Christianity has adopted the principle that all humans have the same moral worth, but this principle was never meant to be an assertion that all humans have the same capacity for moral behavior. In fact, the Church Fathers recognized that this capacity varies from one individual to another.

Hence, Origen (c. 185 - c. 253) stated that Man cannot be moral without the capacity to know. Otherwise, one is simply moved by instinct and impulse. This capacity is not distributed equally among individuals. One man has more virtue than another because his ancestors have been, like Abraham, men of worth. "A father has his ancestors' traits transmitted to him."

In sum, a Christian believes in moral equality because such equality is essential to the construction of a Christian society. But moral equality is impossible if most people lack a minimum capacity to understand moral rules and internalize them in daily life. The Christian belief in moral equality is therefore a contingent principle and not an absolute one.

Davies, H.H. (1898). Origen's theory of knowledge. The American Journal of Theology 2(4): 737-762.

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Charles Murray wanted to construct a world in which the least among us could be moral, because they were presented with moral decisions they could understand and make active choices about.

However, such a system required subsidy from the best among us. Charles made a strong moral chase for why the best among us should do so.

However, if the ratio of the worst to the best got out of whack, the subsidy would break down. Among many other things that could break the equilibrium.

Hence his warning about immigration in The Bell Curve.

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"The more your nature causes you to perform certain actions, the less praiseworthy you are for performing them."

Indeed, one should never be proud of intelligence, good looks, or any other human trait. Pride is a reflection of our ego, while happiness is a more genuine and humble response to our circumstances. We should be glad or happy for our traits but never proud, as it can lead to a sense of superiority.

"The smart are not morally superior. And researchers into intelligence and related human traits should, as they have usually done – at least since the Second World War – refrain from making moral inferences."

I agree. Morality, integrity, and, for that matter, all human traits stand on their own and are not interconnected to intelligence.

"At the same time, people of high intelligence should not underestimate the great value people of lower intelligence bring to society."

Yes, a human born of nothing but intelligence would be of little value without the presence of other positive traits. Some other positive traits are integrity, inquisitiveness, intuitiveness, industriousness, insight, inspiration, imagination, inventiveness, and intentness.

"Cofnas’s final error is not specific to him but shared with the philosophical tradition stemming from Peter Singer. On this view, what makes human beings “special” is certain cognitive capacities that are not unique to humans and which some humans possess less of than some animals."

The one attribute that sets humans apart from all other animals is intelligence.

Thanks for a great article.

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"The one attribute that sets humans apart from all other animals is intelligence."

Perhaps it would be better to consider that the surplus of intelligence over the amount required to subsist is what sets humans apart from other animals.

...and if true, the amount of intelligence required to subsist is decreasing in the industrialized world as individuals are buffered from stark necessity by the cultural accumulation of technology and its benefits.

In short, on average, it takes less individual intelligence to subsist in an industrialized society than in an agrarian one, and still less than in a hunter-gatherer society.

Strange, isn't it?

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"Perhaps it would be better to consider that the surplus of intelligence over the amount required to subsist is what sets humans apart from other animals."

That is a great point. I have wondered, for decades, what caused that to have happened. None of the explanations I have heard are sensible to me. The surplus of intelligence in humans over the amount required to subsist is not minimal but astronomical. If you have a theory, I would very much like to see it.

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Since intelligence is so important to humanity's ascent, I am a strong supporter of psychometric and genetic research on human intelligence and the genetic enhancement of intelligence, among other positive traits.

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I don't personally have any problem with that, and it could be viewed as an evolutionary step at least as significant of bipedal locomotion that freed up the forelimbs for further psycho-motor evolution.

I know it really raises red flags reflexively, but it's how it looks to me: an evolutionary step.

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"I know it really raises red flags reflexively, but it's how it looks to me: an evolutionary step."

I agree with your comment that genetic enhancement looks like an evolutionary step. All grand leaps in science are open to derision.

