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Desert and inheritance and Boris Johnson

Recent comments by Boris Johnson about IQ and wealth inequalities have set alight debate.

There’s a double standard that has always confused me. Society is contemptuous of people who make their money using their looks – the celebrities and glamour models and reality TV show winners and so on – but impressed by people who make money using their brains. And yet the people who make money with their brains – whether they’re CEOs or scientists – are just as much winners of the genetic lottery as is any bosomy Page 3 girl or chisel-jawed Calvin Klein model. Why do we admire one, but mock the other?

Asks Tom Chivers.

My response is that there isn’t much difference; what I think is going on here is that people think looks are superficial, but brainpower isn’t, and that it is “deeper” in some way and therefore more deserving of respect. The question is a fair one: both our genetic inheritance in terms of brains and beauty are results of a biological and social lottery with some getting a lot and some getting little at all. The way to think about this in broader terms is that just as none of us in any sense “deserve” our looks, brains or muscles, so none of us do not “deserve” them, either. Also, if a person is born with great intelligence and this enables him to create wealth, he might not “deserve” it, but neither do those lucky enough to be born in a world containing this person, so they do not deserve the fruits of that wealth, nor do they have the right to seize it on some spurious redistributionist, Rawlsian grounds. (As in John Rawls, the egalitarian thinker who used the dodgy argument that lack of desert for inherited traits gave the State the right to seize the fruits of said, without pausing to think that the rest of humanity did not deserve that which had been seized, either.)

There can be no coherent notion of desert without the existence of a being who has the power to give out all these different qualities and abilities, and who has some sort of decision-making power that says A will get ravishing beauty, B will be ugly as sin but very clever, and Johnathan Pearce will be both fiendishly bright, good looking, and athletic (might as well get that out of the way). The premise, in other words, is wrong: “desert” has no meaning without such a belief. Existence, including what we got born with, just exists. (In other words, I think notions of desert in this sense are a hangover from belief in an all-powerful God or gods).

To put it another way, the whole edifice on which we choose to moan about the “unfairness” of different qualities of birth is built on sand. Far better, in fact, to focus on the notion that we all must have the freedom to rise as high as our abilities can take us, and to cultivate the moral and practical qualities to that end, and ensure governments get as far out of the way of this process as possible. And to remember that character, quite as much as how much brainpower you have, is important.




39 comments to Desert and inheritance and Boris Johnson

  • Boris Johnson has certainly being getting a lot of press recently, for stating the obvious. And it is obvious to nearly all, including (and I think it must be) a high proportion of left wingers and other statists.

    What is not quite so clear cut is the rightness and wrongness of parental influence, particularly through money for and involvement in getting a better education (and also through giving advice on the ways of the world and through the ‘nepotism’ of establishing contacts of career and other benefit).

    So how about we tackle the more difficult question: why is it wrong to stop parents giving the best they can afford and the best they can do, for their own children?

    Best regards

  • Johnathan writes:

    The way to think about this in broader terms is that just as none of us in any sense “deserve” our looks, brains or muscles, so none of us do not “deserve” them, either.

    It is worth remembering that, whatever out inheritance of looks, brains and muscles, we can actually make the best of what we have: it just takes a better inclination and more hard work – than if we were better endowed. In particular, it is amazing what modest application can do, over a sustained period.

    Of course, that inclination, which might be associated with or different from brains, is something that (IMHO and surely that of many others) also has components of inheritance and of culture/upbringing. But ‘so what’: it is all part of each of us.

    One of the big problem with socialism is that it does not properly differentiate fairness from equality. By this very lack, it saps the strength of many to make the best of what they have: that does them no favours.

    Best regards

  • Friday Night Smoke

    It is often said that it’s ‘unfair’ for one person to have the brains (e.g by genetic lottery) and the good fortune to become wealthy, and for another person not to. It is also said that this cosmic injustice requires redistribution to happen as a moral imperative.
    I counter that it is unfair for Jamaica to have sunshine and sandy beaches, and for Birmingham not to. I demand a policy of sunshine and sand redistribution to right this cosmic injustice.

  • Lee Moore

    I think Tom Chivers is being misled by a selection bias. It isn’t “society” that is contemptuous of people who do well from their inherited looks, and impressed by people who do well from their inherited brains, it is that portion of society that chatters and scribbles, a notoriously unattractive bunch.

    It is not true, by the way, that success is handed out by the chance offerings of genetic fate. Genetics will certainly hand people different opportunities, but it is still necessary to grasp them. Clever people can be industrious or indolent. And most pretty people have to try quite hard, once they are past 19 or so, to stay good looking. The successful deserve some, if not all, of their success. It is not possible to determine how much. The point – aside from liberty – of letting people take responsibility for achieving their own success is not that all their success is merited, but that a society which allows people to take responsibility for their own success, whatever genetic cards they may have been dealt, will generate more success than one which doesn’t.

