Prejudice

Does the name Crito bring a memory? He was Socrates’ friend and, when Socrates had wrongfully been condemned to death, Crito tried to persuade him to escape. But Socrates refused. He argued that such action would be against the laws of Athens. Breaking one law would in effect be the same as breaking any other law. He had chosen to live his life in Athens, and he had enjoyed the benefits of that, including those laws. He had therefore no right to break them.

Whether we agree with him or not, we are still faced by the question of the Social Contract. That is, we all accept the laws of the country even if we dislike some of them. By choosing to live, and benefit from, our society we undertake to accept the rules of that society – which are intended for the society’s welfare.

Philosophers have argued the Social Contract over the ages. Starting with Aristotle and Socrates, other names are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and, in the 20th century, Nozick and Rawls. We find it implicitly in the Bible: the social commandments, such as “Thou shalt not steal”, are principles derived from the Social Contract.

Something so fundamental is likely to have an element related to evolution. And that is certainly so. In primitive times it was necessary to be a member of a group, otherwise survival would be unlikely. It was also necessary to be wary of other groups: there was always danger from “foreigners”. It follows that those humans who favoured being in a group, and being wary of strangers, were more likely to survive and, more importantly for evolution, to breed and protect their young. So our inherited tendency is to live in a group and to share that group’s assumptions and values.

It is not all sunshine – there are dangers, too. The most obvious one is our tendency to share the views of our group. We accept unthinkingly, and we find it painful to question, and perhaps reject, the views of our group. We see a distorted version in the current use of social media whose validity is not based on logic and evidence but merely on the numbers who agree.

We also find it inevitable to make broad judgments about identifiable groups. These are myriad. They can range from gender: “typical of men’, ‘typical of women’ to ‘typical of the Irish’, typical of the Italians’, to accent: ‘upper class’, ‘working class’. We simply don’t have the time to investigate, we need to generalise. Most of the time such judgments result in mere stupidity rather than maliciousness. But not always. How do people generally judge Catholics, or atheists? And, of course the Jews and the Muslims – you do not need me to develop the outcome of that.

How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise? Perhaps readers will have some ideas. But I know that we must start from accepting that we do generalise, and in fact that we need to do so in practice. Once we recognise that, it becomes possible to review our judgments in the light of that. And that is a difficult habit to maintain. At this moment I am aware of this need – because I have been thinking and writing about it. But tomorrow, if I am not careful, I will slip back to my guilty habit of prejudice.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Prejudice

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise? //

    I don’t consider myself a part of any group to the extent that I feel compelled to think and speak like most or all of its members concerning any issue or idea in ways that conflict substantially with the thought and speech of most or all members of other groups. I have some reason to believe I’m an outlier in that way, at least within this country, but I wonder whether that belief may not be a conclusion conditioned by what I read and hear more than by objective observation. The mass media certainly promote the idea that hostile groupings have become the norm here, and I think it’s likely that most people are inclined to accept as truth whatever ideas the media promote. Promoting the image of a nation filled with people at one another’s throats serves the media well, in that it provides a stage upon which there’s continual fighting, and it’s probably a valid generalization that people are drawn to fights. In other words, I’m suggesting that the media, in painting an image of endless ideological warfare, are putting on a show that keeps the spotlight of public attention on the media and the media people themselves.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // We accept unthinkingly, and we find it painful to question, and perhaps reject, the views of our group. //

    That would depend on many variables, among them the sort of group, the sort of individual, the circumstances surrounding and confining the individual, the temper of the times, the existential importance of the issue, and the magnitude of the consequences likely to attend an individual’s apostasy.

  3. galerimo says:

    How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise?

    Well of all the silly questions I have heard this one ranks close to top of the list.

    Every thinking person knows that generalising is a fools game – and fools are always to be found among those who like to think of themselves as the “intelligentia”.

    The fact is, as we all know, only too well, you can never find a grain of truth in what “experts” say.

    It is the plain people, of humble origins, who alone can be relied on. Always.

    They know that a spade is a spade and those who contradict them inevitably end up confused.

    Nobody doubts for a moment where the confused end up.

    Either doing research of occupying high office.

    And what does it all lead to? In the end you simply trust in the majority view in any democracy.

    That way the confident increase in number and those who hold to right reason, prevail.

    No doubt my words resonate with you all and in anticipation of your unanimous acclaim let me just say in the end, it is not just me saying so, the fact is, we are basically, all the same.

