What’s Wrong With Prejudice And Is It Prejudicial To Dislike Someone Over His Bad Thinking?

Over at Unreasonable Faith, guest contributor Custador thinks he is a bigoted atheist:

The knowledge that my cousin is a creationist has actually made me dislike him. I wonder now if I’m any better than any other prejudiced person — a racist or a sexist or a homophobe — because I pre-judge a group of people based on a single attribute. That’s challenging for me. I’m an open minded man, and I dislike prejudice.I think the only way I can justify it to myself is this: We don’t choose our sexuality, race or gender, but I honestly do think that the wilful ignorance that allows a person to be Creationist must be a choice — the choice to abandon critical thinking and to ignore the mountains of evidence against your belief. At least, that’s how I justify my prejudice to myself — but it still makes me uncomfortable. What do you think?

Last week I wrote a post that explored whether rejecting someone’s faith beliefs as idiotic necessarily involves either that you think them an idiot or that you treat them like an idiot. I also wrote a post rejecting the other related idea (that I know Custador is not saying but which readers might be inferring) that all outspoken and philosophically or politically confrontational atheism is intolerant. So I will not dwell on those related questions in what follows but target Custador’s question about what constitutes prejudice and whether his antipathy for his newly converted creationist cousin counts as an instance of it.

Here are several thoughts:

(1) There’s nothing wrong with disliking character flaws and particular failures to be excellent.  There is nothing inherently prejudicial or hateful about this in itself.  In fact, if we believe in objective value, it’s only appropriate.  I don’t (and shouldn’t) like laziness, weakness, stinginess, irritability, meanness, bad cooking, bad artistry, bad athletic performance, or bad thinking.  I can go on and on listing attributes which I neither like nor should like if my mind is properly attuned to value.

(2) Each of us has many traits and performs many actions.  Some of these traits  and actions are desirable, praiseworthy, and/or admirable and others are undesirable, blameworthy, and/or contemptible.  We can desire, praise, and admire each other or our actions for those things about ourselves or others (or our actions or others’ actions) that are desirable, praiseworthy, and/or admirable.  We can avoid, blame, or in contempt those things about us that are undesirable, blameworthy, and/or contemptible.  This is not prejudicial, it’s just judicious.

(3) Prejudice primarily comes into play when we take traits that are inherently neutral—neither desirable nor undesirable, praiseworthy nor blameworthy, admirable nor contemptible—and we take them as a basis for assuming that they are indications that an individual or a group with those traits are as a class undesirable, contemptible, blameworthy, etc.  So, skin color is value neutral and therefore it is prejudice to infer various value judgments about character or other traits or actions based on it.

(4) Prejudice also comes into play when our abilities to form judgments about desirability, admirability, and praiseworthiness are themselves badly formed.  This happens when we are trained to evaluate actions, characters, traits, abilities, according to irrational or badly developed criteria.  We need good evaluative schema that track genuine value, praising what is genuinely praiseworthy, admiring what is genuinely admirable, and desiring what is genuinely desirable.  It is irrational to privilege simple commonality of skin color or national identity in making an abstract consideration of the admirability of someone’s swing in baseball or her courage when in danger, etc.  We are prejudiced when our evaluative judgments incorporate irrelevant factors when assessing traits, characters, abilities, and actions.

So, I think that disliking someone’s weaknesses is rationally defensible and, even, rationally and ethically necessary.  I should not like either my own laziness or yours.  I should not like my own bad habits of thought and I should not like yours.  And I should, rationally, if my emotions are properly aligned with my abstract abilities to form intellectually defensible value judgments, feel aversion and contempt for vice, lack of ability, poor performances, etc.

So, based on all of this, it is perfectly fine (and even preferrably rational) to hold anyone’s intellectual errors, intellectual vices, intellectual inabilities in contempt, as undesirable or, in some cases, as positively blameworhthy.

But, there are some other things to keep in mind:

(5) In the kind of prejudice I warned against in point 4, we make mistakes sometimes when we use improper evaluative criteria.  One of the ways we can make this mistake is to judge an entire character by only one aspect of it.  It is one thing to rationally dislike one character flaw, one deed, one weakness of ability, etc. but it is another thing to overestimate the importance of one flaw, deed, or weakness in the overall value judgment you make of someone’s net desirability, admirability, and/or praiseworthiness as a human being.  As I have argued before, it is quite possible that someone with contemptible habits of belief can be an overall more admirable and praiseworthy person all things considered than a person with superior habits of belief. And if you are using this one character flaw as a basis to judge someone overall, and against a total picture of their overall set of traits, properly assessed, then you are evaluating them badly.

It is quite possible to hate or dislike or blame or hold in contempt a particular trait and to vehemently oppose this in a stranger, friend, relative, or colleague, while nonetheless balancing this opposition with a fuller blooded picture of their overall character, abilities, and desirability.   Sometimes a single bad trait or small set of them can be present in such great strength or a bad action (or small set) can be of such great bad consequence that it might be justifiable to judge them a repulsive, blameworthy, and/or contemptible person on that action or trait alone.  And in many cases one might not like a constellation of related vices in someone (so you might not dislike your cousin simply because he has bad habits of belief but because it interconnects with more vices or leads to other bad traits or actions).  But, again, we must be cautious not to move to hastily to inferring other bad traits based on one clearly discerned one or based on a few blameworthy actions.

(6) There is a place for us to love each other in a way that shows sympathy for each other’s weaknesses without making the mistake of calling what is bad about them a good thing.  And, I think that we get along better and more happily if we show some love for people as much as is psychologically possible in spite of many of their flaws, as long as their flaws are not such as to be of great harm to others. I call this volitional love (whereas most call it unconditional love—I just think that “unconditional love” is a conceptually incoherent ideal and a confusing term).

So, in sum, I would say there’s nothing wrong with disliking what is bad about people but we should be vigilant in overestimating the contribution of others’ particular flaws to their overall characters. The greatest temptation in this regard is to take our own virtues (or what we merely perceive to be our own virtues) and abilities and other likable qualities and over-inflate our estimate of their intrinsic value and then to irrationally harshly judge others by making reference solely or primarily by these strengths of ours (whether real or perceived) and underestimating the value of their alternate virtues and other desirable traits.  To make this mistake is to unjustly privilege what is like ourselves over what is different from us but of equal or greater value.

Finally, there are so many complications involved in how we come to beliefs, that I think we should be especially careful in assessing how moral culpably we treat people for their irrationality. While I do think scrupulousness in belief is a fundamentally moral issue (and one of the most important as far as my own judgment indicates to me), I think that the complicating, corrupting influences on us that come both from our faulty cognitive wiring and from our social pressures make many people’s vices in this regard beyond their complete control.  And so a good deal of sympathy is in order.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.