Discrimination is a problem. It is a blight on society and a blemish on personal conduct. During the last one hundred or so years, the fight against discrimination has played an increasingly important role in political discourse, particularly on the left: against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and white privilege. Nowadays this discourse has its own name: identity politics. We both recognize and repudiate more kinds of discrimination than ever before.

This is as it should be. Undeniably many forms of discrimination exist; and discrimination—depriving people of rights and privileges without legitimate reason—is the enemy of equality and justice. If we are to create a more fair and open society, we must fight to reduce prejudice and privilege as much as we can. Many people are already doing this, of course; and identity politics is rightly here to stay.

And yet, admirable as the goals of identity politics are, I am often dissatisfied with its discourse. Specifically, I think we are often not clear about why certain statements or ideas are discriminatory. Often we treat certain statements as prejudiced because they offend people. I have frequently heard arguments of this form: “As a member of group X, I am offended by Y; therefore Y is discriminatory to group X.”

This argument—the Argument from Offended Feelings, as I’ll call it—is unsatisfactory. First, it is fallacious because it generalizes improperly. It is the same error someone commits when they conclude, from eating bad sushi once, that all sushi is bad: the argument takes one case and applies it to a whole class of things.

Even if many people, all belonging to the same group, find a certain remark offensive, it still is invalid to conclude that the remark is intrinsically discriminatory: this only shows that many people think it is. Even the majority may be wrong—such as the many people who believe that the word “niggardly” comes from the racial slur and is thus racist, while in reality the word has no etymological or historical connection with the racial slur (it comes from Middle English).

Subjective emotional responses should not be given an authoritative place in the question of prejudice. Emotions are not windows into the truth. They are of no epistemological value. Even if everybody in the world felt afraid of me, it would not make me dangerous. Likewise, emotional reactions are not enough to show that a remark is discriminatory. To do that, it must be shown how the remark incorrectly assumes, asserts, or implies something about a certain group.

In other words, we must keep constantly in mind the difference between a statement being discriminatory or merely offensive. Discrimination is wrong because it leads to unjust actions; offending people, on the other hand, is not intrinsically wrong. Brave activists, fighting for a good cause, often offend many.

Thus it is desirable to have logical tests, rather than just emotional responses, for distinguishing discriminatory responses. I hope to provide a few tools in this direction. But before that, here are some practical reasons for preferring logical to emotional criteria.

Placing emotions, especially shared emotions, at the center of any moral judgment makes a community prone to fits of mob justice. If the shared feelings of outrage, horror, or disgust of a group is sufficient to condemn somebody, then we have the judicial equivalent of a witch-hunt: the evidence for the accusation is not properly examined, and the criteria that separate good evidence from bad are ignored.

Another practical disadvantage of giving emotional reactions a privileged place in judgments of discrimination is that it can easily backfire. If enough people say that they are not offended, or if emotional reactions vary from outrage to humor to ambivalence, then the community cannot come to a consensus about whether any remark or action is discriminatory. Insofar as collective action requires consensus, this is an obvious limitation.

What is more, accusations of discrimination are extremely easy to deny if emotional reactions are the ultimate test. The offended parties can simply be dismissed as “over-sensitive” (a “snowflake,” more recently), which is a common rhetorical strategy among the right (and is sometimes used on the left, too). The wisest response to this rhetorical strategy, I believe, is not to re-affirm the validity of emotions in making judgments of discrimination—this leads you into the same trap—but to choose more objective criteria. Some set of non-emotional, objective criteria for determining whether an action is discriminatory is highly desirable, I think, since there is no possibility of a lasting consensus without it.

So if these emotional tests can backfire, what less slippery test can we use?

To me, discriminatory ideas—and the actions predicated on these ideas—are discriminatory precisely because they are based on a false picture of reality: they presuppose differences that do not exist, and mischaracterize or misunderstand the differences that do exist. This is important, because morally effective action of any kind requires a basic knowledge of the facts. A politician cannot provide for his constituents’ needs of she does not know what they are. A lifeguard cannot save a drowning boy if he was not paying attention to the water. Likewise, social policies and individual actions, if they are based on a false picture of human difference, will be discriminatory, even with the best intentions in the world.

I am not arguing that discrimination is wrong purely because of this factual deficiency. Indeed, if I falsely think that all Hungarians love bowties, although this idea is incorrect and therefore discriminatory, this will likely not make me do anything immoral. Thus it is possible, in theory at least, to hold discriminatory views and yet be a perfectly ethical person. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between whether a statement is offensive (it upsets people), discriminatory (it is factually wrong about a group of people), and immoral (it harms people and causes injustice). The three categories do not necessary overlap, in theory or in practice.

It is obvious that, in our society, discrimination is usually far more nefarious than believing that Hungarians love bowties. Discrimination harms people, sometimes kills people; and discrimination causes systematic injustice. My argument is that to prove any policy or idea is intrinsically discriminatory requires proving that it asserts something empirically false.

Examples are depressingly numerous. Legal segregation in the United States was based on the premise that there existed a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, a difference that justified different treatment and physical separation. Similarly, Aristotle argued that slavery was legitimate because some people were born slaves: they were intrinsically slavish. Now, both of these ideas are empirically false. They assert things about reality that are either meaningless, untestable, or contrary to the evidence; and so any actions predicated on these ideas will be discriminatory—and, as it turned out, horrific.

These are not special cases. European antisemitism has always incorporated myths and lies about the Jewish people: tales of Jewish murders of Christian children, of widespread Jewish conspiracies, and so on. Laws barring women from voting and rules preventing women from attending universities were based on absurd notions about women’s intelligence and emotional stability. Name any group which has faced discrimination, and you can find a corresponding myth that attempts to justify the prejudice. Name any group which has dominated, and you can find an untruth to justify their “superiority.”

In our quest to determine whether a remark is discriminatory, it is worth taking a look, first of all, at the social categories themselves. Even superficial investigation will reveal that many of our social categories are close to useless, scientifically speaking. Our understanding of race in the United States, for example, gives an entirely warped picture of human difference. Specifically, the terms “white” and “black” have shifted in meaning and extent over time, and in any case were never based on empirical investigation.

