class families are not about to have their incomes transferred to the underclass. He claims that there is a cumulative disadvantage when the underclass sinks lower in ever more poverty—the same claim made by eugenicists of the past—but their solution was not intervention but prevention. Stop the undeserving from having any more children. This would take far fewer generations to solve, at a fraction of the cost.

Barry then attacks merit without basis: "An obvious gap in this formulation, [that people with different abilities will sort into different occupations], is that it does not specify what is to count as 'true merit'. On the face of it, any innate qualities that help their bearers to get ahead in life should be included. As in Swift's example, if there is an innate physical basis (though it needs a lot of developing) to being a star golfer, then that should be 'merit'. In practice, however, the innate qualities that are peculiarly thought to be meritorious in the writings of meritocratic theorists are cognitive ones. The explanation may have something to do with the fact that people who write in favor of meritocracy probably believe that they have a lot of innate cognitive ability, whereas it may be all too apparent to them that they have few other plausibly innate characteristics related to success. (This is, indeed, one of the major reasons for people becoming academics.) In any case, I shall for now follow the trail where it leads, which means that the supposedly innate component in occupational success that will dominate the scene is cognitive ability."

He belittles intelligence of academics and dismisses 100 years of academic research that shows that mental ability is the single most important factor for a host of life's preferable outcomes (See Linda Goffredson's web site). Social scientists routinely turn to hostile, aggressive and intolerance towards other academics that have been producing cumulative research where they have none. The well has gone dry.

He states, "
On the face of it, equality of opportunity is an exceedingly strong demand. The only way in which we can be assured that the ordering of success is the same as the ordering of IQ (assumed to be genetic in origin) is to ensure that children have environments that are equally conducive to developing this innate talent. If there are powerful environmental effects on its development, and these are correlated with the parents' wealth and education, the implications of a serious attempt to ensure equal opportunity will be radical."

The problem is that researchers have not been able to find any powerful environmental effects that alter a person's intelligence once they reach adulthood. The egalitarians have failed to show any evidence that it is possible to achieve, and yet they blame the empiricists for publishing what is known about mental ability.
In psychometrics, most behavioral traits are about 50% genetic, but for intelligence it is about 80% past puberty.

And Barry's solution: "This principle does not say anything about the relative resources
to be bestowed on children with different IQs. One possibility would be to say that, the higher a child's IQ, the less that should be spent on it, so as to compensate those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. But this would be contrary to the spirit of meritocracy, which tells us that inequalities in innate abilities should express themselves in due course by underwriting unequal attainments and unequal positions. Suppose that a higher IQ produces a bigger gain in attainment for any given educational input. Then the most efficient use of resources would be to concentrate them on those with the highest IQs. Take an analogy with raising pigs. Different breeds of pig put on different amounts of weight for each pound of food they eat. If you have a variety of breeds and a fixed amount of feed, and you want to maximize the total porcine avoirdupois, you will obviously start by feeding the breed that most efficiently converts food into weight. At some point, either the pigs cannot eat any more or severely diminishing returns to additional food set in. You will then start feeding the next most efficient converters, and so on down the list until either you run out of feed or have as much total weight of pig as you can use. The pigs left over will get nothing."

Sounds good to me: breed the best, cull the rest!

Earlier, Barry said that a highly genetic component to mental ability was nonsense, and he would show why in Chapter 9. Let's see what leads him to this conclusion. He states that "The transmission of 'genes for intelligence' from generation to generation depends on what is called 'assortative mating': the tendency of couples who have children to be similar in some respects."

It is true that assortative mating can concentrate different genes via assortative mating, but the transmission of genes for intelligence does not depend on assortative mating. The whole paragraph on this subject is confused and has no real conclusion. And then he jumps into another matter altogether that looks vaguely like Gardner's multiple intelligence theory (which has no empirical basis to date.) "
To the extent that IQ tests do differ from tests of attainment in specific subjects, they focus on 'abstract questions and puzzles with right or wrong answers'. However, 'a score that measures only intelligence at that level of abstraction' simply favors those with a certain kind of puzzle-solving ability over others who may be just as intelligent in any ordinary sense of the word and do just as well or better at real academic subjects."

