Skip to main content

A generation ago, nobody talked about schoolyard bullying as a problem to be solved. A certain level of violence and humiliation were considered a natural part of the school experience; few thought to formulate this as a moral problem.

Today, even though bullying is less prevalent than it was 20 years ago, mainstream society has realized that it is morally unacceptable. We talk seriously about eradicating it. The most egregious cases of bullying become top news stories, and we seriously consider special legislation and new policing practices to prevent it.

Two generations ago, nobody talked about rape by husbands or boyfriends as a criminal problem. Unwanted sex was considered rude at worst, and tolerated by many as a nasty but inevitable fact of life. The few women who spoke up were considered marginal.

Today, although rates of sex crimes are far lower, our culture has become morally repulsed at the still all-too-pervasive phenomenon of acquaintance rape, and widespread outrage is directed at those individuals who would tolerate or belittle it. Non-consenting sex is now understood throughout most of the justice system, the educational system and the media to be a serious crime.

We could extend this comparison to any number of moral fields. Until quite recently, civilian deaths were considered a relatively insignificant byproduct of military operations; today, although far fewer non-combatants are being killed in war (and there are fewer wars), civilian deaths are overwhelmingly the most significant issue in discussions of military action: We go to war, or avoid war, to prevent them from occurring.

There is a pattern here: Humans are, on average, acting more morally (bullying and raping and killing less frequently than before), but also thinking more morally: The fact that these former non-issues have become front-page concerns means that many people are now able to conceive of them as abstract moral wrongs. We are outraged at the continued existence of bullies and rapists and family-killing airstrikes, and most of us are now able to discuss them as problems to be solved, not as inevitable fixtures on the human landscape.

What has changed? As it happens, this rising moral consciousness has coincided with another shift: Across the world, average IQs have been rising, with astonishing rapidity, throughout the past century. We are scoring much higher on intelligence tests than our grandparents. (In 1900, the average North American had an IQ of 72 compared to today's 100.)

That constant rise in IQ is known as the Flynn Effect, after the politics professor James R. Flynn, who made the world aware of it in the early 1980s. And Mr. Flynn now believes that increasing IQ scores are not so much measures of "smartness" as they are indicators of a distinctly moral kind of intelligence.

IQ, as most people are now aware, is not a measure of the processing power of the brain (that remains largely unchanged); rather, it tracks our ability to think about abstract problems in a socially determined, real-world context.

This is why minorities and developing countries have appeared to have lower intelligence. Those in communication-deprived settings – the rural, the marginal, the poor, the excluded – will have lower IQ scores. And it is why the fastest rises in IQ scores are among these groups (Turkey, with family sizes and urbanization approaching Western levels, saw a 30-point IQ gain). IQ is, above all, a measure of modernity.

"Do huge IQ gains mean we are more intelligent than our ancestors?" Mr. Flynn asks in his most recent book What is Intelligence: Beyond the Flynn Effect. "If the question is 'Do we have better brain potential at conception …' the answer is no. If the question is 'Do we live in a time that poses a wider range of cognitive problems than our ancestors encountered, and have we developed new cognitive skills and the kinds of brains that can deal with these problems?' the answer is yes."

The increase in abstract thought, he speculates, has "made thinking about moral and political issues more sophisticated" in much of the world: "The key is that more people take the hypothetical seriously, and taking the hypothetical seriously is a prerequisite to getting serious moral debate off the ground." If a white racist can imagine himself being black, his worldview will be harder to sustain. If you can imagine bullying and rape as gross anomalies rather than standard features, you will speak of them differently.

That doesn't mean we're all better people, or less capable of doing harm, but we are at least better equipped to look at our actions through a moral lens. With that new clarity comes the potential for action.