  • Andrew Duffin

    The whole point of the “unfairness” argument surely is that people born with good brains have to work hard to learn stuff and apply it in order to succeed – which is worthy of respect – whereas people born with good looks just have to, well, stay alive in order to succeed – which is not worthy of respect.

  • bob sykes

    Good looks are not shallow. They are indicative of health and reproductive value. And good looks are not an arbitrary social construct. Numerous studies have shown that there are objective standards for good looks that are culturally independent, like the waist/hip ration in women, and height and facial symmetry in both sexes.

    Also, the phrase “genetic lottery” is very misleading. Good looks and intelligence are hereditary and run in families. People don’t have equal chances of getting them.

  • Chip

    Some recent work had shown determination or grit to be a better market for success than intelligence.

    Is determination a genetic trait? Or cultural, in that one’s children are taught to persevere and treat failure as part of the process toward success.

    If it’s waved away as a genetic lottery then the cultural impetus will disappear. As it has in so many places.

    The Finns meanwhile are known for their cultural determination. And their success.

  • Lee Moore

    I don’t think it’s true that people born with good looks just have to survive to succeed. Joan Collins is a splendid example of someone who was born with a reasonable, but hardly overwhelming, smattering of good looks, and an even more sparing helping of talent, who has been very successful by adding huge quantities of application to her natural endowments. For every Audrey Hepburn leaping directly to stardom from unreasonable supplies of natural cuteness, there are a thousand other pretty girls scrabbling, pushing and sleeping their way into the film credits.

  • By the way, people might think looks are superficial, but they don’t act as if they are.

  • Sam

    Most of us are in the same business, it’s just a question of which body parts we choose to rent out.

  • RogerC

    @ Chip

    Is determination a genetic trait? Or cultural …

    The same question can be asked of any human trait, of course. A lot of research has been put into resolving this question, but the best perspective on the subject I ever heard is encapsulated in the following question (the source of which I had forgotten, but which Wikipedia assures me is Donald Hebb); “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”.

    @ Nigel Sedgewick

    why is it wrong to stop parents giving the best they can afford and the best they can do, for their own children?

    Because it violates the non-aggression principle.

  • 2dogs

    The judgement here concerns the morality of the method by which the talent is turned into wealth, but involves a lot of underlying prejudice in making that assessment.

  • peter

    “Why do we admire one, but mock the other”
    “Because the ‘genetic lottery’ has predisposed people to admire genetic-brainpower-success and mock genetic-beauty-success. Q.E.D.

  • bloke in spain

    (Society is) ” impressed by people who make money using their brains”

    Like hell it is. It’s impressed if said moneymaker has gone through the system, gained the right qualifications, ticked all the correct boxes. It’s distinctly unimpressed by people who’ve used their brains & gone out & grafted hard for their pile. Hence the contempt shown to those who’ve strived from nothing.

  • RRS

    There was a little noted line in a Clint Eastwood film several years back in which the villainous character dying in the mud and rain in some Cowtown looks up at Clint and says: “I don’t deserve to die like this.” The reply there, and applicable here: “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.” – Followed as usual by expectoration.

    Probably unconsciously, but fed through to the senses of most persons from their experiences, those judgments of relative “values” come from some kind of vague awareness of the nature of the contributions derived by others (dare I say “society” at large) from what each individual is, appears to be, appears to do, actually does – giving meaning to that particular existence.

    The same factors apply proportionately in reverse to the repulsive, the vile and the damaging.

    The expectoration is left for performance by my favorite at the PMO.

  • staghounds

    If everyone worked as hard on his or her beauty as the professional beautifuls do, there would be a lot more pretty people.

  • Stuck-Record

    I’ve always found the left’s prejudice to the genetics of good looks and good physique to be a little revealing. One they don’t share about intelligence.

    For instance, denigration of displays of strength are a classical bugbear of many on the left. And it’s very common amongst leftist intellectuals to admit to a loathing of sport and/or to admit to a history of being physically bullied at school.

    However, the same people praise intellectual strength, and more importantly, are only too happy to use it to bully and mock others ‘weaker’ than themselves. In fact, a huge chunk of popular culture (the HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU) style of game show depends upon the quick-witted (supposedly) put down of others.

    It’s odd that the correlation between these two forms of bullying is not made. What’s sauce for the goose…

    The ability to enforce your will on others, whether it is by physical strength or mental strength, is still bullying. It may go some way to explaining the obsession with authoritarianism that many on the left have.

  • Pardone

    Boris disproves his own argument. Johnson has no discernible talent, no qualifications, was a vandal low-life thug who trashed restaurants yet did not go to prison (which would have been his fate were he not born with a silver spoon), is by all accounts a buffoon with a history of thuggery.

    btw Have I Got News For You is about mocking the powerful and those in authority, which is the entire point of satire. HIGNFY does not bully those “weaker”, it mocks the bullies.

