Moral Bias

September 1, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

I’ve been thinking about this since the initial post on our biases and all the responses.  In the course of trying to come up with an “appropriate” response to the world, we often find ourselves caught up in endless exception-making, fudging, attempts to shoehorn certain proclivities and habits into convenient moulds so we don’t go through our days constantly flinching at our inadvertant insensitivities. 

Does it do any good?  The flinching?  I mean, after the Sixties, one had to have been living on Mars for half a century not to be aware that there had been a Big Shift away from what might be called Gross Cultural Reliance to a more nuanced approach which has been (often derisively) termed Political Correctness.  The former is a condition wherein one “borrows” wholesale from the culture to make associational choices.  It doesn’t occur in this instance to question the wisdom of the culture–it’s what it is, and we are part of it, ergo…

But we realized that the Culture At Large was in many ways an Idiot.  It stepped on people.  It made too little room for variation.  It tried to be all things to all people, but it was necessary that all people somehow be The Same in order for that to work.  Those with a vested interest in keeping everything the same mightily resisted movement to change the rules.

We never did come up with a solid formulation that allows for prejudice.

You have to, you know.  What we ended up with was a vague, flat dictum that all prejudice is categorically bad.  But like all superlatives, it’s not true.  Nor is it feasible to make it so.

We talked a little about harmful vs harmless prejudice (we said bias, but we all know what we were talking about) and ended up wondering if any prejudice is harmless.  I suppose it depends on how you desribe “harm” to begin with.  If the idea is that everyone ought to be allowed inside every game being played everywhere, regardless of ability, desire, game rules, or the wishes of those already playing, then we have a big problem, and the seeds of profound, continual, and pointless hurt.  To tell little five-year-old Johnny that he can’t play soccer with the fifteen-year-olds just because he’s five may seem heartless, but we all know that not only could he probably not contribute anything to the team he ends up on, but he’s also likely to get smashed up and hurt.

But that’s not the same as saying he can’t play soccer at all.  He’s not barred from the game itself, just from that particular one, and maybe he’ll never be allowed into particular games.  But it’s not the same as being barred from all games.

I know, this sounds awfully like “separate but equal.”  It’s not.  There’s no argument over “equal” in this context.  We already know Johnny isn’t “equal” to the fifteen year olds.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.  We have categories of prejudice.  The one that does the most harm is the arbitrary one based on attributes that cannot be changed.  Skin color, gender, country of origin.  (Obviously I’m simplifying for the sake of some sort of brevity.)  You can lie about your nationality in some cases, but you shouldn’t have to.  Gender can be tinkered with at great expense, but again, why?  Skin color can even be changed, but not the DNA that gave it to you.  Still, why?  Prejudices erected based on these foundations are beyond reason.  If you are shut out of all things because of something you cannot change (at one time, bastardy was part of this) it is tragic and absolutely immoral.

A second category has to do with choices we make.  Political affiliation, diet, religion, etc.  Now it might be argued that some of these things are taught us by so forceful an arbiter as our parents in such a way that they might as well be things we cannot change.  How many people really choose their religions?  (Even if you break away from your so-called “milk faith” it lingers, it stays with you your whole life.)  But there are range of attributes we can and often do change.

To be denied publicly avowed opportunities based on these is also categorically immoral.  Jobs, service in restaurants and shops, and so forth.  (But we’ve entered upon a category of prejudice wherein such things, while not denied categorically, are grounds for temporary prejudicial treatment–smokers suffer prejudice for their choice of habit.  I’ll come back to that.)

Now there is a third category of prejudice that is a seed-bed of confusion, and that is our own personal decisions about association.  If I as an individual choose not to associate with—X.  Am I indulging an immoral practice or is forcing me to associate against my wishes the immoral practice? 

Here’s where we get into a quandary.  Because we do have a right to associate with whom we please.  That’s what we established in the Sixties, and that is what the whole Sixties revolution really was all about–freedom of association.  When you boil it all down to its base components, that’s what all the fighting was about.  So that today, if a white blond goes to the prom with a corn-rowed black person, no one will force them apart, beat one or both of them up, or bring the law to bear to stop the date.  It may sound simplistic, but think about it.  Freedom to associate with whom you choose.  The Sixties in a nutshell.  (And, furthermore, in whatever way you choose, which led to the whole can of worms over sexual freedom, gay rights, etc.)  It led ultimately to pursuit of the so-called melting pot society we always claimed to have but really didn’t until then.

However, the flip side of that freedom of associate is the implicit freedom to NOT associate with someone.  And that’s what was never hammered out.

Try this (I expect discussion, dissent, argument, so I’m just tossing ideas out here): discrimination against an individual separate from his or her context is categorically wrong.  That doesn’t mean an acceptance of that context.  For instance, if I know someone who adores Clint Black and never misses a chance to attend Texas Two-Step line dances and hang around with people whose politics are far to the right of my own, not to mention their taste in music, drink (beer), and preferences in dress run counter to my own, it is my right to dissociate socially from that person.  THIS IS PREJUDICE.  I have made certain assumptions about that person based on his or her life choices.  If he or she comes into my place of business, however, I treat them just as I would someone whose life choices I sympathize with.  Outside the context of their cultural identity I do not shut them out of anything I would admit or allow to someone whose context I may share.

But I’m not gonna spend Saturday night with them.

Am I being immoral?

Do I have time to universally inspect, assess, and individually judge everyone I may encounter during a day, a year, a life?

