James Flynn: "Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher Than Our Grandparents"
James Flynn died at the age of 86 in Dunedin, New Zealand, on December 11. (The New York Times has published a good obituary.) He had retired last year from teaching political science at the University of Otago. He was best known for discovering the "Flynn effect"--that IQ has increased by around 30 points over the past 100 years--and for arguing that this shows that IQ is shaped more by environmental causes than it is by innate genetic endowment. That put him into a debate with people like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, who have argued that at least half of the variance in IQ scores is explained by genetics.
I first came into contact with Flynn in 2004, when I was an associate editor for the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, and I asked him to write an article for us on "The IQ Debate," which he did. Over the years, I have written a series of posts on Flynn and the IQ debate. Some of them can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
From my study of that debate, I have concluded that the study of intelligence as measured by IQ supports Darwinian Lockean liberalism with three ideas.
The first idea is that unequal intelligence is compatible with the Lockean principle of equal liberty. Lockean equality means not that all people are identical--in intelligence or in many other respects--but that all people are similar in resisting exploitation by others, so that no human being is good enough to govern any other human being without that person's consent. Equal liberty requires not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity in the pursuit of happiness. In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities. In such a society, everyone can find valued places for themselves.
The second idea is that increasing intelligence favors progress towards classical liberal or libertarian social orders, because Lockean liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself. The intelligence that allows us to think abstractly, logically, and hypothetically makes it easier for us to think like an "impartial spectator" (to use Adam Smith's term)--to take the perspectives of other people--and thus to reason ourselves towards the Golden Rule: that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and that if we try to exploit others, we should expect them to resist exploitation just as we would if they tried to exploit us. Abstract reasoning allows us to weigh the costs of coercive violence and the benefits of peaceful cooperation. Consequently, more intelligent people--people with higher IQ--tend to be more law-abiding, healthier, wealthier, and more cooperative people. This is what Steven Pinker has called the "moral Flynn effect"--that rising IQ scores are correlated with moral progress.
The third idea is that the Flynn effect shows the success of the Lockean Liberal Enlightenment in creating an open society with freedom of thought and speech for philosophers. This refutes Leo Strauss's claim that the irreconcilable conflict between the philosophic life based on the pursuit of truth and the social order based on unexamined opinion makes such an open society impossible. Strauss said that philosophers would always have to engage in esoteric writing to protect philosophers from persecution and to protect social life from the subversive effects of philosophical questioning of traditional moral, religious, and political opinions. But Arthur Melzer has shown that while this seemed to be true for most of human history, there has been less need for esoteric writing over the past 200 years, because the philosophic and scientific Enlightenment in liberal societies has created open societies in which people generally feel free to think and speak freely, as long as they accord that same freedom to others. (It should be noted that one of Flynn's teachers at the University of Chicago was Strauss.)
Flynn read some of my posts on his work and his engagement with Charles Murray and Steve Pinker. In 2013, I asked him if he agreed with Pinker that the smartest people are classical liberals or libertarians (as opposed to left-liberals). He answered: "By no means. I merely think that generalizing moral principles irons out logical flaws for everybody! I am a social democrat."
In 2014, he sent me this email message: