Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
True Prejudices, Rational Prejudices, and Conservative Philosophy
Roger Scruton as quoted by Daniel Hannan on a podcast here on Ricochet: “The role of a conservative thinker is to reassure the people that their prejudices are true.”
It’s a wonderful quote, but I’m tempted to modify it: The role of a conservative thinker is to reassure the people that their prejudices are rational. I think the challenge to — for example — disapproval of embryonic stem-cell research is rarely “You are mistaken,” but rather “Your view is only held by nutjobs who hate science.”
A question for the Ricochetti:
For which of the people’s prejudices do we have the most need these days for reassurance that they are true, or rational?
Update: For a compilation of suggested answers, see comments 41-43.Published in General
I will follow this post because recent (‘recent’ . . now there’s a relative term) life events have me stumbling around for ‘rational’ ground.
Hope you’ve stirred the coals, here.
I’m sorry, mira dhost, lekken I don’t quite understand.
Is this sarcasm?
Of course there are always prejudices that lack truth or rationality and do not deserve reassurance. Zafar, are you suggesting race, religion, and sexuality as such prejudices?
That there’s a cohort of people in Washington who look upon the rest of us as serfs who should show a little more gratitude for being so well-ruled.
I need a better understanding of the question.
So the prejudice here is a prejudice against the federal government.
Yeah, that one could do with a defense. Pretty much all of Ricochet is a defense of that prejudice–both its truth and its rationality.
Well, maybe some examples would help. Here are a few likely candidates: the prejudices . . .
Augustine, “Prejudice” is a slippery word, which is much-abused. I think that to have a productive discussion based on that word, one should first define the word.
I would define “prejudice” as a generalization about a class of people or things that share a particular characteristic (the “primary characteristic”), attributing to them some other characteristic(s) (the “secondary characteristic(s)”), based on some perceived correlation between the primary and secondary characteristics.
So defined, a prejudice is irrational if either (a) there is little or no actual correlation between the primary characteristic that defines the class and the secondary characteristic that gets attributed to the class; or (b) a person continues to believe the secondary, attributed characteristic, about all members of the class, even in the face of contrary evidence about a particular member of the class.
The former form of prejudice is irrational because it is based on erroneous information. The later form is irrational because it is bigotry.
However, from the context of your OP, I think you may be using the word “prejudice” to refer to moral assumptions or axioms. If you are using the word in that way, then that is an entirely different discussion.
True and rational are not synonymous. You might rephrase the question.
Indeed. I phrased the question with their non-synonymy in mind: For which of the people’s prejudices do we have the most need these days for reassurance that they are true, or rational?
Some prejudices may deserve reassurance that they are true, some that they are rational, some both.
If we are in agreement that your question relates to moral assumptions or axioms, then I would assert that they cannot be shown to either rational or irrational. Nor can they be shown to be true or false. That is inherent in the nature of an assumption. If you are reasoning your way to it, then it is not an assumption. If you are basing it on empirical evidence, then it is not an assumption. An assumption – you either find it to be self-evident, or you don’t. An assumption is a starting point, there is no prior investigation or reasoning.
So, for example, I hold to the utilitarian axiom that human happiness is morally good, and human suffering is morally bad. On the whole, in any situation, I prefer an outcome that leads to greater overall happiness and less overall suffering. I cannot prove that my preference is “rational” or “true.” Neither evidence nor reasoning can support my belief in this proposition. For all I know, God put us on this Earth to experience suffering, and to evade suffering is to undermine God’s Will. I can’t prove that it is not God’s Will that we suffer. I just choose not to believe that.
Prejudice = pre-judge. A prejudice is simply a conclusion which precedes the rationality that supports it.
A good prejudice can be so supported, whether or not the prejudicial person is fully aware of that justifying logic.
A bad prejudice is logically (and so morally) unsupportable.
We should neither expect nor want all people to be philosophers capable and ready to defend every prejudice. Philosophers tend not to be the good people out making babies, bridges, businesses, etc. Thus, it is necessary for philosophers to be not only good thinkers but also good communicators and salesmen.
Good post. Scruton is right. The other half of a philosopher’s duty is to identify how timeless principles apply to emerging circumstances.
At Ricochet, I had a give and take with a man who thought that the United Methodist position on abortion was pro-life. When I did a cut and paste from the UM website where they permit abortion for the life of the mother, he thought that was a pro-life position. It is not. It is an exception. The unborn child may die in the effort to preserve the mother’s life, but itself cannot be the target of the abortionist. As soon as the child becomes the abortionist’s target, pro-life goes out the window.
I judged the UM position to be pro-abortion in that an innocent person could be killed for a specific reason. Once one specific reason can be used to justify abortion, then Pandora’s box is open, as the history of abortion in this country demonstrates.
I purposefully went after the UM position as pro-abortion. I found it to be untrue and irrational.
The rape/incest/life of the mother exceptions are not worthy of a thinking being. The child has done nothing worthy of a death sentence.
Not intended to be. The term “prejudice”, to me, implies irrationally pre-judging rather than rationally assessing. It’s no secret that I think there are lots of prejudiced people – across the political spectrum – who are significantly invested in assumptions and beliefs about themselves and the world that are not grounded in reality, but are nonetheless important to their sense of self and wellbeing (eg “my civilisation is….”; “my country is….”; my religion is…..”).
When do these prejudices need reassuring? When they run up against reality. Is it good for us when they’re reassured? Emphatically not. Uncomfortable and challenging, but not good.
But – perhaps, as Larry says, you were using the term “prejudiced” differently?