Historically speaking, our notion of what it means to be “white” used to be far more exclusive than it is now, previously excluding Jews and Eastern Europeans. Likewise, as biological anthropologists never tire of telling us, there is more genetic variation in the continent of Africa than the rest of the world combined. Our notions of “white” and “black” simply fail to do justice to the extent of genetic variation and intermixture that exists in the United States. We categorize people into a useless binary using crude notions of skin color. Any policy based on supposed innate, universal differences between “black” and “white” will therefore be based on a myth. Similar criticisms can be made of our common notions of gender and sexual orientation

Putting aside the sloppy categories, discrimination may be based on bad statistics and bad logic. Here are the three errors I think are most common in discriminatory remarks.

The first is to generalize improperly: to erroneously attribute a characteristic to a group. This type of error is exemplified by Randy Newman’s song “Short People,” when he says short people “go around tellin’ great big lies.” I strongly suspect that it is untrue that short people tell, on average, more lies than taller people, which makes this an improper generalization.

This is a silly example, of course. And it is worth pointing out that some generalizations about group differences are perfectly legitimate. It is true, for example, that Spanish people eat more paella than Japanese people. When done properly, generalizations about people are useful and often necessary. The problem is that we are often poor generalizers. We jump to conclusions—using the small sample of our experience to justify sweeping pronouncements—and we are apt to give disproportionate weight to conspicuous examples, thus skewing our judgments.

Our poor generalizations are, all too often, mixed up with more nefarious prejudices. Trump exemplified this when he tweeted a table of statistics of crime rates back in November of 2015. The statistics are ludicrously wrong in every respect. Notably, they claim that more whites are killed by blacks than by other whites, when in reality more whites are killed by other whites. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since most murders take place within the same community; and since people of the same race tend to live in the same community, most murders are intra-racial.)

The second type of error involved in prejudice is to make conclusions about an individual based on their group. This is a mistake even when the generalizations about the group are accurate. Even if it were statistically true, for example, that short people lied more often than tall people, it would still be invalid to assume that any particular short person is a liar.

The logical mistake is obvious: even if a group has certain characteristics on average, that does not mean that every individual will have these characteristics. On average, Spaniards are shorter than me; but that does not mean that I can safely assume any Spaniard will be shorter than I am. On average, most drivers are looking out for pedestrians; but that doesn’t make I can safely run into the road.

Of course, almost nobody, if they had a half-second to reflect, would make the mistake of believing every single member of a given group had whatever quality. More often, people are just wildly mistaken about how likely a certain person is to have any given quality—most often, we greatly overestimate.

It is statistically true, for example, that Asian Americans tend to do well on standardized math and science exams. But this generalization, which is valid, does not mean you can safely ask any Asian American friend for help on your science homework. Even though Asian Americans do well in these subjects as a group, you should still expect to see many individuals who are average or below average. This is basic statistics—and yet this error accounts for a huge amount of racist and sexist remarks.

Aside from falsely assuming that every member of a group will be characterized by a generalization, the second error also results from forgetting intersectionality: the fact that any individual is inevitably a member of many, intersecting demographic groups. Race, gender, income bracket, sexual orientation, education, religion, and a host of other categories will apply to any single individual. Predicting how the generalizations associated with these categories—which may often make contradictory predictions—will play out in any individual case, is close to impossible.

This is not even to mention all of the manifold influences on behavior that are not included in these demographic categories. Indeed, it is these irreducibly unique experiences, and our unique genetic makeup, that make us individuals in the first place. Humans are not just members of a group, nor even members of many different, overlapping groups: each person is sui generis.

In sum, humans are complicated—the most complicated things in the universe, so far as we know—and making predictions about individual people using statistical generalizations of broad, sometimes hazily defined categories, is hazardous at best, and often foolish. Moving from the specific to the general is fairly unproblematic; we can collect statistics and use averages and medians to analyze sets of data. But moving from the general to the specific is far more troublesome.

The third error is to assert a causal relationship where we only have evidence for correlation. Even if a generalization is valid, and even if an individual fits into this generalization, it is still not valid to conclude that an individual has a certain quality because they belong to a certain group.

Let me be more concrete. As we have seen, it is a valid generalization to say that Asian Americans do well on math and science exams. Now imagine that your friend John is Asian American, and also an excellent student in these subjects. Even in this case, to say that John is good at math “because he’s Asian” would still be illogical (and therefore racist). Correlation does not show causation.

First of all, it may not be known why Asian Americans tend to do better. And even if a general explanation is found—for example, that academic achievement is culturally prized and thus families put pressure on children to succeed—this explanation may not apply in your friend John’s case. Maybe John’s family does not pressure him to study and he just has a knack for science.

Further, even if this general explanation did apply in your friend John’s case (his family pressures him to study for cultural reasons), the correct explanation for him being a good student still wouldn’t be “because he’s Asian,” but would be something more like “because academic achievement is culturally prized in many Asian communities.” In other words, the cause would be ultimately cultural, and not racial. (I mean that this causation would apply equally to somebody of European heritage being raised in an Asian culture, a person who would be considered “white” in the United States. The distinction between cultural and biological explanations is extremely important, since one posits only temporary, environmental differences while the other posits permanent, innate differences.)

In practice, these three errors are often run together. An excellent example of this is from Donald Trump’s notorious campaign announcement: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic.]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Putting aside the silly notion of Mexico “sending” its people (they come of their own accord), the statement is discriminatory because it generalizes falsely. Trump’s words give the impression that a huge portion, maybe even the majority, of Mexican immigrants are criminals of some kind—and this isn’t true. (In reality, the statistics for undocumented immigrants can put native citizens to shame, as demonstrated here.)

Trump then falls into the third error by treating people as inherently criminal—the immigrants simply “are” criminals, as if they were born that way. Even if it were proven that Mexican immigrants had significantly higher crime rates, it would still be an open question why this was so. The explanation might have nothing to do with their cultural background or any previous history of criminality. It might be found, for example, that poverty and police harassment significantly increased criminality; and in this case the government would share some of the responsibility.