    As for the issue of bullying itself, it is quite deliberately institutionalized in Britain’s education system (since its inception), its purpose to enforce conformity, hence why schools allow it to run rampant and make only token gestures towards stopping it.

    Also, given Britons have no aesthetic sense, intellect is bound to be focused on rather alot.

  • Pardone

    Johnson told the assembled audience, “An IQ below 85 is not the economic death sentence it once was, rich parents can send stupid children to the very best schools, ensuring that complete morons like many of my colleagues can still rise to the very top in their chosen field.”

    “Or they could just become career politicians.”

    “In fact, if you think about it, filling our best private schools with the inbred simpleton children of multi-millionaires is proof that a low IQ is actually no barrier at all to success in this country.”

  • Stuck-Record

    Not the HIGNFY that I’ve seen.

    It’s a back-slapping club of millionaire celebs, high-fiving each other and getting cheap laffs by saying, ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘George Bush’.

  • Johnnydub

    When I was growing up I was a bit shy and awkward. My best mate was good looking and relaxed – i.e. got a hell of a lot more girls than I did.

    Can the statists tell me if they’re going to right this inequality by state allocation of girlfriends?

    Actually on second thoughts I shouldn’t give the pricks any ideas…

  • Regional

    Many of the ‘cameragenic’ talking heads you see on the idiot box presenting what is alleged as the news are complete effwits without a teleprompter.

  • veryretired

    The deeper claim in this whole business is that total equality is the only fair and desirable end result, so any disparity from one to another is unfair by definition.

    A secondary theme, of course, is that individual inequalities can only be overcome by collective action, and that actions so intended are validated by the absolute requirement that everyone is equal in all respects to everyone else.

    This is a reflection of the disastrous perversion of the rights of man, first exemplified by the terror of the French Revolution, that egalite’ is a companion of liberte’ that must be enforced at all costs.

    Of course, the contradiction between the two ends up, inevitably, at the guillotine, or the gulag, as enforced total equality destroys liberty by its very nature.

    It is always amusing to read or hear the arguments of the egalitarians denouncing inequality in all its forms in one breath, and then launching into a sarcastic denunciation of anyone who doesn’t share their ideas as being immoral and intellectually backward, when the very principles they preach have been thoroughly tested in the laboratory of the world’s political and social practices, and the evidence of their deadly failure is profound and abundant.

    One of the most important steps a person takes as he or she matures into adulthood, and prepares to take on the responsibilities of that status, is to honestly and critically examine their talents and shortcomings, and arrive at a judgment as to the future course of their efforts toward getting an education that matches their talents, and entering a line of work that best uses those talents to provide for themselves and their loved ones.

    One of the most important lectures I ever gave my children, and they all got it more than once, was about the critical importance of honest self-evaluation and realistic assessment of their aptitudes and flaws, so that they went into their adult years with their eyes open, and not blinded by the unreality of magical thinking.

    Collectivism naturally values the concept that everyone should be totally equal, as this state can only be achieved by force, and is the antithesis of individual uniqueness and dignity.

    This campaign for egalite’ is a complex moral, intellectual, and emotional effort to destroy the very concept of competing to be or discover the best, either in people or things, and to exchange the exultation of achievement for the whiny neediness of the perpetual victim.

    For the former, life is the challenge that inspires their best efforts, and purest self-expression, as they strive for the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.

    For the latter there is only the acidic consolation that anyone who isn’t a loser in life has cheated somehow, that victimhood is the only valid status, and the heroic is only achieved by stealing it from the non-heroic non-achievers who live in that paranoid fantasy world in which the only good that ever occurs is when the rewards of achievement are taken from the doers of the world and given to the victims of reality as alms.

    Do not be confused as to the importance of these battles over equality beyond the classical emphasis on the law and opportunity—the relentless attempts to expand the meaning to all aspects of life is a fight for the very soul of humanity.

    The claim that all achievement is merely the luck of the genetic lottery denies all creative energy, and the enormous effort required to produce even one new and useful idea, along with the work required to bring that idea to a fruitful conclusion.

    To deny the creative qualities of the human mind, and the value of effort focused on the achievement of some personally rewarding goal, is to deny the very essence of humanity itself.

    Whatever the claims of the total egalitarians, the well-being of human beings is not their final goal.

  • Stuck-Record


    Thank you. Beautifully put. I really wish I had a T-Shirt large enough to print that on.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Stuck-Record’s comments about bullying are very astute. Well said.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Here is a counter-thought which just occurred to me:

    There is no general jealousy or resentment of an actual lottery winner. That is, when Smith hears that total stranger Jones won a lottery, Smith is not angry at Jones.

    I think that is because the lottery is truly random. Everyone who bought a ticket had an equal chance.

