The Nature of Inequality

Let us start by defining some of the terminology and the context in which it might be used. Today, words such as ‘equality and equity’ are often used in the context of ‘social justice’, which argues for some fairer distribution of wealth and opportunities within a society, although the scope of what is meant by ‘fair’ is often vague or idealistic. For while we might generally understand the idea of equality in terms of some distribution of resources being fair and equal, we possibly need to clarify some of these ideas.

Note: Let us assume that social justice infers that equality requires that all groups should have access to the same resources and opportunities as any other. However, this differs from the idea of equity if seeking to achieve an equal outcome in terms of the representation within society by a policy of affirmative action.

At first glance, the note above could express an idea we might wish to support in principle, even though it is one that evolution by natural selection appears to ignore. For while equality of opportunity and justice, irrespective of gender or ethnicity, is a laudable goal of human society, the idea of equity of outcome is a far more problematic issue. So, let us table a question for further consideration.

Why are equality and equity such problematic issues?

In a perfect and idealistic world, the idea of both equality and equity might be argued on the basis of ‘fairness’. As such, it argues that prejudices be remove from any selection process so that everyone has a fair opportunity of success in life, irrespective of gender or ethnicity. However, the fundamental problem with this position is that the world is not, and never has been, fair in terms of ability, such that an equity of outcome for all individuals or groups has never been attained. Even so, if a society has been built on previous inequity of outcomes, then any selection process within these societies may be biased to a preferred outcome.

So, should we not simply change the rules such that equality of representation is achieved?

Let us put the idea of social justice to one side for the moment in order to consider what is often called the human condition, which encompasses a complex array of abilities, both at the level of an individual and collective groups. For we possibly need to consider why unfairness exists in all societies, especially if human ability was characterized in terms of just three simplified traits: appearance, personality and intelligence. While accepting this is a gross simplification, it is possibly adequate for this general discussion. On the basis of a ‘first impression’, we are often biased towards what we, as individuals, find personally attractive, which can be compounded by cultural and ethnic differences. Of course, first impressions can be wrong, when reassessed in terms of the other traits, e.g. personality and intellect.

Note: While such a blunt appraisal might be rejected in the context of modern political correctness, it does not mean that such an assessment does not take place – see Preference and Prejudice for more details.

Within the wider context of a nature and nurture debate, most will probably accept that our physical appearance is primarily down to genetics. However, if we characterise personality more as patterns of behaviour, see ‘big five’ personality for details, then both nature and nurture may play a role. This said, if aspects of our personality are rooted in genetics, then some characteristic traits might remain fairly consistent throughout life, while the nurture aspect of our personality may change depending on social and economic factors that surround our lives. So, even at this point, it might be accepted that a form of ‘unequalness’ may exist in terms of both our physical appearance and personality, which may conspire against us in terms of any equity of outcome. However, the trait of intelligence has long been surrounded by controversy, see IO Controversy for details, even though the field of psychometrics has long recognised something called the ‘g-factor’ as a general measure of cognitive abilities and human intelligence.

Note: While there are arguments on both sides of the nature versus nurture debate, geneticist Robert Plomin published a book in 2018 called ‘Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are’. In this book, Plomin argues that genes play a more important role in people's personalities than the environment. This book was reviewed in an earlier discussion entitled ‘The DNA Blueprint’.

While Plomin appeared to want to avoid the controversy surrounding IQ, he does present some of the statistical evidence that intelligence is biased towards inherited DNA and that some ‘gene pools’ may have a statistically lower or higher IQ score than another. As the issue of IQ associated with different groups is a central issue of controversy, we might start with a possibly less contentious example, while first highlighting that any statistical IQ difference between two groups does not apply to any single individual within those groups. In the case below, we see the inference that male and female IQ has a different distribution shape, where the female population has a 10% higher score in the centre of the distribution, but smaller populations on the lower and higher IQ scales.

While most appear to accept the statistical evidence above, the next distribution is often seen as far more contentious, even though the statistical evidence is equally strong. Why this is so may have more to do with political ideology than science, especially if seen to question the reality of any policy advocating equity of outcomes.