Donald Trump committed the second error in his infamous comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump attributed the Curiel’s (perceived) hostility to his Mexican heritage. Trump committed a simple error of fact when he called Curiel “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana), and then committed a logical fallacy when he concluded that the judge’s actions and attitudes were due to his being of Mexican heritage. Even if it were true (as I suspect it is), that Mexican-Americans, on the whole, don’t like Trump, it still doesn’t follow that any given individual Mexican-American doesn’t like him (2nd error); and even if Curiel did dislike Trump, it wouldn’t follow that it was because of his heritage (3rd error).

These errors and mistakes are just my attempt at an outline of how discrimination can be criticized on logical, empirical grounds. Certainly there is much more to be said in this direction. What I hoped to show in this piece was that this strategy is viable, and ultimately more desirable than using emotional reactions as a test for prejudice.

Discourse, agreement, and cooperation are impossible when people are guided by emotional reactions. We tend to react emotionally along the lines of factions—indeed, our emotional reactions are conditioned by our social circumstances—so privileging emotional reactions will only exacerbate disagreements, not help to bridge them. In any case, besides the practical disadvantages—which are debatable—I think emotional reactions are not reliable windows into the truth. Basing reactions, judgments, and criticisms on sound reasoning and dependable information is always a better long-term strategy.

For one, this view of discrimination provides an additional explanation for why prejudice is so widespread and difficult to eradicate. We humans have inherited brains that are constantly trying to understand our world in order to navigate it more efficiently. Sometimes our brains make mistakes because we generalize too eagerly from limited information (1st error), or because we hope to fit everything into the same familiar pattern (2nd error), or because we are searching for causes of the way things work (3rd error).

So the universality of prejudice can be partially explained, I think, by the need to explain the social world. And once certain ideas become ingrained in somebody’s worldview, it can be difficult to change their mind without undermining their sense of reality or even their sense of identity. This is one reason why prejudices can be so durable (not to mention that certain prejudices justify convenient, if morally questionable, behaviors, as well as signal a person’s allegiance to a certain group).

I should say that I do not think that discrimination is simply the result of observational or logical error. We absorb prejudices from our cultural environment; and these prejudices are often associated with divisive hatreds and social tension. But even these prejudices absorbed by the environment—that group x is lazy, that group y is violent, that group z is unreliable—always inevitably incorporate some misconception of the social world. Discrimination is not just a behavior. Mistaken beliefs are involved—sometimes obliquely, to be sure—with any prejudice.

This view of prejudice—as caused, at least in part, by an incorrect picture of the world, rather than pure moral depravity—may also allow us to combat it more effectively. It is easy to imagine a person with an essentially sound sense of morality who nevertheless perpetrates harmful discrimination because of prejudices absorbed from her community. Treating such a person as a monster will likely produce no change of perspective; people are not liable to listen when they’re being condemned. Focusing on somebody’s misconceptions may allow for a less adversarial, and perhaps more effective, way of combating prejudice. And this is not to mention the obvious fact that somebody cannot be morally condemned for something they cannot help; and we cannot help if we’re born into a community that instructs its members in discrimination.

Even if this view does not adequately explain discrimination, and even if it does not provide a more effective tool in eliminating it, this view does at least orient our gaze towards the substance rather than the symptoms of discrimination.

Because of their visibility, we tend to focus on the trappings of prejudice—racial slurs, the whitewashed casts of movies, the use of pronouns, and so on—instead of the real meat of it: the systematic discrimination—economic, political, judicial, and social—that is founded on an incorrect picture of the world. Signs and symptoms of prejudice are undeniably important; but eliminating them will not fix the essential problem: that we see differences that aren’t really there, we assume differences without having evidence to justify these assumptions, and we misunderstand the nature and extent of the differences that really do exist.

5 thoughts on “The Illogic of Discrimination

  1. With respect, your views seem horrifying to me, as I think I’ve had to admit before. They come much too close to fascism for my liking.
    Unjust discrimination is, as you say, morally wrong. But to say that it is morally wrong because it is factually wrong is to say that to be factually wrong is morally wrong. This is the chief premise of totalitarianism: that those who hold and promulgate factually inaccurate beliefs are morally guilty, and hence merit punishment (whether legal or merely social).

    [needless to say, considerable conflict can then arise in fighting to define what is and is not factually wrong – and once views like yours are widely accepted, it becomes impossible to have an open discussion of the merits of any argument, so that invariably ‘factually wrong’ comes to be defined as disagreement with the most powerful.]

    Now, true, the fact that your views would bring about terrible consequences if widely accepted, as they have done in the past, does not necessarily mean that you are wrong. But when you advance a theory (like “thoughts can be morally wrong merely because they are factually wrong”) that is so closely associated with evil, I think the onus is on you to justify the theory with great vigour, not merely to assume it. Unfortunately, you seem merely to assume your theory (a theory, I might add, that goes directly against almost every school of thought for the past several centuries).


    It also seems misguided to me to insist upon an analysis of ‘prejudice’ as, essentially, ‘believing incorrect propositions’. It seems to me – and I believe to most people – that prejudice is just as often, if not more often (and more insidiously) a matter of attitude or disposition as of belief. If, for instance, I refuse to shake the hand of a black person, because the thought of touching a black person fills me with intense disgust, aren’t I prejudiced? If I more readily rush to believe an Asian person to be lying than a white person, isn’t that prejudice? If I rapidly become angry when women say certain things to me yet have no emotional response when men say the same things to me, can’t you say I am demonstrating prejudice? Yet none of these situations require me to have any specific belief, correct or incorrect, about differences between races.


    There are also quite a few obvious fallacies and misdirections here. I won’t attempt an exhaustive list, but some that pop out at me:

    – on particularising: it is of course absurd to believe that every individual shares all properties of their alleged group. Which is why virtually nobody believes that. As you point out yourself, even Trump avoids that fallacy – even the most bigoted people do. As Hitler said himself, even the most devout Nazi believes that their own neighbour is the one good Jew. What people instead believe is that individuals are significantly more likely than share the properties of their group than non-members are. It’s not that people think ALL Mexicans are literally rapists, for instance – it’s that they think they’re much more likely to be rapists than non-Mexicans are.

