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Can Prejudice Enhance Morality?

Thursday 18th May
We think prejudice is the opposite of reason. But could it be essential to good judgement?
| Lecturer on Social Sciences at Harvard and author of The Place of Prejudice: A Case for Reasoning Within the World

Adam 4

We commonly consider an open mind essential to fair-minded moral, political and legal judgment. To have a closed mind is to resist the possibility of persuasion, to be dogmatic, recalcitrant, even bigoted. But what exactly is an open mind?  According to one familiar conception, an open mind is an impartial one – free of particular interests, loyalt...

We commonly consider an open mind essential to fair-minded moral, political and legal judgment. To have a closed mind is to resist the possibility of persuasion, to be dogmatic, recalcitrant, even bigoted. But what exactly is an open mind? 

According to one familiar conception, an open mind is an impartial one – free of particular interests, loyalties and preconceptions, capable of adopting the perspective of anyone anywhere.  We could call it the “prejudice-free” mind. It has stood as a prominent ideal ever since Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as “the emancipation from prejudices generally.”

But I want to suggest that an “open mind” wholly unoccupied by preconceptions is a mistaken ideal. Not only is it unrealistic. It also overlooks the possibility that certain preconceptions can enable good judgment rather than hinder it. Consider two examples:

Take grading student papers. Some teachers and professors prefer to grade papers without knowing the names of the students who wrote them, grading “blind” because knowing the names invites prejudice.  Perhaps you’ve formed an unfavorable impression of some student – you think he’s lazy and inattentive – but you don’t want that impression to bias your grading of his paper. Blind grading, on the surface, at least, seems quite a reasonable measure. But does it lead to the fairest assessment of a paper?

One might argue that although it eliminates certain biases, it also deprives the teacher of background knowledge relevant to understanding the student’s work. Blind grading does not allow the teacher to assess a paper in the context of the student’s previous papers and contributions to the discussions in class. Without such context, it can be difficult to assess how much knowledge and insight the paper really reflects. On balance, blind grading may overcome certain biases but at the cost of preventing the grader from bringing to bear certain contexts relevant to a fair assessment of a student’s work.

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"Certain prejudices can enable rather than hinder good judgment."
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Our second example is selecting a jury. In the U.S., judges in most states are instructed to dismiss from jury duty anyone who has formed a prejudgment of the case, or who is likely, because of his or her background, to be predisposed to one side.  If the case concerns a rent dispute, for example, and you, as a potential juror, admit that you’ve been involved in a rent dispute yourself, the judge will likely dismiss you from duty. The attempt to eliminate prejudice from the jury in this way seems, on the face of it, a just measure. Clearly we don’t want jurors who are not open to considering the facts and changing their minds.  But do we want jurors with no prejudgments or background knowledge of any kind?

Consider a 1990 obscenity case: a civil suit against a Cincinnati art museum and its director for displaying allegedly “obscene” artwork – the controversial photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. In an effort, it seems, to purge the jury of all prejudice, the judge dismissed from duty not only anyone who had gone to see the controversial exhibit, and not only anyone who had gone to the Cincinnati museum, but anyone who claimed to be a fan of art or who claimed to attend art exhibits frequently.  Among the jurors selected was one who never went to museums.  Is such a jury prejudice-free? A more plausible account is that it is biased in a way that would hinder its judgment. How would people unfamiliar with the type of work normally displayed in museums be able to judge whether a photo met “contemporary community standards of decency”, the standard they were asked to interpret?  The ideal of the prejudice-free jury may not be so attractive after all.  

Once we recognize the sense in which prejudice can enable judgment rather than hinder it, we might ask how a more nuanced understanding of prejudice might help us make sense of cultural differences. Consider the difference between the practice of marriage most familiar in the Western tradition, based on a romantic conception of love, and that of arranged marriage, as practiced in some traditional societies, such as India.

From a Western perspective, the practice of arranged marriage may at first seem strange, even unsettling.  For someone who conceives of marriage in terms of love and free choice, an arranged marriage may seem a recipe for unhappiness, even an infringement on the liberty of sons and daughters to choose their own partners. Confronted with such a cultural difference, one might react in one of two familiar ways. The first would be to insist that one’s own vision of marriage is rational and enlightened while viewing the other as traditionalist and backward. The second would be to simply regard the two as different. According to this second response, to be enlightened is to recognize that what seems rational and self-evident is merely the prejudice of one’s own way; there is no right way, only different cultures with different worldviews.

On the surface, these two reactions may seem polar opposites: one moralistic and judgmental, the other relativistic and tolerant. But they are alike in one crucial respect: both overlook the possibility of coming to understand one’s own tradition through an encounter with the practices of another culture, and vice versa. Perhaps each conception of marriage expresses a partial truth; perhaps each can be understood to complement and bolster the other.   

For example: The Indian view may illuminate for us that marriage is not simply the celebration of a pre-existing love between two people. Marriage is a commitment to forge a love by sticking together over the course of life. The practice of arrangement assumes that love is the product of commitment, not the other way around. Marriage, correspondingly, is not mere ceremony; it is the enactment of love, the first step towards loving each other over the course of life.

This vision can serve as a corrective to the romantic conception of love that prevails in the West. Such a view sees love as preceding commitment and almost effortless, about finding one’s “other half” who exists “out there” and who can, in principle, be discovered “at first sight.” Marriage, in this view, is almost superfluous (the recognition of a love that already exists). Such a conception of love and marriage arguably undermines the value of commitment: it prepares couples to be disappointed with one another at the slightest sign of tension or hard feelings (“We are supposed to love each other, right? What’s wrong with us?”).The notion of love as discovered rather than forged degrades the value of sticking together through good and bad and shaping a relationship that eventually becomes irreplaceable. 

The Western conception of marriage, for its part, can serve as a reminder that love can be forged only on the basis of a preexisting attraction. Not just any couple, thrown together at random, can grow to love each other through effort alone. Arrangement simply for the sake of uniting two families, without any regard for the fit of two partners, is liable to end in unhappiness and a mere appearance of loyalty. 

In summary, by thinking through two marriage practices, seemingly opposed, we can arrive at a single conception of marriage and love that preserves both: love is at once forged and discovered. Marriage, correspondingly, is both recognition and commitment. Even the most freely chosen marriages have an element of “arrangement” (if self-imposed) expressed in the exchange of vows. And arranged marriages, at least in many cases in India today, allow for choice, within a certain range, based on fit or initial attraction. 

We are able to arrive at this insight only by taking seriously our Western preconception of marriage as expressing a partial truth, open to clarification and revision in light of another conception. Were we to dogmatically regard our preconception as the whole truth, or if, in the spirit of relativism, we were to regard it as a mere prejudice among other cultural prejudices, we would not be inclined to think or gain self-knowledge. 

These three examples show that not only is escaping prejudice is impossible but that the very ideal of escaping prejudice is misguided. Certain prejudices can enable rather than hinder good judgment. The question we should ask is not how to rid ourselves of prejudice, but how to distinguish between prejudices that illuminate and prejudices that distort good judgment.   

Read more from this issue of IAI News here: Morality and Prejudice   

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