Thursday, February 28, 2008

On Prejudice

I have just finished reading Theodore Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas. Dalrymple's thesis is simple but profound: We cannot (and do not) operate in this world without the benefit of preconceived ideas about how the world works. If we tried to do so, we would be as helpless as babes in the wood.

To state Dalrymple's thesis so baldly is to do a grave injustice to the lucidity, incisiveness, elegance, and ruthless logic of his short book. At the outset, Dalrymple makes it clear that he holds no brief for racial and ethnic prejudice. As he points out: "No prejudice, no genocide." But he adds that
If the existence of a widespread prejudice is necessary for the commission of genocide, it is certainly not a sufficient one. Nor does it follow from the fact that all who commit genocide are prejudiced that all who are prejudiced commit genocide.
Dalrymple spends many pages (fruitfully) eviscerating John Stuart Mill's simplistic liberalism, which holds that that one may do as one pleases as long as (in one's own opinion) one does no harm to others. This belief (itself a prejudice) has led to what Dalrymple calls "radical individualism" -- and it is just that, despite the efforts of libertarian apologists to demonstrate otherwise. Dalrymple offers a spot-on diagnosis of the wages of radical individualism:
What starts out as a search for increased if not total individualism ends up by increasing the power of government over individuals. It does not do so by the totalitarian method of rendering compulsory all that is not forbidden ... but by destroying all moral authority that intervenes between individual human will and governmental power.... "There is no law against it" becomes an unanswerable justification for conduct that is selfish and egotistical.

This, of course, makes the law, and therefore those who make the law, the moral arbiters of society. It is they who, by definition, decide what is permissible and what is not....

Given the nature of human nature, it hardly needs pointing out that those who are delegated the job of moral arbiter for the whole of society enjoy their power and come to thing that they deserve it, and that they have been chosen for their special insight into the way life should be lived. It is not legislators who succumb to this temptation but judges also....
Dalrymple, an admitted non-believer, also slices through the pretensions of Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, strident atheists both. He exposes their prejudices, which they try to conceal with the language of science and bombastic certitude.

There is much more in this delightful book. I offer a final sample:
In order to prove to ourselves that we are not prejudiced, but have thought out everything for ourselves, as fully autonomous (if not responsible) human beings should, we have to reject the common maxims of life that in many, though not in all, cases, preserve civilized relations. Enlightenment, or rather, what is so much more important for many people, a reputation for enlightenment, consists in behaving in a way contrary to those maxims. And once a common maxim of life is overthrown in this fashion, it is replaced by another -- often, though of course not always, a worse one.
Social norms that have passed the test of time are more likely than not to be beneficial. And, so, we owe them the benefit of the doubt, instead of discarding them for the sake of change, that is, for the sake of new prejudices.

I urge you to buy In Praise of Prejudice, to read it, and to re-read it (as I will do).

"The Meaning of Liberty" (25 Mar 2006)
"Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux" (01 Jul 2007)