    And this is not a logical error. If a property is common to a group, more common than it is outside the group, then by definition members of the group are more likely to have that property. So there is no error of logic here. If, for instance, you’re looking for a high-achieving friend to help with your homework, suspecting, in the absence of any other information, that your Asian friend may be your best bet is not illogical. [it may or may not be offensive, but it is not illogical!]

    There may, of course, be an error of fact, particularly associated with an overestimate of the prevalence of a property. It’s one thing to think “of all my friends, my Indian friend is most likely to know how to cook Indian food” (that’s very reasonable); it’s another to think “my Indian friend is almost certain to know how to cook Indian food” (that’s unreasonable, in the absence of further information supporting it).

    But we should recognise that how problematic a generalisation is felt to be has little to do with how accurate it is. Assuming that a black person grew up in the inner city without a father is much more problematic, for instance, than assuming that a white person likes fine wine and Mozart – but it’s also empirically, statistically, much more likely to be accurate, all else being equal. The target of the generalisation, the content of the generalisation, and how the generalisation is acted upon, all seem much more important than the statistical validity of the generalisation. Indeed, generalisations like “he’s probably telling the truth because he’s a policeman” are both statistically quite valid (policemen are very likely to tell the truth, particularly in legal settings) and morally very dangerous (the consequences of failing to determine when policemen are NOT telling the truth can be very high).

    – likewise, if someone says “he’s a good student because he’s Asian”, that’s not a logical error. Not only do valid logical arguments not require the premise to cause the effect, nor vice versa, but in this case this IS a causal argument. “Being Asian causes him to be more likely more exposed to the social norms of the Asian community; being more likely more exposed to the social norms of the Asian community (which include an emphasis on scholarly achievement) causes him to be more likely more disposed to value scholarly achievement; being mroe likely more disposed to value scholarly achievement causes him to be more likely more academically succesful.” – that’s a perfectly fine logical argument based upon a valid chain of causality. Now, each element can of course be questioned empirically, and certainly once you start attaching numbers to it and balancing it against other evidence, it would be easy to be factually mistaken in your conclusions. But there is no logical fallacy here!

    – similarly, Trump’s argument about Curiel is perfectly logical. For a start, it is not “an error of fact” to call Curiel a Mexican. His parents were born in Mexico, and ‘Mexican’ is well-established as a term relating to people or things who have an origin in Mexico. It’s just a different use of the word. In this case, however, stating that Curiel is a Mexican is not even an impressionistic judgement of ethnicity, it’s an actual demonstrable legal fact. Curiel is a Mexican national and former Mexican citizen. All children born to natural-born Mexican nationals are themselves born with Mexican nationality and Mexican citizenship, and although Mexican citizenship can be lost by accepting a post from a foreign government, Mexican nationality is inalienable for life (and this imposes a variety of legal ramifications). Saying that Curiel is not a Mexican is simple ignorance of the Constitution (of Mexico), at least so far as i can see (although I’m not a lawyer, and certainly not one specialising in Mexican constitutional law).

    Beyond that, it is factually true that Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, are statistically more likely to dislike Trump and to disagree with his policies, probably because of things like his wall policy. This is indeed, as Trump indicated, pro tanto evidence of a greater likelihood of Curiel disliking Trump, and obviously judges who dislike people are more likely to be biased against them, and bias can, by definition, lead to unfair conclusions. So this was a perfectly logically valid argument.

    [The factual error would be in failing to recognise that this increased rate of bias was sufficiently small, given the probity of judges in general, as to render it improbable that the specific judgement was the result of bias. However, Trump’s real sin was not that error at all – the sin was in publically assaulting the integrity of the judge. That’s wrong because of the harm that it does to the democratic system. Whereas, if Trump had said that Curiel must be a Slovakian because he loved tweed, that would have been bizarre, false, and illogical, but would not have been an assault on the foundations of democracy.]

    Disliking Trump is very understandable. But we shouldn’t use that fact to justify contorting logic, or takign the name of logic in vain!


    – while I share your concern with misuse of the argument from offence, your logical argument against it is itself fallacious. It unwarrentedly conflates “racist”, “discriminatory” and “offensive”. Certainly the listener’s offense is not proof that the statement was discriminatory or racist; but that doesn’t mean it’s not proof that the statement was offensive. If your remark offends somebody then it is by definition, in at least one sense of the word, offensive. Offense, prejudice, discrimination and harm are four entirely different concepts.


    – if emotions have no epistemological value, then I’m at a loss to imagine what might have!


    Anyway, sorry if this appears overly critical. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to dress up one’s own preferences in the guise of “logic”. But at least my guilt over disagreeing with you is at least partially assuaged by knowing that, as you believe me to be in error, you also believe me to be immoral, and hopefully that sense of moral superiority can ameliorate the irritation of encountering this disagreement…

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    1. Thanks for the comment! To be honest, I felt pretty unsure about this essay, and part of my reason for posting it was to see how people would respond. The essay definitely needs revision, at least.

      To me, the idea that being factually wrong means being morally wrong seems indefensible, although I do appear to be saying as much in this essay. What I wanted to assert was the, hopefully much more reasonable, notion that it is impossible to take morally appropriate action if you are badly mistaken about the facts, even if you have good intentions. (You can’t save a drowning man if you don’t know where he is, for example.) This creates a moral duty to attain the facts, to the best of our ability. Obviously I didn’t say this clearly enough in my essay. But my point was that policies, such as legal segregation, which assume that “white” and “black” are discrete biological types, and that there are compelling innate differences between these types which necessitate separation, will be immoral, in the first place, because these premises do not hold.

      I think you’re definitely right that prejudices often manifest themselves as embodied attitudes rather than beliefs. It’s possible that, if confronted with these attitudes, some respondents would attempt to justify these attitudes with incorrect beliefs. But it’s also possible that they would not, and that they are largely unaware of these dispositions. However, insofar as these dispositions are purely nonverbal, and have no verbal manifestation in respondents, they don’t play a role in the discourse, which is what I was focusing on. This is not, of course, to say that they are unimportant or should be ignored.

