The Prejudice against Bias

by A. Jay Adler on April 23, 2010
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The other day ShrinkWrapped mused a bit about the nature and effect of our human biases in the political sphere, and offered, among other thoughts, that his desire to check them in himself is a reason that he engages with me in our Open Mind series. He also thinks that the challenges of strong argument from the Left help him sharpen his own, contrary thinking. I think very much the same, though I think a bit differently on the matter of bias. It may be Shrink’s psychiatric profession that leads him to think about “bias,” or it may be, rather, Shrink’s own nature – which perhaps led him to pursue psychiatry as a field in the first place – that leads him to think in such terms, and just the consideration of those alternatives is all very much a part of the consideration of “bias.” Bias is hardly a very specialized term, but nonetheless it may be Shrink’s inclination to think along those lines that leads him, perhaps, to be more beneficially attentive than are others to the influence of bias on his own and others’ thinking.

Of course, we all do have biases, but it is a commonplace to resort to the notion of bias as explanation, excuse, or rationale, and the convenience of psychological argumentation is that – particularly for nonprofessionals in non-clinical settings – it can neither be established nor refuted. Once arguments based on remote or generalized psychological “insight” are offered, and especially when they approach the status of cant, ill-considered truism – claims such as “we’re all prejudiced” – I run from them. They may be presented with varying degrees of supposed inductive probability, but they cannot be proven in the individual instance, and they make easy substitutes for the application of reason and evidence to specific terms and situations. Frequently, they are not the end of thought, but the end of thinking. They become, in truth, their own kind of bias.

But what is bias? The word is commonly used interchangeably with prejudice. They are both value-laden words, but what is a primary meaning for the latter is an acquired, secondary meaning for the former. A prejudice is prejudgment founded in the poor logic of hasty and sweeping generalization, usually charged with emotion; consequently, several generations of the culturally and racially sensitive have been instructed, in the language of some didactic mental nanny: “Don’t generalize.” The truth, or course, is that we can’t think, can’t reason, without generalizing. It is a question of how well we do it, how perceptively and methodically.

A bias can be a prejudice, and that is the way we commonly use the word. But in its first sense it is an oblique line, a bent or tendency. Is such necessarily bad? I had a bent toward literature and philosophy. Shrink had a bent toward psychology and medicine. We both have a bent toward politics and policy, which, for some other people, are boring. These are not prejudices, in the common sense, but ways of being in the world, of perceiving the world. We could call them, in each of us, a disposition: a prevailing tendency, mood, or inclination, a temperamental makeup. Dispositions may arise in us naturally. They may also be the product of experience and thought, and of those two interacting with our natures. Again, a disposition is not necessarily a bad thing. Writes Shrink

We all view the world through the filter of our own perceptions and preconceived notions of how the world works.  If we were required to re-construct the world anew every day it would be impossible to function.  Instead we all have a particular weltanschauung into which we incorporate new data.

I agree, though it is worth pausing over the word “preconceived.” Something preconceived tends to be rigid, an idea formed in advance (the “pre”) with inadequate basis, and tending toward a prejudice. However, unless it is a new idea, every conception we bring to bear on our thinking is, literally, a pre-conception, so the word “preconceived” has a value-laden meaning that does not arise precisely out of its valueless constituents. The same is not true of the pre in prejudice. We never want to judge ahead of the facts. Generally speaking, it is a good thing to bring some already formed conceptions to thinking about a problem, though we are always seeking to develop new ones.

How about, then, disposition and – predisposition? To be predisposed is to be disposed, as the pre tells us, in advance, to be inclined, in the manner of a bias. But all dispositions are in advance. A disposition is brought to circumstance; it does not arise out of it. So these definitional distinctions are not exactly exact. (And this is pretty much the reason why a twenty-five hundred year effort to discern and represent a total philosophic system in language came to an end in the twentieth century.) Speaking practically, however, a predisposition is a prejudice. A disposition, I’ll say, is one sense of the word bias – the manner in which each of us looks at the world, which is not necessarily preconceived, predisposed, or prejudiced in the negative senses those words carry, but may be pre-conceived in the way that most of our conceptions properly should be when we bring them to bear on the world. As Shrink said, “If we were required to re-construct the world anew every day it would be impossible to function.”

