The importance of unconscious prejudices

23 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime media Moral Psychology politics | Comments?


According to the expressive theory of punishment, the main function of punishment, as of law itself, is to express the values and norms of a society. To insist on certain kinds of behavior, and to disparage others. Ideally, the laws reflects the values of the people currently making up that society, as well as those tested through time, by experience and debate, from the original lawgivers (the drafters of the constitution, say) onwards. When you commit a crime, the punishment tells you and others something about how society feels about it.

When it comes to Hate Crimes, this aspect is very important: Not only do we express norms that prohibit assaults, but  we prohibit assaults motivated by, and expressing, prejudice. (In fact, a case can be made that it’s the expression of prejudice, and not its motivation, that make hate crimes worse). Even if we do not punish prejudice as such – we have other ways of expressing that norm – we punish its manifestations. And part of the motivation for doing so is to disparage prejudice as such. We could say that we punish the criminal for the hate-motivated assault, thus expressing a norm against such acts, but the punishment also sends a message against hate/prejudice in general.

Now, does hate crime legislation reflect the values of society? Are people that committed to tolerance and diversity?

The point of telling the criminal what we think is presumably linked to his/her current beliefs. So what does the hate criminal believe? What do the racists among us believe about the attitudes among the rest of us?

Legislation, government and NGO campaigning and at least some media content explicitly express commitment to diversity and resistance to racial prejudices. I take it that most ideological hate criminals realize that they are a minority, and that is part of what makes them dangerous – they are in the minority, feel threatened, disregard certain societal values and believe that they are in the right. Telling them that hate crimes wont be tolerated is hardly news, and they are unlikely to care. The expressive function, then, would be failing with regard to the criminal, but perhaps succeed with regard to the broader population.

Some racists presumably believe that, in fact, most people agree with them, even if they (we) don’t quite realize it. They blame political correctness for our current liberal and multiculturalist ”opinions”. This is very likely a persuasion that drives current populist right wing politics. They believe they only need to stir the inner racist in all of us, and that people, when it comes down to it, actually agree with them.

I’m pretty sure they are wrong about our conscious values. But are they wrong about us altogether? Among others (and more forcefully than most) the psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt argues that our prejudices are often unconscious and even at odds with what we explicitly believe. Even people who don’t associate black people, say, with criminality, tend to be primed by viewing black faces to more quickly recognize images of weapons, for instance.

If such findings reflect a broad societal phenomenon, we may ask what our values are, and how deeply committed we are to tolerance and diversity. Most of our prejudices never makes it to our conscious minds, but they still influence our judgments and behaviors. Without noticing it, tend to look for evidence that confirms our unconscious beliefs, and disregard others. This is why it is so important that even the most confirmed enlightened mind among us take a look at not only the content of their beliefs, but the inner workings of their decisions and behaviors. Most votes for the right-wing parties are not directly motivated by racism, but by the rationalizations that unconscious racism make us more likely to accept.

That a belief is unconscious does not mean that it reflects a deep fact about us. Quite the contrary – the test of whether an unconscious belief is ”truly ours” is to see what happens when it becomes conscious and tested against evidence and other beliefs. Do our conscious, considered values take precedence? Or do we adjust them to fit it our previously unconscious beliefs? What does happen when we become aware of such prejudices presumably depends on further psychological factors, but also by situational factors. Its uncomfortable to face ones failings, so perhaps there is a bit of pressure to deny that it is a failing. If people around you have a theory and a political program that incorporate your prejudice, there is some appeal in accepting that theory and that political program. It’s very important, then, that we have the means to address these prejudices when they surface, and someway to work with them.

If we are serious about our commitment to diversity and tolerance, we need to confront prejudices on all levels, and express that commitment in no uncertain terms in order to counter the populist appeal mentioned above. As has been remarked for instance by George Lakoff, liberals rarely want to address the unconscious by unconscious means. We are suspicious of such manipulation, and prefer the open and honest debate and believe that ”the truth will set us free”. But it’s much preferable when our values reflect our dispositions and emotions all the way down, when we not only believe and treat people of different races that they are equal, but instinctively react that way too. This may mean a lot more work than mere conscious conviction involves.