This statement is entirely false as the preponderance of data shows that those with high IQs not only do well on specific tests but overall do well on all tests of mental ability. There is no data that shows that academic intelligence is different from intelligence in general. Robert Sternberg has tried to make the case that IQ does not measure wisdom, but he has not provided any reproducible empirical data that shows that there is even such a thing as wisdom. The bottom line: IQ tests show that having a high intelligence covaries with numerous life outcomes like health, wealth accumulation, income, academic success, traffic accident rates, etc.

Later he states, "
But there is also a sense in which the differences depend on the environment, in that the different environments could also be described as causing the differences in IQ, given the different genotypes. All this is perfectly comprehensible within the framework within which we talk about norms of reaction, yet it falls outside the purview of those who still adhere to the terms of the stale 'nature versus nurture' debate."

I have never read any academic research where the interaction between nature and nurture is not taken into consideration in determining the high heritability of intelligence. In behavior genetic studies, very complex nature/nurture interactions are studied and factored into the final results in determining if intelligence is primarily genetic or environmental. It is in fact the Left that refuses to take into account genes when doing research on ways to improve educational attainment for instance—they simply ignore genes and just assume an environmental determinist theory for variation between people and races—making the research highly flawed. Environmental explanations have been so unsuccessful at showing any lasting importance in mental ability that much of the Left's program has turned to simple narrative explanations for why some races do poorly and others succeed. And there is no limit on the number of stories they can produce that inevitably are shown by others, using more scientific methods, to be without any validity.

Barry claims, "
I am not aware of a single political philosopher (and I have read a lot of them) who discusses issues involving equal opportunity without assuming that it makes sense to ascribe to each person some measure of 'native ability' or 'native talent', understood as cognitive ability or talent. Some may have doubts about our chances of actually assigning scores for this innate ability, and some think that it is morally insignificant anyway. But they all take it for granted that it is there somewhere. The popular conception of equal opportunity as equal educational inputs to children with the same 'native ability' clearly presupposes the existence of such a thing."

The above is a very confused paragraph, but scientific philosophers HAVE addressed the issue of intelligence, genes, equality, etc. The most thorough denunciation of the Left's position of cognitive equality based on philosophical arguments against psychometricians' methodologies is by Neven Sesardic, where you can find his articles on the Internet or more thoroughly covered in his book Making Sense of Heritability, 2005.

Barry repeats several times that "
Anyone who starts with the methodological principle that any differences in ability that cannot be attributed to the environment must be genetic in origin is bound to conclude that the lion's share of the differences arise from genes, simply because we know so little about what features of the environment are relevant and have no way of measuring most of those that we do surmise to be relevant. Genetic determinism, in other words, is simply an expression of ignorance."

Let's break this convoluted and highly specious paragraph down so it is more intelligible. First, any scientist that is either a genetic determinist or an environmental determinist is expressing an ignorance of the scientific method—the statement is propaganda. Second, the components of genes versus environment are always studied together—there is no simplistic "if not E then it must be H" assumption when it comes to assigning variation to genes or environment. Finally, Barry's assertion that environmental variables are too numerous and too difficult to study is baseless. Science is all about testing hypothesis as best one can and repeating those tests to see if they can be sustained. It is part of the research project to find ways to test the various environmental influences that could impact mental ability. After all, the Jensenist theory of a substantial genetic component underlying mental ability has been a 100 year project of successes, but the task was extremely difficult requiring all kinds of new mathematics, disciplines, modeling and creative input to establish the robust results. It is up to the Jensenist detractors to either show why the research is flawed, or produce their own research to challenge the successes in psychometrics in understanding the genetic versus environmental components in mental ability.