Yet if we are critical thinkers, we always want to be reviewing our existing conceptions to ensure that they don’t devolve into what we call preconceptions, that our dispositions don’t reduce to predispositions.

How might I apply all this, momentarily, to matters practical and political? Liberalism and conservatism, speaking very generally, are – in thoughtful people, in the best senses – dispositions, biases. They are, to use Shrink’s word, a weltanschauung. This is not a bad thing to be checked, but, like all of our thinking, something to be regularly reviewed. So, briefly, Shrink says,

Thus, a Liberal will have an a priori implicit assumption that weapons are the cause of violence and will therefore support disarmament in its many forms, from nuclear disarmament to gun control laws.  A Conservative will start from the assumption that it is people who are responsible for violence and oppose such disarmament efforts believing that such only empowers the “bad guys.”  Missed by both sides is that the presence of certain weapons decreases the risk of strategic violence while it increases the lethality of impulsive violence and may make such violence more likely.

I don’t doubt that there are liberals who believe what Shrink says. There certainly are liberals who talk that way. I’m not sure what percentage one could say actually believe that “weapons are the cause of violence.” But I do not believe that for any who do it is an “a priori implicit assumption.” That casts the liberals who may hold strong anti-gun ownership views as unthinking rather than, perhaps, mistaken in their thinking. I am a liberal, and I do not believe weapons cause violence; however, they do enable violence and can increase its lethality. There is a reason we do not send armies into the field with the bayonet only and not the automatic rifle. Nonetheless, given the historic culture of the United States and present conditions (so many guns already, and no one about to collect them), I support gun ownership rights. I have owned guns myself, precisely for the purpose of self-defense. (I would think differently were I a citizen of various other nations such as England or Japan, which are evidence against many arguments for gun ownership). I also conclude, despite what some people wish to believe, that the Second Amendment to the Constitution authorizes gun ownership. However, this does not militate against stringent regulation of the kinds of guns people may own or against commonsense regulation of who may own them, under what circumstances, and how they are sold. The question is whether we are considering an idea or pushing an ideology – for me, a difference between a disposition and predisposition.

Shrink says also

As much as I find the guiding philosophy of the ACLU to be, in practice, repugnant and dangerous, I also recognize that they force the Right, when in power, to be attentive to actions that could threaten our freedoms.

This is a curiously contradictory statement. The first half I think typically expressive of the conservative view – and that is maybe my version of what I think is Shrink’s stereotype of liberal views about guns. I don’t think so, but maybe. I do not always agree with the ACLU, but I am a card-carrying member precisely for the reason Shrink expresses in the second half of the sentence. If the ACLU is doing its job, it is always going to be challenging someone’s rationalizations for the infringement of liberties. Aside from the fact that ACLU rhetoric is partisan – a historic error, in my judgment, that enabled conservatives to demonize it – the ACLU, rather than being repugnant in practice, has been extraordinarily principled. From the famous Skokie case of the 1970’s, when the ACLU defended the right of the American Nazi party to stage a public march, a position that lost the ACLU up to 25% of its membership, to its longstanding opposition to campaign finance restriction, on the same free speech grounds as conservatives, which even saw the ACLU filing a brief for the winning side in the recent Citizens United case, the ACLU has been true to its conception of civil liberties even when it has brought the organization into conflict with its primary supportive constituency.

What alienates the Right from the ACLU, aside from anger about particular cases – as the Left, in general, (and I, in the latter case) opposed the ACLU’s position in the instances cited above – are differing dispositions toward civil liberties. One disposition leans more toward various emanations from property rights, the other toward behavioral freedoms and what became known as civil rights. The open question, like the Open Mind, is whether any of our differing dispositions, our conscious and considered biases, can anymore be accepted by some as political inclination and not subterranean malevolence.

Writes Shrink

Unfortunately, we do not have anything truly analogous on the Right [to the ACLU] to assist the Left in a similar fashion [by challenging it].… Perhaps because they have not had such opponents, the Left has fallen short in their ability to defend many of their positions when challenged.

Shockingly, I view the matter very much to the contrary.

AJA


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