      I think you’re right that very few people would agree that every single member of a given group has whatever quality. I also agree when you say: “What people instead believe is that individuals are significantly more likely to share the properties of their group than non-members are.” But doesn’t this fit under my first error—generalizing falsely? People make these assumptions in the absence of any hard data; and very often, I think, the difference in crime rates and so forth is not big enough to justify any real change of behavior. As you say, people often overestimate the difference.

      One thing you didn’t bring up but which is a major shortcoming of this essay is that I didn’t mention intersectionality. Any given person is a member of many different groups; and even with reliable statistics about these groups, it will be nearly impossible to predict the relative influence of different identities on any particular person. Indeed, the number of cultural and genetic factors that affect any given individual are so numerous that these statistical generalizations across demographic lines will have very little predictive power, I think, which is what I hoped to pinpoint in my second error.

      All this being said, I do see that the content of a generalization does ultimately matter more than its statistical accuracy in its moral repercussions. In moral evaluations both consequences and intentions always matter, I think. You’re right: Factual accuracy is not a measure of moral rectitude. Knowing the basic facts of the situation seems to be necessary condition of any morally appropriate action, as I said before, but not an exhaustive definition of a moral action.

      On “he’s a good student because he’s Asian.” I suppose this comes down to semantics. I was interpreting that assertion to imply that the cause was biological rather than social. For example, in the chain of causes you sketch above, this would equally apply if somebody of, say, European descent were raised in an Asian culture. This person would, indeed, be Asian in their culture and nationality. In the United States, however, colloquially speaking, we wouldn’t say they were “Asian.” This is, itself, a manifestation of racism.

      On Curiel: This also seems to be a question of semantics. In the U.S., if somebody is of Mexican descent but was born and raised in the United States, we normally say “Mexican-American” and not “Mexican,” even if said person has dual citizenship. To say somebody is “Mexican” without qualification implies, to my ears, that they are culturally and nationally Mexican. This is why Trump was immediately confronted with the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana.

      It’s true that I mistakenly conflate “offensive” and “discriminatory,” which undermines my argument. This needs fixing.

      I think you should start charging for these comments! It’s like having a free editor online. The only price is occasionally being likened to fascists!


      1. Removing the post? Now that’s not fair! To future readers perplexed: I was right about everything, honestly!
        Also, if I thought people were going to go around actually acting upon things I said, I’d have to keep my mouth shut a lot more…

        [but seriously, why not be open about the things you’ve said? Other readers might agree with you more than me. You in the future might agree with you than with me. And even if you don’t, your thought processes may be interesting either to future-you or to others, I’d have thought. But maybe this is just my own self-defence mechanism kicking in: if I allowed myself to go around deleting things I wrote just because I realised there was something I hadn’t considered fully at the time, I’d not leave anything online anywhere!]

        I don’t agree that you can’t take morally appropriate action without knowing the truth. For one thing, as I’m skeptical about knowing the truth, that would mean I’d have to be skeptical about the possibility of ever taking morally appropriate action, which doesn’t seem warranted. For example, I would think that giving a starving person food was a morally appropriate action, even if you only thought that they were mildly hungry. If the motivations are good, and the effects are good, why does the action cease to be good when the actor is mistaken about some facts?

        You’re right that there is clearly, in some cases, at least some responsibility to acquire the facts. But I’m skeptical of the extent of that responsibility, and of the extent to which this can be relied upon in demonstrating the immorality of certain attitudes. Presumably we do not all have an absolute duty to learn the truth about everything – or else society would be impossible, we’d all be too busy at the library, and doing our own experiments. There must be some limit to what is demanded of us by this duty, in terms of how far we need to go; and it also seems likely that there are limits to which facts engender such a duty, or which circumstances (I would be much more sympathetic with this line of argument directed solely against, say, professional politicians, or of course scientists).

        A particular problem arises here because of the way that most of our knowledge comes to us from outside (i.e. virtually everything). I think there are big questions around how much we can be held responsible for errors when our knowledge is vouchsafed to us from external sources with no independent sanction. After all, if we have an absolute duty to know the truth of whether there are significant, for example, psychological differences between white and black people, then you and I must surely both be immoral. Have you done the extensive and properly controlled sociological and psychometric experiments that would be required to rule out that possibility? I haven’t. I largely take equality on trust, bolstered by what appears to me to be common sense (or, to put it another way, cultural prejudice). And of course, the racist is also relying on sources they trust, and on what seems to them to be common sense (but that we call cultural prejudice).

        [Indeed, my understanding is that we’re all taking it largely on trust, as conducting such experiments is impermissable socially in the modern context, and arguments that might call the consensus question are just ignored. (e.g. it’s permissable to talk about a change in psychology, or even neurology, to explain how crime rates differ so incredibly drastically over the course of European urban civilisation, or even historically between European nations, but it’s not permissable to extend the same arguments to more lately urbanised cultures outside Europe and North America, as that would be racist). This is a case, much as with accusations of bias against judges, or allegations of mass voting irregularity, where we do not really have conclusive proof that the bigots are wrong – rather, we have decided, as a convention, that in the absence of any evidence that they are right we should, for the sake of social harmony, mutual respect, rule of law, etc, we should all just assume that they’re wrong. And that’s perfectly understandable as a social convention, but it means that it’s not the epistemology that’s really being argued over here. Just as the man who recklessly yells “fire!” in a crowded theatre is acting immorally not because he’s definitely wrong that there’s a fire, but because he’s not certain that there is one, and because the costs to us all of his actions are too high to be justifiable by anything less than truly compelling and urgent proof.]