Barry asserts, "Defenders of inequality are therefore still faced with the challenge: if people are born equal, how can we justify the enormous inequalities that are common in capitalist countries? The answer is to accept that people are in principle equal in potential, but to attribute inequalities to unequal merits. The rich owe their wealth to hard work, enterprise and frugality, while the poor have a bad moral character, which leads to laziness, fecklessness and the kind of behavior that is liable to land them in prison."

What he is addressing here is the very successful indoctrination of Western societies that people all have equal genetic potential, but there are still inequalities. Conservatives, not being very scientific minded, have generally relied on moral arguments for inequality. However, this position is a political position that does not have any adherents in the scientific fields that study equality. A person's SES, mental ability, personality traits, and some luck all factor into outcomes.

Barry makes some outlandish statements about Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (1994): "
Murray's next foray, The Bell Curve, completed the job and made racism itself respectable, if we take racism to consist in a belief in the genetic inferiority of blacks. This was equally well promoted, equally flawed, refuted with equal thoroughness and – for the same reasons as before – just as successful." I personally read, I believe, all of the books trying to refute the book, and found nothing other than personal attacks on motive, old arguments for equality, etc. The fact is, there was one statistical error that Murray agreed was overlooked, but made no difference on the book's conclusions. But The Bell Curve was not a peer-reviewed academic book in the full sense of the word (though the research articles cited were recognized as reviewed and valid).

What is really egregious about Barry's use of two books by Murray is that he ignores all of the other books that subsequently substantiate what Murray and Herrnstein assert in The Bell Curve. Or he should have cited the primary journal on mental ability—INTELLIGENCE. He just dismisses all of the publications between 1994 and 2005.

He then goes into a sophomoric rage: "The left has one enormous advantage over the right: the case for radical change of the kind advocated in this book can be shown to flow from widely accepted premises without any need to indulge in obfuscation or lies. All that has to be done is to clarify the logical implications of the principles that people maintain they espouse and relate them to the facts. In contrast, the only honest case that can be made for the agenda of the right is that it suits the people who benefit from it very nicely. The left's advantage is offset, however, by the relative sophistication of its ideas [?]. It is not only that they demand institutions that are more complex than those supported by crude pro-marketeers. More significantly in the present context, they also require a more complex understanding of society than do the [untested remedies] of the right. Any fool can comprehend the notion that the rich are rich because of their personal merits, while the poor are poor because of their lack of merit. Of course, only a fool would believe it, but the truth of the matter cannot be conveyed without invoking the concept of a basic structure of society imposing strong constraints on the choices of people located in different positions within it.
The power of the ideology that I depicted in the previous chapter cannot be denied. But no more can the inexorable forces that make the continuation of 'business as usual' totally impossible. Scarcely anybody denies the existence of resource depletion, population growth and global warming. But nowhere near so many people are aware of the size of threat they pose or of the scale and rapidity of the response that will be required to prevent the human race from reaching the point of no return. I shall lay out the facts, as I have come to understand them, in the next chapter. These are the basis for well-founded fears, and those who belittle them are liars. But in the chapter that follows, which concludes the book, I shall argue that they provide some reason for hope."

Barry conveniently attacks the conservative right instead of the academic right—those who accept racial and individual inequality in mental ability, etc. Notice also that he claims above, "
More significantly [the Left] … also require a more complex understanding of society…." And yet earlier he claimed that understanding how the environment can increase mental ability was just too complex and that is why the academic Right has stolen the show when it comes to explaining intelligence in terms of genes and development.

In the end, Barry never does produce a theory of social justice that can be empirically tested. It seems the best he could come up with was that people who are less well off feel terribly bad about their situations, and therefore we should make them feel better by redistributing the wealth. In essence, the book is a rambling plea for socialism but never makes a case (nor could it) for its assertions. But that is as it must be, because whether society should adopt egalitarianism or inegalitarianism cannot be answered empirically—it is a personal worldview. 

This review was written by Matthew Nuenke in August of 2007.  None of this material is copyrighted and may be used in any fashion deemed necessary or desirable to stop the recurrence of Marxist totalitarianism. Any errors or omissions you find can be sent to me at and will be greatly appreciated.