Cognitive Enhancement and Political Equality

Over the next several decades, it is possible that genetic engineering and other cognitive enhancements could significantly increase human intelligence. However, as Ronald Bailey points out, critics on both the right and the left worry that this will undermine political equality:

[N]eoconservatives fear biotechnology’s implications for human equality. In his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, for example, Francis Fukuyama asserted, “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality.”

This concern about human equality is the basis for a strange-bedfellow alliance with left-wing critics of biotechnological progress such as Marcy Darnovsky, co-founder of the Center for Genetics and Society. “The techno-eugenic vision urges us, in case we still harbor vague dreams of human equality and solidarity, to get over them,” wrote Darnovsky and environmental activist Tom Athanasiou in World Watch magazine back in July 2002. The two fear that advances in biotechnology will “allow inequality to be inscribed in the human genome.”

This is a very weak reason to oppose biotechnological enhancement of intelligence. Cognitive inequality is already “inscribed in the human genome.” There is a huge difference in intellectual ability between a person with an IQ of 150 and one with an IQ of 75. And there are already massive differences in political knowledge between different individuals and groups (many of them not caused by genetics), some of which I discuss in this article. Political theorists such as John Stuart Mill argued that these differences justify giving the more knowledgeable extra voting power long before anyone ever heard of genetic engineering.

If the case for political equality can be sustained at all, it must be on the basis that people qualify for it by meeting a certain minimum threshold of cognitive ability, not on the clearly false premise that everyone’s ability is essentially equal. On this account, rising above the minimum threshold does not entitle people to extra political power over those with lesser intellectual ability. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “[b]ecause Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.” Unlike Francis Fukuyama, the author of the Declaration of Independence did not believe that the political equality enshrined in that document “rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality.”

Mill made a fairly good theoretical case for giving extra votes to those citizens who have greater political knowledge. Ignorant voting often inflicts harm on all of society, and not just on the ignorant voter himself. Because, as Mill puts it, voting is the exercise of “power over others,” it cannot be seen as purely an individual right that the voter is entitled to without regard to its effects. However, the theoretical argument is only worth implementing in practice if 1) the knowledgeable minority can be trusted not to use their extra power to oppress those with fewer votes, and 2) the government can be trusted to come up with a knowledge test that is objective and politically neutral. I am extremely skeptical on both counts, especially the second. These problems will not disappear with the development of cognitive enhancement. Thus, the case for political equality is buttressed by the realities of politics as well as theories of natural rights.

In the long run, cognitive enhancement could help alleviate political ignorance and increase political equality – at least in so far as political equality is enhanced by cognitive equality. Greater intelligence would enable “rationally ignorant” voters to assimilate more political information in the very limited time they are willing to devote to following politics. As for the equality issue, cognitive enhancement is likely to follow the same trajectory as numerous previous information-spreading technologies, such as books, radio, television, and computers. While at first they may be available mostly to the rich, over time costs will go down thanks to competition, and the rest of society will be able to take advantage of them as well. Ultimately, therefore, cognitive enhancement might actually reduce the large “natural” gaps in cognitive ability that currently exist. If, for example, genetic engineering enables everyone to achieve an IQ of 180, people who would otherwise have had very low IQs will gain a lot more than the Newtons of the world.