        So to return to the duty to investigate the truth, I think that the very people we might most like to apply this to are those to whom it seems least applicable – those who lack either the mental faculties or the social advantages to reach the truth. Consider for example a young child raised in a highly doctrinaire religious environment, taught from a young age that black people and homosexuality are the scourges of the world. She’s not necessarily an idiot, and she’s not necessarily uninterested in the truth. She talks about her views with her parents, whom she respects; she talks them over with her pastor and the other senior figures in her church. She talks them over with her teachers at school, and all the prominent personalities in her town; she watches several religious TV channels and browses several internet sites (when she can, although of course she only has a dial-up connexion and she has to work at her chores nine hours a day or else she’ll be beaten, so her opportunities are limited). And everyone reinforces her views on black and gay people. The only people she finds who disagree are clearly talking nonsense (they don’t even understand that the Bible is the only infallible source of truth, for God’s sake!), and their own immorality is clear from the hostility and downright unChristianness with which they treat her (she’s compassionate and cares about social justice, but as soon as she opens her mouth online to explain how black people need to be sterilised for their own good, some heathen liberal starts insulting her!).
        What exactly is a young girl in that situation expected to do to meet her duty to uncover the truth?

        Because compare her with the educated rich Brooklynite who is constantly blogging about equality. Despite his much greater access to information and to dissenting viewpoints, has he really fulfilled his duty any more assiduously than her? We might say that the girl needs to try harder to confront and understand dissenting information sources, no matter how absurd and immoral and hatefilled everyone tells her that they are, no matter how repulsive she finds them. But we congratulate the Brooklynite for their firm grasp on reality, even though there are so many thousands of racist screeds and manifestos he (and we!) haven’t truly confronted with an open mind, haven’t really analysed closely enough to conclusively rebutt – haven’t even looked at, let’s be honest. So I’m a little uneasy in trying to locate the girl’s moral problems in a failure to pursue truth. Bigots, indeed, are often passionate about truth. Think how much bigotry you see in conspiracy theorists! The guy who’s read a whole library of conspiracy theories and has compiled a detailed almanack of a million little things that ‘prove’ to him that swine flu is an international Jewish conspiracy – whatever’s gone wrong with him, it’s hard to say that it’s an unwillingness to try his utmost to discover what’s true and what isn’t. Let’s face it, 9/11 truthers typically have learnt all the details (both real and imaginary) of 9/11 much more assiduously than we have!

        We should also be nervous about our own privilege. Because once we go down this route of blaming the ignorant – whether for being wrong outright, or for failing to meet their duty to discover the truth – it seems that invariably it is we, the well-off (with our “educations” and our “libraries” and our “internet access” and our “diverse network of friends” and so on) who conveniently enough find ourselves demonising them, the poor. Clearly, I think you and I would agree that the Brooklynite is right, and the teenage girl in rural Alabama is wrong. But I get uneasy when we start trying to say that, as a result of this (or as evidenced by this) the Brooklynite is clearly morally superior to the Alabama girl. What, he gets so many advantages in life, that he even gets to be a better person than her? How convenient a theory for the Brooklynite to hold! It’s amazing how everything works out just right for him to be superior in this way to the girl who, as it happens, he wants political power over…

        In any case, I think we rarely genuinely need to resort to this. Yes, situations arise that are troubling, where a particular action might be ‘right’ if its premises are correct, but despicable if they are incorrect. But how often does that happen? Taking your example, for instance, the link between a biological difference between white and black on the one hand, and slavery (or Jim Crow) on the other, does not seem that strong in the first place. Even if the racist assumptions were correct, slavery would STILL be unjustifiable! Segregation would STILL be unjustifiable! It’s actually really hard to get to a racist theory that WOULD be able to justify these things (people who argued that back people were inherently more stupid than white people, for example, rarely followed through and advocated massive spending on black education to minimise their disadvantage!). [Even a theory like “black men are unable to stop themselves from trying to rape every white woman they see” probably wouldn’t be enough – even if people believed that, it would still less egregious (immoral, but less immoral) to impose a rule like “women can’t go around in public without bodyguards” than it would be to mandate Jim Crow.] Yes, we might be able to construct a dispassionate racist who genuinely believed in racist theories that were so extreme that certain forms of segregation were logically mandated in his opinion – and sure, lots of racist pretend to be that guy, and pretend that their policies are those policies. But in reality, what we see is that the vast majority of racists are not that guy, and their policies go far beyond what that guy’s reasoning could justify. So aiming our rebuttals at that guy seems to be giving the racists too much benefit of the doubt that they’re not simply horrible people! Let’s condemn the deplorables first – how exactly to characterise the moral error of the very rare misguided-but-honourable moderate “reasonable racist” is frankly a lesser concern. [after all, it’s easy enough to show that his views are wrong and lead to an immoral situation, so it’s not hard to justify fighting against the promulgation of his views, potentially even to the extent of exerting personally sanctions against him. The question of whether he’s also a bad bad man who’s going to hell is of little more than academic interest at that point]

        [In other words: perhaps we should treat the teenage girl in Alabama as a wound to be treated, rather than as the villain whose fault the bleeding is.]

        Regarding prejudice as disposition not affecting discourse: well, I don’t think that’s true exactly. Dispositions can be displayed in speech just as well as in any other action, I think. Consider, for instance, the sentences “I know she’s made some mistakes in the past, but I think she deserves another chance” and “lock her up and throw away the key”. The practical consequences of the difference between these two sentences can be immense, but they’re not necessarily based on any specific factual beliefs, more just on attitude in many cases. And if someone – a judge, say, continually says the first about white people and the second about black people, then that’s probably the result of prejudice. A form of prejudice that is manifested in language, and that can be confronted in language.

        On “intersectionality”: I think this is a fallacy. The fact that people are, as you say, members of different groups at the same time (or as I’d prefer to say, the fact that they have several characteristics – I really don’t see why every detail of an individual has to be expressed in these faux-nationalist terms of allegiance to some particular “group” or “community” or “identity”) does lead to variation within each group, but that’s already, as it were, factored into the average. To put it another way, we all know that people aren’t identical, and semantically rephrasing “unique individual person” to “intersection of identity-groups” doesn’t add any further variation.

        And the thing about generalisations and averages is that they are rational to assume – that’s pretty much what they are. Even a small average difference becomes a perfectly rational assumption. What is irrational of course is to have too great a sense of certainty resulting from these generalisations.

        To give an example: imagine we have 100 blonds and 100 brunets taking part in a task. 51 blonds and 49 brunets succeed. On average, then, blonds are more likely to succeed than brunets. If you have a 1-on-1 between a blond and a brunet, it is rational to put your money on the blond. [what would not be rational is to offer long odds on the brunet!] Intersectionality – whether we can define perpendicular divisions among the two hair-groups that “explain” their individual variation – does not affect this.