Yet we all know that from such personal inclinations to disclude grow the larger, cultural tendencies to pre-judge and discriminate.  Yet to by force of law (or communal pressure) make me associate with everything and everyone I would choose not to is equally invalid, not only because it violates my personal choice, but it invalidates the very freedom of association that is the only legitimate forum for interpersonal relations.

I could throw out some hoarier examples of prejudicial behaviors that ride the line between unacceptable and personal choice, but I decided to use those I did to keep it less threatening.  This is a tricky problem.

The only solution I’ve found is simply to be aware of the distinction between public and private spheres and where your rights bump up against the rights of others.  And work toward an understanding of what might constitute “fair” in a pluralistic context.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Communication, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Friendships/relationships, Good and Evil, Law, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    I like the term "milk faith". I think I'll use it. I'll give you credit, of course. As for me, I recently became aware of the fact that I am prejudiced against prejudiced people. Guess I need to change that.

  2. PaulEdward says:


    I may have misunderstood, but you seem to say I am somehow forced to associate with people against my wishes because it is immoral to do otherwise. Though the law is often used to define morality, I'm not convinced freedom to associate is such an example.

    Freedom of association is a logical response to emotional conditioning. Logic, however, is not generally persuasive, so moral justification is, unfortunately, often used to justify what is needed to protect ourselves consistently. This works when superficially perused, but can be very confusing when subjected to more careful scrutiny.

    The object of prejudicial behavior is often the defenseless (poor, minority, physically or mentally handicapped, etc.), which each of us could easily become. This is not always realized at any given moment and is emotionally objectionable (we go into denial when faced with unpleasant possibilities) should we be confronted by it. Thus our attitudes are usually determined little by logic and lots by emotional responses stimulated by morality.

    I may have missed the point entirely here and am looking forward to any clarity you might shed on the issue.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason – I've always known that I am a "culturist," but I hadn't before considered the extent to which I could blithely exercise my culturist ways  without some conscious consideration. Yes, I do avoid hanging around with certain types of people-I'm certainly not "gonna spend Saturday night" with many types of people.  I always thought of this form of discrimination, though, as my right and privilege.   Again, I've never really focused on whether such discrimination was justified. Not until now.  I've thought of my "Saturday night" as a time during which I'm entitled to relax. If I spent it with a group of people who want to convince me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I'd be irritated and grumpy. I certainly don't expect any fundamentalists to want to spend their Saturday nights with my freethinking buddies–it would irritate them, I suspect. As you mention, many other groups could have been used for this illustration. Your post makes me wonder, though, whether my choice of association on Saturday nights requires any further consideration (or whether it's simply a matter of thinking It's MY WEEKEND AND I'LL SPEND IT WITH PEOPLE I CHOOSE).

    Your distinction of public and private spheres makes a lot of sense to me. I owe a duty of civility, even to those who choose cultures abhorrent to me, in the public sphere (at least if they are not threatening my safety). It's the decent thing to do. Further, we often (eventually) figure out that we benefitted from our non-voluntary association with others.

    I also liked your distinction between the milk-faith attributes and those attributes that are not so deeply ground into us – those that we believe that people take on voluntarily. If a woman makes it her habit to take her huge pet snake everywhere she went (this example is not directed to Artemis, one of the authors at this site) I wouldn't condemn anyone for spending less time with that person. Maybe I do have a duty to be more tolerant of milk faith attributes, even those that really annoy me. At a minimum, I might have a duty to be more mindful about the decisions I make regarding my right of association.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post.

  4. Ricky Koppel says:

    There are two conditions I think you fail to address.

    The first is the rights of the discriminator. Take the example of an autistic person. It can be admitted that this person has many less capabilities than more intelligent individuals. Assume this person would like to take attempt a task which can be done much more efficiently by another, non-autistic person. Is it acceptable to not use this person simply because of the results of their autism?

    This condition is inalterable, out of the subject's control. However the task at hand may be reduced in efficiency and quality. The same can be said of female and tasks requiring physical strength. The assumption that a male is more suited to the task is very justified, so do we hold the ability to discriminate in this case?

    The second case is the definition of prejudice, and what it means to be prejudiced. Prejudice, as I understand it, is a flaw of generalization, exactly what Erika spoke of in 'Hey, how many Biases do YOU have?' Discriminating by social role (and especially the personalities associated to that role) is usually wrong. However, discrimination resulting from a previously inspected personality is not. In short, we should not make assumptions of a person's character without primary knowledge of it.

    Is this choice of dissassociation discriminatory if it is based on a person's character, and not their expected role?

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    A brief note of clarification re: PaulEdward: when a problem is overturned, there can be a tendency to overdo the solution. Prejudicial behavior–which I identify with restrictions of association–was decalred A Bad Thing back in the Sixties. The avoidance of people just because they are different was shown to be a negative attribute.

    But no clarification was ever made as to where the private choice of association was "acceptable" and the personal exhibition of bigoted exclusion was not. So one could, if one were sensitive, be made to feel bigoted in one's personal choices if choosing to exclude certain people. It leads a kind of reverse problem of privileging public displays of tolerance over personal choice, which ought not to ever be in conflict (but often are because there are no parameters expressed).

    No one would force you to associate with people you don't like–except, possibly, in such instances as PTA meetings wherein because your children attend a school at which there are also children of people you might choose not to associate with, you find yourself having to associate with them because of your involvement with the school.

    The question has to do with drawing distinctions based a freedom to say No as well as Yes.

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