There I was, repairing this fiddly little gadget when I lost my screwdriver. I knew that I had used it not a minute before, but it had disappeared. Frustrated, I asked my wife if she had seen it. Within a second she picked it up from the very spot where I had put it down. How annoying! Her eyesight is no better than mine so something in my brain must have rendered it invisible. If there is a neurological explanation for this I have yet to track it down. But some of our more common errors are easier to explain. Ironically, they often lie in faculties which are normally useful to us.
In order to understand the world we need to make assumptions based on our experience. If we had to start all our judgments from scratch we would never reach a conclusion. And that requires us to use stereotypes. Take hairy students, the Irish, tall people, or the bespectacled as examples. Each one of those may trigger assumptions in our mind which affect our judgment. Why, for example, are tall men over represented among senior executives, or those who wear glasses seen as intelligent? Our society is rightly sensitive about racial stereotyping but we forget that everyday stereotyping can be equally undesirable. And this, in turn, reminds us of the potential errors when we allow our moral views to be formed by the company we keep.
I recall the “Windrush” influx of West Indians after World War II; at that time gross racial judgments were approved by the most respectable people. Early in the 20th century the desirability of eugenics was taken for granted. In more recent history attitudes towards homosexuality have altered the boundaries of acceptable comment. But, if we stop for a moment, we may remember that our immediate culture is a dangerous source for our own views and behaviour. Next year, we may all be thinking something else. Yet our instinct for conformity is born of evolution. It promotes the unity, and therefore the success, of a society. Today we don’t have to look far for examples of societies courting self-destruction through lack of unity.
Sometimes our judgments are based on single incidents. We may for example have been involved in an accident with a reckless BMW driver and forever afterwards hold on to a prejudice against such owners. I once knew an Evangelical pastor who borrowed a book from me and never returned it. My wariness of evangelicals, however unjustified, remains. Our judgments can even be inherited. When it came to light that the woman I was planning to marry was actually an actress, eyebrows were raised. An 18th century forebear had married an Italian actress, and was cut off without a franc. That awful warning is in our family genes.
The dangers of inherited judgments can apply to tradition. At a time of development in the Church it is essential, but often difficult, to distinguish core values and principles from those whose form or essence are merely the outcome of habit. And the considerations of natural law must remain open to our developing understanding of human nature itself.
It is often the most routine activities which lead to mistakes. This happens because our familiar procedures are programmed into our brains. We switch them on and leave them to their own devices. Watch me making breakfast: my eyes are glazed. Don’t try to help me – break the sequence and I am lost. The danger here is that our lack of conscious control prevents us from recognising changes in circumstances. We have many unconscious sequences through which we carry out quite complex procedures. Driving a car, for instance, provides several examples. While these little programs may be necessary, we may not notice a change in conditions which requires a change in our action.
How hot is a bowl of water? Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold; to the right hand it feels hot. This experience reminds us that, typically, our judgments involve comparisons. And that means that we can only validate our conclusions when we have validated our starting point. Until we have some degree of knowledge about our assumptions, our experiences and our prejudices, we can hardly hope to make good decisions. We may not eradicate the influences which can skew our judgment, but we can at least take them into account.
Accepting the vulnerability of our own judgments is not a comfortable experience. We may find ourselves obliged to change our minds. And, since we live in a world where error abounds, going against the grain will not make us popular. The thinking person walks alone.
(published in CH, December 4)