        It only requires a very small statistical difference to make these, as it were, ‘factual prejudices’ rational. And these days we have so much information that there’s no shortage of “hard data”. Although I question your idea of “hard data” in the first place. All that any of us have to go on are anecdotes, and anecdotes about collections of anecdotes. None of us have divine knowledge; the difference between the knowledge available to the well-informed and that available to the ill-informed is merely quantitative. Besides, we all have to make our decisions on the basis of the best information available to us!

        Worth noting, incidentally, that intersectionality probably has an effect in the opposite direction from that that you expect. Almost by definition, it encourages prejudice by making it more rational. Put it this way: if you assume that different blonds are different from one another due to unpredictable, random, sui generis personal variation, then the degree of certainty it’s rational to have about any generalisations from the group as a whole to the individual is relatively small – you can’t account for the random. But if you assume that different blonds are different from one another due to differing rates of membership of other ‘groups’, about which it is also possible to generalise, then your assumptions about any individual become much more robust and secure. You CAN account for the influence of multiple factors, that’s what statisticians do every day. So to the extent that we believe we can reduce individuals to intersectional “identities”, it becomes more and more rational to hold prejudicial assumptions about those identities. [the more sophisticated analysis allows us to ‘explain’ more of the variation, and hence account for it in our assumptions – or at least, the belief that we have a more sophisticated analysis leads us to believe that we can explain more of the variation, and that we can thus account for it in our assumptions; we thus become more convinced of our assumptions.]

        I think it’s also important to observe that even factually accurate prejudices founded upon the best hard data available can still be extremely problematic. For instance, look at the current debates going on in halls of power in the US over evidence-led, and particularly algorithmic, sentencing. This is the idea that the sentences given to criminals (and particularly things like whether to suspend a sentence or allow probation, parole, bail, etc), particularly low-level offenders, should be based upon a statistically valid analysis of the risks that the individual presents. So those who are statistically more likely to skip bail don’t get it. Those who are less likely to reoffend perhaps are only given suspended sentences, or pre-trial diversion into a treatment-based approach, and so on. The argument being that the laws try to discriminate in this way (like having harsher penalties for reoffenders), but do so in a very blunt way, because the lawmakers couldn’t account for all the relevent data.

        Now, this is controversial, because historically this approach is why black people and other groups (eg men, for instance, one of the few big structural discriminations against rather than for them!) have faced much more severe penalties. This was correctly criticised as displaying the prejudice of the judges (and lawyers, juries, etc). However, the newest wave of methods removes the element of human prejudice by using blind computer algorithms. Great – except that early results show that the computers are just as bigoted as the old judges! Black people simply statistically represent a greater threat than white people, in terms of outcomes like recidivism. But isn’t it still prejudicial to assume that the individual black guy in court on any day follows that generalisation? And it turns out that even when you explicitly make the algorithms colour-blind, they give the same results – the computers find proxies to stand in place of race (some of which, like family structure or living in proximity to other criminals, may well be better explanatory factors than race, but are nonetheless closely correlated with race in the present time). These are, so to speak, factually accurate prejudices, imposed dispassionately by algorithms. But they are controversial because the result is to systematically give harsher sentencing outcomes to black people than to white people. So again I’d return to the idea of broader social good – perhaps it’s better to accept higher risks in sentencing, to ignore the statistical trends we know about, in order both to give a greater impression of impartiality and in order to avoid the broader social harm that can come from discriminatory sentencing. And indeed, perhaps it is even unjust to legally judge the individual by what we know from statistics, even if it is not irrational.

        [To get to the bottom of the distinction: there is epistemological prejudice, the assumption of facts about someone, and then there is behavioural prejudice, the assumption of a way of acting toward them. It is often the latter that is the bigger problem, and it seems as though behavioural prejudice can be at least problematic even when the epistemological prejudice it is based on is actually fully epistemologically justified. (and vide supra on the idea of behavioural prejudices without associated explicit epistemological prejudices]

        Then again, this is a very difficult area, because on the other hand it seems implausible to say we should never rely on statistical generalisations; indeed, every part of how we deal with people relies upon them, and accurate but discriminatory generalisations can yield considerable public interest benefits. The US, for instance, now uses similar discriminatory algorithms to calculate which alleged civilians to assassinate – statistical patterns of mobile phone communication are used to calculate which individuals may be, or may become, enemies of the US. These issues are likely to become more and more pressing, as we move away from the traditional idea of justice-as-punishment and toward the idea of justice-as-prevention that lies behind our policies on terrorism, mental health, and increasingly even criminal recidivism. [a good example being the UK’s recent flirtation with indefinite sentencing, where a judge could decide he didn’t like the look of someone and have them imprisoned for life, regardless of what the original offence was]

        On “he’s a good student because he’s Asian”, I think there’s a fallacy here too. You’re right that it’s possible to as it were ‘break into’ that chain of causation at any point, so that the fact that someone was a good student couldn’t be taken as evidence that they were Asian. But the validity of “he’s Asian because he’s a good student” cannot be transferred to “he’s a good student because he’s Asian”!. For instance, “I’m bleeding to death because I’ve been shot” is a perfectly good bit of reasoning, even though there are also other reasons why I might be bleeding. A stab wound, for instance, could ‘break into’ that chain of reasoning. “I’ve been shot because i’m bleeding to death” therefore isn’t good reasoning, but “i’m bleeding to death because i’ve been shot” still is!
        [further evidence could even support “he must be Asian because he’s a good student” as a deductive conclusion, if everyone else were sufficiently terrible as a student. However, it can never be a good causal conclusion… except of course that if you introduce concepts like identity, self-identification, community, ethos, etc, then it CAN suddenly become causal (if ‘being Asian’ is defined not racially but culturally and a commitment to academic success is defined as a criterion of cultural belonging). (the same way the Pope might say “he must be Catholic because he’s been baptised in the Church” and others might say “he must be Jewish because he keeps all the commandments”).]