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May 14·edited May 14

Your arguments will be important in the light of AGI. Suppose we will be able to develop artificial general intelligence. What impact will that have on moral worth and human worth? Let us take chess as an analogy. AI is already much better at chess than any human. But there have never been as many chess players as today. Chess is flourishing. Why? Apparently, the worth of human chess is not dependent on "chess intelligence". One can even argue that the worth of the best chess players is derivative of (or dependent on) the worth of the average chess player. I believe that analogy can be extended to all of human intelligence. Your arguments may point us in the right direction.

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problem with humans having intrinsic worth or moral value is again we live on planet earth and there are resources in the ground. you can't start a civilization without stealing or conjuring a bad deal or eliminating them, same reason the original native inhabitants were wiped out. and giving them bread just means more dependent mud hut people.

derivative of average chess player just means that mens' intrinsic desire to better himself at the expense of sociosexual dynamics of women being parasitic and being time-intrinsic in valuation in devotion is a function of betterment and constant struggle for superiority. you know genetic interests means we feel nothing when we kill animals with less neuronal cells or less neonatal features. saying that because there is a median and something to measure one's worth to, that in itself is intrinsically valuable just means humans are a herd and hierarchical species--hence advocating for social darwinism again. of course elites can genetically engineer everyone to view everyone else as equivalent in value and equally replacable and interchangable, so permanent peace can be achieved at the expense of individual autonomy. there is no other way to have it, inequality and perpetual war or equality and permanent slavery.

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There is a lot in what you say. Maybe picking up on the last sentence: "there is no other way to have it, inequality and perpetual war or equality and permanent slavery."

This dualistic way of thinking (creating opposites that seem to exclude each other) is not necessarily a human trait. There is evidence that it is a particular feature of our Western culture. Even Aristotle, who marks the beginning of modern Western culture, emphasized the importance of balancing opposites. Virtue is the mean.

Aristotle: "There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean"

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You mention social darwinism. To be honest, while I came of age in the 60s, during Flower Power and all the optimistic assumptions about the nature of humanity that the era entailed, to date I have not yet seen a convincing rebuke of the mechanisms of social darwinism.

I think social darwinism, when viewed from space, describes the evolution of the species.

Maybe it just had a lot of bad PR.

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"I think social darwinism, when viewed from space, describes the evolution of the species."

What is social darwinism? I would say, social darwinism turns descriptive observations about how evolution works biologically into normative rules that humans should follow. So I would claim that social darwinism does not describe anything.

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“The moral worth of human actions, I argue, is inversely proportional to our natural endowments, being a function of the difference between accomplishments/behavior and natural capacity.”

Not content with living in a happy society with pro-social people, the philosophical fetishist constructs a morality that emphasizes the superiority of those born most depraved. Helping people because u were born enjoying helping people gains u little to no moral worth points, while the total psychopath pushed into behaving kindly by social constraint is the best of all, because he has defeated his natural inclinations!

Added: Of course, this isn't even consistent in theory as conformability to social pressure is itself an underlying trait. But this is actually beside the point. I'm having a hard time coming up with a more genuinely anti-human ideology than the one detailed.

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Well, I agree it could be taken to an extreme, revelling in human imperfection, I think it's undeniable that the psychopath who exercises his will to behave kindly has done something greater than the normal person who does so naturally.

The first quote out of context does sound wrong; the point is moral worth is proportionate to effort/accomplishments divided by natural gifts/starting point. I'm not a leftist; I do want to the upper ends of the natural distribution of talent and intelligence to flourish, for their own sake and everyone else's!

Is that still the most anti-human ideology you can imagine?

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To be praiseworthy it has to be an exercise of will. If you are pushed by society into behaving that way, it's no more morally praiseworthy than being naturally inclined that way.

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“I think it's undeniable that the psychopath who exercises his will to behave kindly has done something greater than the normal person who does so naturally.”

But why? What is the utility of defining moral worth in this way? I don’t know to interpret “moral worth is…” other than “I wish everyone would praise/value X”.

From an evolutionary perspective, what we are doing when we judge others as good or bad is deciding whether or not it would be good (fitness-enhancing) to have that person as an ally/member of our community. I’d rather be around someone who doesn’t have to constantly struggle against the urge to shank me or rob me or whatever.