    • David Smith says:

      Galerimo writes:

      // No doubt my words resonate with you all and in anticipation of your unanimous acclaim let me just say in the end, it is not just me saying so, the fact is, we are basically, all the same. //

      Touché, I think.

    • milliganp says:

      Galerimo, I’m trying to discern whether your post is a spoof or just utter rubbish. The hatred of people who are well educated is becoming an increasing challenge to our society.
      I’m sure when you go to the doctor, you want him or her to be highly educated. I presume you would like the teachers of English in our schools to have a sound formation in the language from Bede through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton etc. I presume you would like to be sure that architects are competent to the task of creating major buildings. Could you perhaps define major roles that would be better performed by people who are not highly educated?
      Einstein, I believe, described common sense as the name we give to prejudices acquired before age 18 and in Einstein’s usage you post seems to be utter common sense.

      • David Smith says:

        Milligan writes:

        // The hatred of people who are well educated is becoming an increasing challenge to our society. //

        Really? Hatred? I haven’t noticed that. Could you give an example or two?

  4. G.D says:

    All generalisations are false ….. including that one.

    ‘We are basically all the same’ is just as false a generalisation.
    We are all subject to the same essence/life/creation … whatever …. yes. But all have a specific awareness of subjective self (even those who experience unity with all) within that ‘whatever’ as different.

    And, of course, that generalisation is just as false as any other ….

  5. John Candido says:

    Racism is an ugly business that insults, devalues, and marginalises someone who looks or may sound different from the majority of cultural groups.

    As someone who experienced lots of racism in both primary and secondary school from other students, the bright side, without trying to be immodest is the empathy and understanding of what any Aboriginal, Asian, or African experiences daily in our society.

    Racism is pervasive and implicit in every society, and there is no guarantee that victims of racism will always restrain their racist preferences and impulses.

    As a young student, it saddened educational experiences that otherwise would have been enjoyable.

    One can become overly despondent about the racism they perceive is in their community.

    Yes, there is racism, but faulty perceptions of racism can be at play in any context.

    Any person has a right to choose who their friends are and whom an individual prefers for company.

    Preferences such as this are not racist in the least.

  6. David Smith says:

    Prejudice is normal, natural, necessary. One works to keep it from getting out of hand, of course, but you certainly can’t eliminate it, nor would a sane person try. What’s happening in today’s Western countries is that the dominant culture makers are declaring that certain areas are prejudice-free zones. If anyone admits to possessing even a microscopic amount of prejudice in one of these areas, he’s condemned a vile creature, ostracized, cast out, even imprisoned. That’s sick, but the cultural establishment have declared it healthy. Most of the Western world is, for the moment, upside down.

  7. Martha says:

    I think it is inevitable that we have stereotypes as a working hypothesis with new people and in certain situations. We need to realise that is what we are doing and keep our minds open to revision as our knowledge and circumstances develop. Sometimes our gut reactions can turn out to be correct, but very often things and people are not at all what they seemed to be at first. We should be very careful in recognising and acknowledging any instinctive prejudices and preventing them from influencing our behaviour, so that we do not cause the kind of suffering John Candido describes.

    • ignatius says:

      Alas we soak up our surroundings from an early age. Impressions are then pretty much tattooed biochemically upon our foreheads! Fortunately they remain invisible, unless voiced or acted upon. If we do not act upon them then they tend to wither, acted against they can be almost removed..but, like reducing a tattoo, acting against our deeply ingrained tribal hatreds and hostilities can be both costly and painful. In my case I have enough prejudice to pass a bill of hatred and extermination against anything that moves,
      ah well, such is life 🙂

      • David Smith says:

        Ignatius writes:

        // acting against our deeply ingrained tribal hatreds and hostilities //

        Are you implying that everyone is crippled by hatred? I wish the media and the academy and the ideological zealots would choose their words not for their propagandistic, emotional effect but for honest linguistic precision. For example, the word “hatred” has lately been used widely in the media so carelessly that it has effectively lost much of its core meaning of open anger, rage, egregious intensity. It’s both presumptuous and dishonest to attempt to force language change like this.

        We all have conflicting feelings of varying intensity about, probably, millions of things, but I very much doubt that we’re all haters at heart.