        On Curiel: he IS nationally Mexican, and I suspect if you asked him he’d say he was culturally Mexican as well. He’s also nationally American, and I suspect if you asked him he’d say he was culturally American as well, but that’s all irrelevent to Trump’s reasoning. Trump didn’t say Curiel might be biased because he wasn’t American, he said he might be biased because he was Mexican! The fact that curiel was born in Indiana is irrelevent, and there was more of a logical failure on the part of those who brandished that fact than there was on the part of Trump. [because being born in Indiana doesn’t mean someone doesn’t feel solidarity with Mexicans]. In fact, I think there’s a slightly disturbing undercurrent of racism and intolerance in that response to Trump. It’s like saying “hey, I know he’s got a Mexican name, but don’t worry, he’s really one of the good guys because look, he was born in Indiana!”. Saying “he’s not Mexican, he’s from Indiana” implies that you can’t be both Mexican and American at the same time, which I think is a worrying assumption. [sure, you can be ‘Mexican-American’, but that’s just treated as subflavour of American – not, as you point out, a subflavour of Mexican – which is distinct from being wholly Mexican AND wholly American.]

        [I may have a slight personal axe to grind there, since I have dual nationality myself. If someone said “oh, Wastrel’s probably a feckless drunk, because he’s Irish”, I wouldn’t find “he’s not Irish, he was born in England!” to really be a supportive line from a bystander! (even though, being Irish, I am indeed factually much more likely to be an alcoholic, all else being equal, than the average Englishman. ((And, fun fact, eight times more likely to develop schizophrenia, for some reason.)))]

        Anyway, sorry if it seems like I’ve just skimmed over some of the points you raise, not really having enough time to respond substantively right now, but I hope that some of the above seems vaguely interesting, at least on a brief and superficial level.

        [it would seem churlish to charge you for my ramblings, when you don’t charge to read your blog. Of course, if you made a habit out of selling your blog posts to magazines, incorporating changes I’d suggested, I might start feeling more short-changed…]

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Wastrel, I only took the post down briefly to make some changes, hopefully to make it stronger. I will be reposting it tomorrow! I’ll also reply to your comment then!


        2. Okay, okay, I decided to repost it now.

          I think my edits do address some of your criticisms. One big difference in the current version is to affirm the distinction between offensive, discriminatory, and immoral, which was blurred in the original post. As you point out, believing incorrect things about any given group does not necessarily lead to immoral behavior. The discriminatory behavior that harms people and causes widespread injustice is really the problem. Nevertheless I do see a stronger connection between beliefs and actions than you do, I think. Acquaintance with the basic facts of a situation—this puts a lot of pressure on the word “basic,” of course—is necessary for any kind of action, moral or not.

          The distinction between something being offensive and discriminatory is in keeping with what I generally hoped to accomplish with the essay, which is to reorient people’s focus to the factual inaccuracies of discriminatory ideas rather than relying on emotional responses. I am often afraid that political activity concerns itself overmuch with emotionally engaging but practically insignificant examples of discrimination, and I hoped that a focus on the empirical and logical side of things might help to counteract this tendency.

          I am actually fully in agreement with you regarding the Alabama girl and the Brooklynite example. Indeed, doesn’t this reinforce my point? Although there is a moral duty to know the basic facts (a duty limited, as you say, by practical constraints), it is often difficult for people to ascertain these basic facts—because of their social environment, a lack of resources, and so on. Thus we have examples of people who advocate and believe immoral things, even if they have excellent intentions, because they have a warped picture of reality. In the case of the Alabamian, her racism is very clearly caused, not by any moral failing, but by her believing untrue things told her about blacks and gays. Treating such a person as a monster would be both unjust and ineffective. The view of discrimination I’m advocating leads to the conclusion that education, rather than condemnation, is the best response. To me it seems as though we’re in agreement, although I certainly did not make this clear in my first version.

          I also completely agree that intersectionality does not and cannot completely explain the qualities of any given individual. Such an idea strikes me as both absurd and worrisome. This is from the current version: “This is not even to mention all of the manifold influences on behavior that are not included in these demographic categories. Indeed, it is these irreducibly unique experiences, and our unique genetic makeup, that make us individuals in the first place. Humans are not just members of a group, nor even members of many different, overlapping groups: each person is sui generis.”

          As per Jim Crow, you yourself give an example of a misconception that could, in theory, justify it: “that black people… are the scourges of the world.” This is not a statistical misconception, of course, nor a misconception about biology. But it is asserting something which is untrue, meaningless, or a claim based on arbitrary authority. Included in this essay (although it’s not my main focus) are also ideas like “white people are superior” or “gays are inherently wicked” which, in the past, were both pervasive and condoned by authorities. And part of my thesis is that increasing reliance on naturalistic, empirical sources of knowledge—rather than what a pastor or a father says about “bad people”—leads to moral advances.

          The example of algorithmic sentencing is fascinating, and I admit unsettling. I didn’t know about it. From what I can find, a big source of controversy is that the algorithms are the secret intellectual property of private companies. The thing that strikes me as most disturbing about these algorithms is that they include information about the subject’s background—family structure, criminal family history, etc.—which the subject did not choose and could not help. And even if these are predictive of recidivism, it is unjust to punish somebody for things over which they have no control.

          Now, whether this is “rational” or not is another question. Whether an action is rational depends on how effective the action is in bringing about the desired goal (and effective action will require dependable information). The goal itself is arbitrary. In this I agree with Hume: I don’t think there is anything such thing as a “rational” goal (or, better, the rationality of any one particular goal is its compatibility with other goals, but all the goals taken together are simply products of desire); there are only rational means to arbitrary goals. If we narrowly concern ourselves with preventing recidivism, using the algorithms makes sense. But if we want to create a fairer or a juster society, the algorithms should be modified, to say the least. The question then becomes which objective is more important; and I think we agree that the second one is. But either action—depending on the algorithms, or modifying the algorithms—can be a perfectly “rational” action. And moral concerns often guide us when choosing between rational actions.

          Anyways, I hope this comment, in addition to the changes I made, at least succeed in making my view seem more plausible—and less fascist!


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