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If we want to limit our evaluations to those concerning biological fitness, then moral evaluation simply drops out of the equation. Categories of worth, desert, praise, and blame would all be non-natural, queer properties with no real basis. They could indeed be useful in encouraging and manipulating other humans into behaving in certain ways.

I also prefer to be around people who don't have those urges. But I think that accurate psychology and sociology suggests that such psychological traits are normally distributed. If you position yourself in certain communities, academic ones, or upper-middle class ones, you associate with the right people. But this is all at the level of natural distribution, not moral evaluation. Society sorts for naturally-occurring traits.

I don't think that I'm "defining moral worth"; I think I'm observing the grammar of the human category of moral worth. If someone is a fine, pro-social human specimen at the high end of the bell curve, I evaluate them positively as a biological specimen, like a prize-winning dog at a dog show. But I can't morally praise them for being such a fine specimen.

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Does it seem that the concept of "moral worth" is uniquely human? Might we suppose that other animals make judgments on anything other than utilitarian bases?

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"I think it's undeniable that the psychopath who exercises his will to behave kindly has done something greater than the normal person who does so naturally."

That's one way of looking at it--a very "human" way.

Another, more utilitarian, way would be to judge that the psychopath has simply achieved the minimum society expects of the individual for that individual to be allowed to participate in it. And a functional society is not concerned with his effort, merely that he complied and continues to comply.

For those who watch American football, it's like an orgasmic on-field celebration for merely making a play that was expected of you if you are a member of the team.

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I concur entirely with the upshot of this piece, namely, that moral worth can't be operationalized. There's something distasteful about the very effort that Cofnas is making, largely because it defines human beings so narrowly.

That said, I'm less sanguine about the force of the present argument, which remains trapped within post-Cartesian, and especially post-Kantian, orbits.

Is the matter of moral judgment really in full about the will? This is a Christian concept, and you'll find nothing of it in the Greeks -- unless one draws a very "creative" sketch of thymos. Look at Aristotle's discussion of the voluntary, and you'll see little to support the idea that people are endowed with equal decision-making power, or that the differentiating characteristic "rational" precludes differences in worth not going to intractable and innate character. Recall that Aristotle is completely comfortable with the idea of worthless or "good for nothing" people, and also, ofc, there is the idea in the Politics of "natural slaves." (Incidentally Descartes explicitly makes the "rational differential" case in the Discourse -- it reads, rhetorically speaking, much like a taunt of his scholastic foes -- he knows it's bullshit, and that no one took Aristotle this way, at least in his day).

As a different historical reference point, look at Hume's various arguments -- especially in the second Enquiry -- to the effect that moral estimation has nothing to do with determinations of voluntary liberty.

Point being, it's not hard to make all sorts of inegalitarian and/or skeptical arguments about human worth without stepping into either Kantian "will" arguments or Millian utility calculations.

My disagreement with Cofnas is that he's constructing ad hoc teleological arguments to accommodate his personal preferences with various human qualities, and the ad hoc quality is almost laughably naked. He wants the fruits of a cosmology while pretending that this is not really what he's doing.

It's not just Cofnas who does this -- a lot of folks in the HBD orbit argue similarly. They want "scientific" certification for whatever reduced, tinker-toy views of the person they've come to accept, but in the end they can't help creeping back to old school metaphysics.

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Interesting article. A couple thoughts:

"Cofnas's category of 'moral worth' is best identified with 'social utility.'"

I argue that intelligence has instrumental *and* intrinsic value. Doesn't that encompass both what you call social utility and human dignity (which is based on rationality, which in turn stems from intelligence)?

"The human difference, what Aristotle called 'rationality', is not graded. Even the mentally disabled human being possesses the radical capacities unique to members of our species. Their disability consists in the fact that these are inhibited by physical defect."

This seems to be empirically wrong. What Aristotle called rationality *is* graded, and there is overlap between human and nonhuman species.