Does expressing our commitment to these values by enhancing punishment for hate crimes have an impact on unconscious prejudices? Or does it move our attention from the Reasons Why we should not be biased to Reasons having to do with fear of punishment? If it matters what the reason is why a criminal commits the assault, does it also matters why someone refrains from committing one? These are questions for another post.

The post doc’s dilemma

19 januari 2011 | In academia Ethics Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience politics Self-indulgence | Comments?

For the past year or so, I’ve been writing applications to fund my research. Most of these applications concerns a project that I believe holds a lot of promise. In very broad terms, it is about the relation between meta-ethics and psychopathy research. The thing about the project, which I believed was the great thing about it, is that it is not merely a philosopher reading about psychopathy and then works his/hers philosophical magic on the material. Nor is it a narrowly designed experiment to test some limited hypothesis. Both of these modi operandi (I’m sorry if I butcher the latin here) have serious flaws. The former is too isolated an affair as, unless the philosopher holds some additional degree, he/she is bound to misunderstand how the science work. The latter is too limited, in that we have not arrived at the stage where philosophically interesting propositions can be properly said to be empirically tested.

What is needed is careful theoretical and collaborative work, where researchers from the respective disciplines get together and enlighten each other about their peculiarities. This stage is often glossed over, leading to the theoretically overstated ”experiments in ethics” that have gotten so much attention lately. My research proposal, then, was deliberately vague on the testing part, but very vocal on the need for serious inter-disciplinary collaboration. Indeed, establishing such a collaboration, I believe, is the bigger challenge of the project.

Turns out, this is no way to get a post-doc funded, not here at least. There is no market for it. Possibly, I could get funding for doing the theory part at a pure philosophy department, which I could certainly do, but it would be a lot less exciting and important. Or, I could design some experiments and work at the scientific department, which I could currently not do, as I lack the training. The important work, the theoretically interesting work that I happen to be fairly qualified and very eager to perform, can’t get arrested in this town. What I thought was my nice, optimistic, promising and clearly visionary approach to what arguably will become a serious direction in both moral philosophy and psychological research, can’t get started.

I don’t want your pity (alright then, just a little bit, then). I just got a research position in a quite different project, so I’ll be alright. And hopefully, I’ll be able to return to this project later on. It just seems like an opportunity wasted.

Reaction speaks louder than words

14 december 2010 | In media Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | Comments?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but someone apparently tried to make a religious/political point by blowing up car and self nearby a busy street in the city where we live. Presumably, the intention was to kill others to, but fortunately,that didn’t go so well. Presumably, the intention was also to inspire others to do similar things, but that seems unlikely to happen. If anything, the likely outcome, the one we need to make sure becomes the actual outcome, is a near universal condemnation of the act and of the somehow moral sentiment and moral reasoning that seem to have brought it about. This needs to, and it seems that it will, come from all ”sides”.

Thus far fairly direct, no? What’s peculiar is that almost everything I read about this event, and virtually everything that’s recommended on twitter and facebook and the like, are texts about reactions to it, rather than actual reactions. We’re all at least second-order now. Someone tries to kill people on the main street in the city where we live, and the knee-jerk reaction is to go online and find out what the New York Times make of it. The reactions are the news. Just like reports on the students protests in Britain outnumber reports on what they’re protesting about. Or reports on how that favorite footballer of ours is doing is outnumbered by reports on what the Italian newspapers say about how he is doing.

Reactions are more important than the events themselves. This is no complaint. In fact, I think it’s basically a correct and sound priority. First-hand knowledge is a beautiful thing but in almost any event, it’s more important how others react to it. Because the importance of the event, almost any event, depends on, and consists in, how people react to it. If people die in an attack, that’s terrible but people die all the time: what we must live with is their absence (but most of us did that anyway), but, more importantly: with how people react to it. Whether it changes their risk assessments and perceptions of certain groups, certain areas. Whether it influences their behavior. Whether or not it is the thing people talk about when they meet. I remember not reacting very strongly to the first reports of 9/11, but was made to realize it’s importance by the sheer amount of coverage.