In the chart above, we see the general implication that people with different IQ tend to secure different types of employment that are best suited to their ability. If so, there can be no equity of outcome for somebody with an IQ of 70 when compared with somebody with an IQ of 130, at least, in terms of employment. While it is assumed that most will not find this finding surprising, or contentious, the inference of the yellow and red curves appears to be far more problematic because it suggests that a statistical group that aligns to the yellow curve will not have an equity of outcome based on the probabilistic IQ of this group. As this is a key issue of debate, we should possibly provide some more details about the previous distribution curves known as a normal distribution starting with the diagram below.

Again, the top horizontal scale represents ‘intelligence quotient (IQ) ’, which might be generalized as a measure of ability in a range of different tasks. On this scale, a mean score of 100 is considered average for a general population although this may vary in different population samples. The chart above also shows the standard deviation [σ] that is a measure of the variability within a population. In this context, the male-female distribution curves previously highlighted have different standard deviations reflecting the spread of the curve from the central mean. In the chart above, we also see the population percentages [%] associated with each standard deviation, where the first [±σ] deviation encompasses 68% of the population with an IQ ranging from 85 to 115. From a general perspective, we might use the following classifications of IQ, which some will undoubtedly consider to be politically incorrect.

IQ Range Classification Population %
130+ Very Superior 2.1%
121-130 Superior 6.4%
111-120 High Average 15.7%
90-110 Average 51.6%
80-89 Low Average 13.7%
70-79 Slow learner 6.4%
70- Retarded 4.1%

From the chart and table, we might recognized that 50% of the population fall below the mean of 100, although 81% of this population fall within the IQ range of 80-120. While some may reasonably point to the fallibility of an IQ score to predict an employment outcome, probability suggests that a low IQ score will be problematic in terms of an ability to undertake certain types of employment, although exceptions may exist.

Note: By way of somewhat anecdotal evidence, most parents with more than one child quickly come to the realization that their children invariably have different intellectual abilities that affects how quickly they can learn. If so, this difference in their innate ability to learn leans towards the idea of nature rather than nurture, although the latter is clearly important in order to maximise an innate ability.

If we put aside any sensitivity to some of the blunt IQ classifications and implications regarding employment, most people will possibly accept the inference that any attempt to ensure an equity of outcome is problematic when an individual’s IQ score is taken into account. As such, we need to question the scope of any practical form of affirmative action in respect to an individual or group which then brings us to the even more politically sensitive issue of the IQ distribution within different ethnic groups – see IQ compared by countries for source data from As the actual IQ scores for the countries listed in the link will not be directly discussed, the following quote is used to simply reflect the issue being outlined. 

“The question of the intelligence of a certain nationality or population may be controversial. In fact, intelligence is influenced by national, political, and geographic factors. Often surprisingly but scientifically proven, a warmer climate badly affects the intelligence quotient. With an average IQ of 97 points, the USA ranks 29th in this ranking. With 106 points, the inhabitants of Hong Kong reach the highest intelligence quotas worldwide. The last place, with only 51 points, is occupied by Nepal.”

In the list of IQ by countries, the mean IQ ranges from 106 down to 51, such that these scores might reasonably be questioned on the basis of the previous classification table, where a score of below 70 was considered as retarded in mental ability. However, it is probable that some of the very low IQ scores suggested may only represent an inability to compete on intellectual tasks required by the modern world. Again, it will be reiterated that countries with a low IQ score cannot be directly linked to any individual within that population, although it must imply a lower probability of finding a person with an IQ greater than 100.

Note: In the discussion entitled ‘The IQ Controversy’ reference is made to two publications: The Bell Curve (1994) and IQ and the Wealth of Nations (2002), which were subsequently branded by some as politically incorrect, if not racist in their conclusions. However, despite such accusations, the statistical data appears to support the idea that different ethnic groups do vary in IQ scores.