I accept that, as a matter of logic, you can define a concept of "radical capacity" according to which an individual has the "radical capacity" to develop traits that are statistically associated with his species, even if he lacks this capacity in reality. To me, however, such a concept seems disconnected from what is actually valuable. If humans are valuable because they have rationality, then the instantiation of rationality is what it valuable—not membership in the species per se.

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I think the second point is still the key one. What Aristotle called rationality belongs to a kind, a form of being. The human species possesses, in addition to qualities shared with plants, and those shared with non-human animals, unique qualities associated with intelligence and language use. All humans share in this "specific difference." Even humans with mental disabilities are "defective" in virtue of departure from this biological norm. They do not lack "rationality" as such.

I would argue that you and Singer ignore a distinction between, basically, essential and accidental properties. "Rationality" is Aristotle's word for the essential property; "intelligence" is our word for a graded accidental property. The two are connected but distinct. The dolphin has intelligence; it lacks rationality. The person with Down Syndrome has rationality; he or she may be relatively low in intelligence within the bell curve.

Radical capacity is also found in Aristotle's first potentiality v. second potentiality. The one-minute old human zygote has the first potentiality to speak French; the mature dolphin lacks this.

On the philosophy of biology, I follow the Neo-Aristotelians, Philippa Foot, Michael Thompson, and the like. I'd be interested to go back and forth on that level as well! For example, Thompson's "The Representation of Life": https://sites.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/life.pdf

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Well said. Additionally, Aristotle seems to link rationality most strongly, in the case of humans, to action (strictly speaking, animals don't "act"), and this to deliberation. And though what Cofnas is describing as intelligence may be a component of deliberation, it's far from a sufficient condition for it.

Descartes and Hobbes defenestrated a good portion of human nature. It seems like every meaningful conversation about social matters is an effort to push that stuff back in the window.

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Moral worth is subjective at best. A better metric is social utility, as the universe is transactional after all. Either you are a net positive in resource generation or you are a net negative. That metric is a bit more telling than morals.

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> The more your nature causes you to perform certain actions, the less praiseworthy _you_ are for performing them. This is because we assign praise and blame in accord with what we attribute to the human will – rather than to nature, instinct and in-built personality.

I totally reject the obsession of Cofnas (and of Aporia-types in general) with intelligence. But your claim above carries little water. It is true that, since the rise of voluntarism, we believe the real you to be your will and not your nature. But this belief has no basis in empirical fact, philosophical reasoning, social utility, or even Christian theology. There is no reason to believe that the "will" is a real thing with thinginess, much less that it is the essence of a person, and much less that it should play a role in guiding society as a whole. And as it is, we define "will" analogously to the "God of the gaps", where it is simply the ever-shrinking residual after we control for nature and environment. Why should this residual count for anything? Furthermore, there is no social utility in valuing people in this way, as it incentives worsening nature and the environment so that the praiseworthy residual is maximized. Finally, this makes no theological sense from a Christian perspective. (I should note that I'm not a believer myself, but I assume that you are a Christian and that this matters to you.) The Bible repeatedly describes characters being valued on the basis of things that they had no willful choice in, such as in the story of Esau and Jacob. It would also mean that God is not praiseworthy, not being capable of falling into evil.

You might say that the boat has already sailed on the embrace of voluntarism, so we may as well accept it as a neutral description of how we evaluate moral worth. But voluntarism is a fairly recent Western ideological innovation, compared to all of human history. And I'm not certain that people in China, India, or the Muslim world would agree. So I think you do need to justify this premise.

I will finally note that there is actually a very simple, intuitive way to evaluate human praiseworthiness that does not lead to IQ fetishism or rely on trait regressions against genotype and environment. You simply evaluate people based on whether their actions are pro-social or anti-social. This intuitive principle is, I think, how the vast majority of people have evaluated other people. It is perfectly incentive compatible, requiring no metaphysical or statistical gymnastics. And even the Apostle Paul endorsed the idea, saying "God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury." Any sane society will seek to implement this heavenly idea on earth.

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Nathan is nothing but a pompous Eugenicist.