    • David Smith says:

      Martha writes:

      // We should be very careful in recognising and acknowledging any instinctive prejudices and preventing them from influencing our behaviour, so that we do not cause the kind of suffering John Candido describes. //

      Anent that: John, I was puzzled by your remarks. Would it be out of line to ask you to expand on that a bit?

      • John Candido says:

        What part of my remarks did you find puzzling?

      • David Smith says:

        John Candido writes:

        // What part of my remarks did you find puzzling? //

        These parts, John:

        // As someone who experienced lots of racism in both primary and secondary school from other students

        As a young student, it saddened educational experiences that otherwise would have been enjoyable. //

        I was puzzled because it seemed, on the face of it, at least, so unlikely that someone named “John Candido” would be a victim of racism in British or American schools. Of course, your experiences may not have happened in Britain or America, or you may have been adopted, or John Candido may be a pen name. I confess that my curiosity was sparked by a very small thing, and if my curiosity is offensive, please know that my intention was in no way intended to offend.

      • John Candido says:

        ‘As someone who experienced lots of racism in both primary and secondary school from other students’.

        I don’t know what to say other than I was there and I got the treatment. I live in Australia, and I cannot say that Australia is more or less racist than anywhere else in the world. The appropriate time is the 1960s and 1970s, and again, I am not sure if I can say that racism was more virulent during this time and place.

        ‘As a young student, it saddened educational experiences that otherwise would have been enjoyable.’

        Being younger usually means that I at least, do not have a flexible response to these stresses. Philosophical reflection and compassion for those who do not like you are for much older people who have some life-experience behind them.

        Any more questions, David?

  8. John Nolan says:

    We don’t make decisions on the basis of a tabula rasa which takes no account of previous experience. Prejudice is not only useful, but justified and morally defensible. Churchill would not make peace with Hitler although in 1941 it might have appeared the only rational course. He did not believe that Hitler would keep to any promises he made. Prejudice? Certainly.

    • John Candido says:

      A particular form of prejudice is a standard way of behaving and has nothing to do with racism.

      Humans need the capacity to classify objects in front of them to get through any day.

      When a person draws on discrimination; one’s past experiences, personal insights, and an efficient way of coping with what is in front of you has naught to do with racism.

      What can we make of discrimination as ‘useful’, ‘justified’, and ‘morally defensible’ as in the case of Churchill facing that scoundrel Adolf Hitler in 1941?

      Thank God for people like Sir Winston Churchill!

      When a society is endangered by a lunatic, nothing short of the devil with a superior wit will do.

  9. G.D says:

    Alan said …. ‘Prejudice is normal, natural, necessary.’
    John said …. ‘Prejudice is not only useful, but justified and morally defensible.’
    Absolutely not!!
    Prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

    Discernment (the ability to judge well) is necessary. Prejudice is self serving.
    Prejudice is sanctioned & instilled by anyone wishing to obliterate discernment.

    Prejudice is resisted by having the courage to discern, and act in accordance with it.
    Anyone wishing to stop discernment labels it as prejudice.

  10. John Nolan says:

    G.D.
    Beware of defining terms too narrowly. An opinion or judgement arrived at beforehand may indeed be based on actual experience, but it’s still prejudice.

  11. ignatius says:

    David Smith:
    “Are you implying that everyone is crippled by hatred?”

    No, I don’t think that meaning can be directly inferred from the sentence. That we are capable of deep and vicious hatred can be seen from the examination of any sectarian conflict:. Bosnia, Ireland, Rwanda, Algeria…the list could fill a page could it not? That humanity is’ capable’ of hatred does not mean we are all crippled by it. Hatred is a part of the human possibility but that does not mean all of humanity is ‘crippled’ by it…a bit of hyperbole creeping in here?

    • milliganp says:

      There is a popular controversialist, Jordan Peterson, who argues from his study of psychology and history that we are all innately capable of the sorts of crimes perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot et al. The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to indicate this happens quite easily and rapidly when people are placed in positions of particular power.
      I think it’s important that none of us feel we have sufficient moral character or rational will to be immune to these tendencies.

  12. ignatius says:

    Yes of course. It should be painfully obvious that since humanity is common to us all then so is hatred, intentional cruelty and the potential to kill without a qualm. As someone once said- the distance from a raised eyebrow to a crucifixion is only a matter of degree. To refuse this possibility is fundamentally to deny our own nature. Of course we don’t like the idea, but history tells its own and different story..

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