While some will rightly point out that some of the low IQ scores can be explained in terms of cultural differences along with poor diets and sub-standard education systems, the following chart presented by Reeves and Halikias in 2017 shows the SAT scores in the US that are considered critical in most college applications. Of course, whether these SAT scores only reflect IQ without reference to earlier opportunities in life might be debated in terms of unfair privilege, it is unclear why the scores are biased across the different groups shown, if IQ was not a key factor.

From a statistical perspective, these scores are representative of 1.7 million students in 2015. The mean score on the math section of the SAT for all test-takers is 511 out of 800, while average scores for different population groupings were listed as blacks (428) and Latinos (457), which were significantly lower than those of whites (534) and Asians (598). Again, while some might wish to dismiss this data on the grounds that poor performance is the result of social disadvantage and discrimination, the idea that different ethnic groups do not have genetic strengths and weaknesses seems to be a denial of a reality that exists in most modern societies. Therefore, we might consider an alternative example that contradicts the normal narrative underpinning equity of outcome that cites the percentages of players in the National Football League (NFL) by ethnicity as shown below.

The apparent inequity of 56% of all NFL players being African-Americans is compounded by the fact that this ethnic group only represents about 12-13% of the US population. As such, it is difficult to explain the percentages suggested by this chart, dated 2022, without considering the possibility of some innate athletic ability linked to the genetics of these groups, even though other factors undoubtedly apply. However, in contrast to the IQ debate, few see any controversy in the over-representation of African-Americans in the NFL, as in many other professional sports.

So, how should we judge both equality and equity of outcomes?

The discussion up until this point has argued that equality of ability might be considered in terms of just three simplified traits, appearance, personality and intelligence. In this context, it questions the practical reality of any policy seeking equity of outcome for all. However, it has to be recognized that unfairness exists in the world, which we might characterize in terms of the next chart that reflects the percentage of people living in poverty around the world.

However, the real issue of debate associated with the previous chart is not whether unfairness exists, but why. Of course, in practice, there may be a myriad of issues that have either helped or hindered each group based on their history, geography, culture and political governance. While this discussion cannot possibly address all these issues, we might still consider how both nature and nurture may have influenced the outcomes in terms of the poverty levels shown. For the reasons outlined, it has been argued that all are not born equal in appearance, personality or intelligence, which has implications not only for individuals but potentially wider ethnic groups. As individuals, most of us come to recognise that nature has imposed its own limitations on us all, albeit that it is something we often have to learn by bitter experience. While the idea that nature may have also imposed limitations on different groups as a collective whole is invariably rejected as either politically incorrect or racist, it is unclear how denying the reality of the world helps formulate effective policy. Therefore, in this context, we might table the next question.

Is striving for equality and equity futile?

No, that is not the argument being forwarded, only that we have to be realistic in what can be achieved, if nature does not make us all equal, although we still need to recognize that nurture of our world may conspire unfairly against some groups. This said, it might be argued that there are only two basic equalities that any society can really aspire to make fair, an equality of opportunity plus equality in law. Of course, simply aspiring to meet even these most basic equalities does not mean they can be achieved if ability encoded into our genetics provides an advantage to some individuals and groups. However, while recognizing that there may be intrinsic advantages and disadvantages built into our genetics, equality of opportunity should still seek to prevent people of equal ability not having an equal opportunity to succeed. However, possibly more important, all individuals from all groups should have equality in law irrespective of their ability. Unfortunately, we also have to recognize that just stating the requirements will not make it a reality in the wider world, such that equality and equity of outcome needs to be first considered in more practical terms.

So, what might prevent equality of opportunity and access to the law?

While the two basic equalities outlined should be within the remit of any society to aspire, in practice, neither may be easily achieved. For example, let us consider a hypothetical situation in which two identical twins, with equal genetic ability, are separated at birth and adopted by parents, who live in two very different social and economic environments. If so, we might further speculate that if one twin is deprived of good food and education throughout childhood, this twin may not have equal access to the opportunity to secure a good job that pays well. As a consequence, we might recognize that this twin may also be disadvantaged, if equality in law is predicated on social status and expensive lawyers. In this example we might reasonably direct the blame of unfairness of any outcome toward the nurture of society and not the nature of genetics. So, while equality of opportunity and justice in law are considered goals that society should strive to attain, any differences in ability of an individual, or society as a whole, will challenge equity of outcome.