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"The more your nature causes you to perform certain actions, the less praiseworthy you are for performing them. This is because we assign praise and blame in accord with what we attribute to the human will – rather than to nature, instinct and in-built personality."

All of our actions are caused. What this quote is actually doing is arbitrarily assigning praise to one subset of desirable, highly heritable psychological traits (high conscientiousness, motivation, etc) while withholding praise from a different subset.

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I don't find tenable any categorical distinction that depends upon the historical contingencies of which beings exist today. If Neanderthals or their surviving descendants were here before us, what would we be meant to make of "human rationality" (as distinct from actual, scalar, cognitive capacities) or the consequent "human dignity"? Presumably these cousins would have to be put on our side of the dignity line or else on the side with the chimps and elephants and ants, since the thing can't be scalar. The problem then becomes, whether we say Neanderthal have "human dignity" or not, there's a continuous range of potentially existent beings (in terms of scalar cognitive traits) between them and us, and between them and chimps. The illusion of your categorical distinction is only preserved by the curtain of an accidental gap created by extinction of other hominids.

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What does having "equal moral worth" mean?

Does it mean that I need to have Open Borders? If someone has equal moral worth, how can I let him live in a third world country due to an accident of birth?

Does it mean that we need to have socialism? Why should smart people have more money?

Do I need to engage in a white man's burden campaign to uplift the whole world?

Can I treat people prone to criminality or mental illness differently? I think that we closed the mental institutions in part because of this "equal moral worth" argument and it seems to have been a disaster.

In what way does "equal moral worth" inform how I'm supposed to treat people? What their legal and political rights should be?

Unless this idea informs that, how is it useful? Why even debate it? What action is one supposed to take if they decide to agree with you versus reject the idea? What actions are people likely to take?


If our power grid went down, we would see quite clearly that high intelligence is only of such great value conditional on many other roles in society being played well.


Low IQ societies have rolling blackouts all the time.

People really underestimate just how *dumb* the low IQ are. You average tradesmen has an IQ of 100+. Skilled technicians higher than that. Most of the people you see on Dirty Jobs, especially if they manage a business, are a lot smarter than your average citizen in South Africa.

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"The more your nature causes you to perform certain actions, the less praiseworthy you are for performing them. This is because we assign praise and blame in accord with what we attribute to the human will – rather than to nature, instinct and in-built personality."

That's a rather masochistic attitude. Try smarter, not harder!

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Haha, broader than human will, I could have said "human activity," including exercises of intelligence. Working smarter rather than harder is great! It's just that our possession of natural talents does not redound to our moral worth/praiseworthiness.

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Speak for yourself. Pierre de Fermat and Carl Friedrich Gauss are two of my heroes. Their achievements are what matter, not how much willpower they invested

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Sure, they matter. We just need to distinguish praising people for accomplishing things from praising them for being talented.

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Why should people who inherited greater conscientiousness than others be praised for its effects, any more than someone who inherited greater mathematical reasoning skills?

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Exactly! :) Perhaps you think that's a counter - but the unconscientious among us should take comfort in that fact. There's so much that people attribute to morality that is just personality. No one is evil for having the personality of an unconscientious, disagreeable, online-luking introvert, for example. Contra mainstream people, who think that being a conscientious, agreeable extrovert - i.e., an elite normie - makes you a good person.

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The entire idea of praise as we have been discussing it is a sort of finishing veneer of human life. It is not intrinsic to human life, but makes it prettier.

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Sorry, but it seems crazy to me that anyone is giving even one iota of intellectual credit to Nathan Cofnas. I’ve read a bit of his work and it is essentially self justification by him that he is very smart and thus has extra value. I’d argue that he’s a white supremicist who is probably good at school and not much else so he needs to justify his mediocrity with intellectual pretensions.

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May 21·edited May 21

Why do most Western intellectuals have a hard time admitting that morality and values are just fictions, especially Atheist ones? There's nothing in Nature nor the Universe that says that Humans ought to behave in certain ways nor value certain things at all.

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As far as public policy is concerned, everyone's happiness should be equally important. That's what moral worth is all about in my opinion.

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