Larry, you’re correct that an assumption is by definition something which has yet to be proven. The term for a necessary component in a rational argument, whether true or untrue, is “premise”.
In practice, however, premises are often equated with assumptions by opponents who reject them. It’s not logical, but it is very human. It might not help that many strong arguments logically begin with, “Let’s assume that…”.
One of the most common causes of bad arguments is blindness to assumptions.
I don’t mind using the term “premise,” although in discussing morality I think the most accurate term is “axiom.” But, as I said, whatever term you use, the assumption / premise / axiom is either self-evident or it is not. And since it cannot be argued or proven either way, any discussion without common premises is doomed to go nowhere.
By the way, what you are calling an “assumption,” I would call a “hypothesis.” But it goes to show the importance of defining our terms.
Also Aaron, I should mention, I find you to be a very clear thinker.
I think it is safe to say that we are. The “or” must be emphasized. I’m following Scruton and Hannan in talking about moral assumptions which may or may not be axioms.
As Aaron Miller explains: No.
It is the nature of an axiom that it needs no proof, but this need not be true of every assumption, for not all assumptions are axioms. (Whether axioms, which do not need proof, are necessarily incapable of proof is a separate question we may set aside.)
Indeed. But there can be subsequent investigation or reasoning, and what was an once a rational assumption may become a rational conclusion instead.
So far in this comment I have made one observation: Not every assumption is an axiom, for some assumptions are amenable to reasoning and evidence.
I now add another: An axiom may be called both rational and true. Take the law of non-contradiction, the axiom at the foundation of logic. It cannot be rational in the sense of being derived from reasoning. Yet it is rational in the broader sense, the first in the dictionary: “agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible.”
Funny. I liked Zafar’s first comment, but without agreeing that prejudices are irrational or negative.
Religion and politics (two halves of the same coin) are infinitely complicated and infinitely important. So, of course, they are full of unproven assumptions as most people practice.
Sexual norms are among the most influential and most difficult ideas to practice. Sexual temptations are powerful and devastating, so temptation to make unfounded assumptions is similarly powerful.
Why do Judeo-Christian norms emphasize prohibitions regarding sex more than prohibitions regarding violence? Because sexual temptations are more common, more easily confused, and destroy the soul rather than the body.
I am clearly using the term differently from you: You define “prejudice” as always irrational, and I do not.
My apologies. From the free dictionary:
a. The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions: “This is not actually a volume of the best short stories …These are just the stories that I like best, and I am full of prejudice and strong opinions” (Ann Patchett).
b. An adverse judgment or opinion formed unfairly or without knowledge of the facts: a boy with a prejudice against unfamiliar foods.
2. Irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular social group, such as a race or the adherents of a religion.
Jolly good. Yes, I’m using a broader definition. Further down on the that page you read “an opinion formed beforehand.” That’s what I’m talking about. Some opinions formed beforehand are true, some are rational, and some deserve reassurance that they are true or rational.
More broad definitions:
It should be noted that, in using the word “prejudice” thus broadly, I’m just following Scruton and Hannan (and possibly Nordlinger, but I’d have to replay that podcast to be sure).
Okay, as I said, I’m glad to use the word axiom for an assumption that requires no proof, and the word hypothesis for an assumption that is tentative and subject to further testing.
On your second point, what you are calling “rational” is, I think, just what I was calling “self-evident.” Meaning, it makes perfect sense to you. But that is not the same as being “rational” in the sense of being derived by reasoning. We should keep those terms separate. Just calling the axioms that you happen to believe “rational,” simply because they make sense to you, is an invitation to fuzzy thinking.
Clarity of thought requires the understanding that your axioms are no better than someone else’s, no matter how ridiculous the other guy’s axioms seem to you. And when there is no agreement on axioms, there is no rational discussion. Ever.
My pet bugaboo is any mode of thought that is self-affirming. Because if it is, then it is nonsense.
To further explain the point about “self-affirming” modes of thought: When you say that axioms which make sense to you are “rational” because they make sense to you, you are engaged in self-affirming reasoning. Tail-chasing. You cannot accuse someone else of being “irrational” because they do not agree with your axioms, because axioms themselves (as I have said) are not rational. They are either self-evident or they are not. That is all that can be said about them.
I have the same problem with people who claim that their positions are “natural law.” I deem that just a fancy way of saying “My thinking is better than yours, for no particular reason that I can explain.” Self-affirming. Tail-chasing.
How about these:
— Excessive debt is a danger to our future and our children’s future, and if not gotten under control, it will lead to financial devastation and virtual slavery.
— We can’t dole out money we don’t have, and to fudge the books to find a way to do it is not kindness, and will lead to the results described above.
— Male is male and female is female. Vive la difference!
— We are not here as a result of random accidents. A divine power (intelligent design) had a hand in our creation.
Of those, only the last one is an axiom. And I see no reason to reaffirm it for those who already believe it, or to argue with those who do not believe it. As they say at Burger King, have it your way.
Agreed that debate is fruitless without agreement on the fundamental components.
Liberals and conservatives usually cannot debate productively for this reason. We perceive the basic premises of human nature and human circumstances very differently.
On that point, Karen, the phrase “All men are created equal,” does not mean that all men (and women) are identical in every way. Rather, it means that whatever differences may separate us in traits and abilities, we are all of equal value in the eyes of God, we all start our lives with equal moral worth, and we should all be equal in the eyes of the law. Those are all axioms, and none of them contradict the fact that men and women have differences.