But is equity of outcome either fair or desirable ?

The idea of equity of outcome can be debated in a number of different ways that encompass ideology, politics and economics. In this discussion, we shall simply consider the implications of equity of outcome in terms of proportional representation at all levels of society. In order to ensure this type of equity of representation for all groups, we might first need to defined the nature of the groups to which equity of outcome should be apply. Initially, we might consider the percentage breakdown within some given population in terms of just possibly gender and ethnicity. Of course, even at this point, we need to understand the scope of the population and possibly whether any representation has to be equitable on a local, regional, national or even global basis – see note below.

Note: For many reasons, different countries have widely differing ethnic populations. For example, the population of Japan is 97.7% Japanese, 0.6% Chinese, 0.4% Korean plus 1.1% others. Likewise, the population in China is 91.1% Han Chinese, where the remaining 8.9% are all essentially Asian in origin. In contrast, the UK population is 87.2% white, 3% black, 2.3% Indian, 1.9% Pakistani, 2% mixed plus 3% grouped as ‘others’. In a similar fashion, the US population is 61.6% white, 12.4% African-American, 6% Asian, 1.1% native Americans with the remaining 18.9% divided across a large number of small minority groups. While some of these figures possibly need to be updated, they are hopefully sufficient for this general discussion.

What we might immediately understand is that equity of representation within a given population will depend on the country and its culture and will undoubtedly vary across different regions within these countries. As such, it would seem that any equity of outcome cannot be representative of the global or even a national population in most cases. Of course, we then have the issue of gender, which in simple terms represents the male-female division, where the ratio between males and females in a society is referred to as the gender ratio. However, this ratio is shaped by biological, social, technological, cultural, and economic forces and in most countries is male-biased in the range of 105 boys to 100 girls. We then have the more problematic issue of gender identity, if all also have to equity of presentation within any given population – see note below by way of the general percentage distribution in UK.

Note: In summary, the UK population is estimated to be +90% heterosexual with the remaining 10% presumably identifying themselves in one of the LGBTQIA+ groups referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual plus others.

How any society could ensure equity of representation of all these different ethnic and gender identities appears  to be more than just questionable. For we have to question how equity of representation could be attained in the myriad of institutions and corporations that employ people in a modern society. There is also an issue as to whether all groups even want equity of representation in certain jobs, if unsuitable for either their physical or mental ability. Overall, equity of outcome when described in terms of equal representation at all levels of society appears unrealistic, where any quota system might prove to be unfair if a position was given to people with inadequate ability or proved to be undesirable to the aspiration of some groups.

Note: A more practical approach might simply be to recognize whether some groups are obviously under-represented in some aspect of society. If so, then some form of affirmative action might be used to help address any gender or ethnic bias, as long as the individual was sufficiently qualified to do the work.

As described, affirmative action would not be driven by ideology or quota, but rather by the general principle of equality of opportunity. However, while equality of opportunity might have to address many social inequalities that may affect development, e.g. healthcare and nutrition, affirmative action may best be deployed in education. However, this does not mean that all children must have access to the same level of education regardless of their mental abilities. Again, most parents recognize that some of their children will never be a ‘rocket-scientist’ no matter what education resources are made available, while many of these children in question may have little desire to be one. In this context, we return to the fact that nature does not make us all equal, a fact that nurture at any cost cannot overturn.

So, how might the issue of equality and equity be best addressed?

A sensible discussion of this question would first separate any proposed solution from the ideological bias of left-right politics. So while any solution might require the political oversight to regulate policies and possibly require some to be enforced by law, any practical approach would probably also necessitate a stepwise realization of achievable goals in multiple areas of society rather than some grand all-encompassing ideological solution. However, such an approach would also require an acceptance that equality is best addressed by providing a level playing field for those of equal ability irrespective of gender or ethnicity.