    As for the brains-versus-looks thing – most people think of brainwork as useful, and would pay willingly for it. They would pay for a clever doctor to cure them, a clever lawyer to win a case for them, a clever broker to invest their money profitably. In some cases they would pay a lot, and they can see when a smart person has done something of value for a lot of people.

    But the glamor celebs don’t seem to be doing anything useful.
    “Famous for being famous.”

    I think also there is a difference between how that crowd is viewed and actual working models and actors who don’t display an exaggerated self-worth and entitled attitude.

  • ALD

    Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever

  • Tedd

    Let’s mint a coin with veryretired’s head on one side and this:

    “To deny the creative qualities of the human mind, and the value of effort focused on the achievement of some personally rewarding goal, is to deny the very essence of humanity itself.”

    on the other.

  • Doubting Rich

    In order to money from brains one also either has to work hard in most cases. I was born with rather decent brains but am bone idle. I do work I enjoy, but it is not terribly lucrative. I earn more than average, and far more per hour, but I am far from wealthy. I enjoy this life more than I would a life of hard work that bores me but brings wealth, but others make the other choice as is their right.

    This is why I think people who make money from brains are deserving of their success, as they do have to apply those brains.

  • veryretired


    Hard to picture an ha’penny with a goat on one side and all those words on the other, but the generous comment is greatly appreciated.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    With plastic surgery, you can buy good looks, but I don’t think you can buy intelligence for yourself.
    That said, my next invention will pander to the pro-brain prejudice- I will work on the male padded wig! You can at least look brainier than you are, AND taller! (Women seem to go for taller men.)

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Thanks for some thought-provoking comments. I hope I don’t sound patronising when I say what a pleasure it is to discuss these things with folk on this blog.

    Andrew Duffin: “The whole point of the “unfairness” argument surely is that people born with good brains have to work hard to learn stuff and apply it in order to succeed – which is worthy of respect – whereas people born with good looks just have to, well, stay alive in order to succeed – which is not worthy of respect.”

    Indeed, which is why I made the point about character in my item – you have to have the discipline and gumption to make the most of what you have. To a certain extent, though, this also applies to looks. A person can have a nice face and body but work on his/her physique, taking plenty of exercise, eating well and so on. I know people who might be a bit on the plain side but who look after themselves in such a way that the opposite sex (or, for that matter, the same sex!) find them attractive.

    What all this boils down to is that we are all dealt with a certain set of cards in life; what counts is how we choose to play them.

    One commenter objected to my use of the word “lottery” because parents choose to have children and there can be, and is, some measure by said parents to influence the outcome (such as medical tests for certain potential conditions, etc). True – but the child does not get a choice at all. So in that sense all of us had no choice in what we were born with.

    Nick (nice-guy) Gray: cognitive enhancement may already be a factor of our lives. Arguably, our ability to search and store data has been massively increased by computers; one could argue that this is a form of brain augmentation. And new technologies are advancing all the time. (The stuff of utopian and dystopian writing).

  • Paul Marks

    Desert is massively overstressed.

    For example, people do not “deserve” good luck (winning the lottery or whatever) that that does no mean someone else has any right to use force to “distribute” their winnings.

    A diamond I just happen to find (whilst out in the garden) is just as much mine as one I spend hours digging out of the rock with my finger nails.

    “You do not deserve this” – is NOT justification for the theft and/or extortion that is “Social Justice”.

  • But people with brains do very interesting things that change the world around us. While a pretty girl 1000 years ago is still nothing but a pretty girl today (well with a lot more tatoos and piercings). Not that I’m saying that there’s anything wrong with pretty girls, or beautiful women for that matter.

    But imagine if Mona Lisa hadn’t lived – oh well, Leonardo might have painted a different, less enigmatic picture. But if Leonardo hadn’t lived the cost would have been much greater than one overrated canvas. Ideas matter more. Which I think is why Samizdata doesn’t have a Page 3 girl (not that there’s anything wrong with that and in fact you might consider it) or any pictures of anyone for that matter.

    Pure distilled reason floating in the ether: that’s Samizdata.

  • Tedd

    “Pure distilled reason floating in the ether…”

    Quite a cocktail!

  • lucklucky

    How Mr. Chivers knows that other people value beauty and brain equally like him? leftist arrogance?

  • Paul Marks

    Creative thought is important – as is hard work.

    But veryretired is correct – when someone says “you do not deserve what you have got” they normally mean “I am going to steal you stuff – and murder you if you resist”.

  • Laird

    I find the idea of a Samizdata Page 3 girl intriguing.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Laird, the trick is that Samizdata has just one long page! It’s like ‘Free Beer tomorrow’- you’ll never get there! even if it happened, who would pose? Alisa, Natalie, Ellen? An old photo of Margaret Thatcher in a bathing costume?