And sure, part of this obsession is this anxious little country’s pride over making the international news, and shame and regret over not being able to be used as the good example any longer.

Obviously, one of the most important things to assess is whether this event makes it more, or possibly less, likely to happen again. If fear is warrented, it must be because we have good reason to believe that it’s more likely. Perhaps it’s more likely than we believed it to be before, even if it is less likely than it actually was before. It is as if we think that this person broke a tabu, and believe that others like him will think that it’s now ”OK”. It’s not, obviously. And if a point was made by that person, there is now less point for someone else to make the same point.

While it is important, as I say, to condemn this sort of act and the sort of moral reasoning that inspired it in direct and no uncertain terms, it is also important to understand what the point was, and where the reasoning went wrong. It’s easy and somehow comforting to chalk it up to madness (it makes it less likely to happen again, if there is no ”reliable” mechanism by which the action is motivated), but then we pass an opportunity to understand and prevent these things happening.

On work and idleness

9 oktober 2010 | In Books Happiness research Hedonism Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 1 Comment


I’m coming to you from (blogging is live, no?) a coffee shop in Gothenburg, where I’m spending this morning preparing next weeks lectures on applied ethics. (First out is animal ethics, which I have to weave together with the ethics of abortion, since we didn’t manage to conclude that subject on friday. Luckily, this is not a hard thing to do.)

It’s a good morning. It’s a very good morning. In fact, I’ve done more work in the past two hours than I did all day yesterday. Which is good for present me, but also a bit annoying for that curmudgeon I was most of yesterday.

What it means is that if I knew how to get to this point of effectiveness, even if it took some time (in fact, if it took less than six hours), it would have been rational to spend the main part of the day doing that, and just work for two hours, rather than working at a much slower rate for eight. It would be rational for another reason to: I’ve found that the way to get to this point is to do things that are nice. Talking to friends and family, reading fiction, taking walks,  listening to music or watching television. Good television, I hasten to qualify, because it seems the assigned function of being ”relaxing” is actually not truly attributable to all, or even the majority of, TV-watching. We just think it is, because it make us tired, and then we come to believe that we really needed the relaxation in the first place.

Ideally, of course, I would spend my free time doing the things that make me work like this for the full eight (or so) work hours. But things are not, entirely, ideal. Knowing that, its important to leave your work place occasionally and be idle. Do what you feel like doing, if your conscience and work-ethic will let you. Some companies, famously Google, seem to have grasped this idea and achieve great results for that reason. Of course, this is only true if your work is such that how effectively you can do it depends crucially on your mood and creativity.

Bertrand Russell’s wonderful little essay In praise of idleness is about precisely this. People should have more time to pursue and develop their interests not only because it make them happier – and happiness is, after all, what we want them to achieve – but also because they work better if they’re allowed to do that sort of thing. The worry that the working class would be up to no good if given free time to conspire was based on the fact that as things were, they took to drink, say, or fighting when off work. But in so far that’s true, it’s because they were unhappy, and hadn’t had the time to develop worthwhile pastimes.

Stress is not primarily a consequence of having a lot to do, but a of getting nothing done, or getting less done than you imagine that you should (and having a lot to do may cause that, but need not, and should not. Extremely few of your tasks, I think you’ll find, is done better under stress).

I’ll return to those lectures now. Because I actually really like to.

A rare venture into politics

21 september 2010 | In Moral Psychology parenting politics Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

I have little or no business pretending to be initiated about politics, but here is what seems to me to be at issue in this latest election of ours:

A party with a shady past (and present) characterized by their policy to restrict immigration just made it into the parliament, getting 5,7 % of the votes. Because we (probably, not all the votes are in yet) have a minority government, this party can influence what mixture of left- and right-wing decisions gets made (but not the budget, mind). The only way to get their own points across, however, is to strike some sort of deal with the other parties. And those parties probably won’t, or they will loose all credibility. On the issues on which it’s really important that this party doesn’t have a say, they face roughly 94,3% opposition. With a parenting-analogy: they may influence what pyjamas to wear, but not whether or not to go to bed.

The party in question seems to believe that a lot of people think like they do, and want what they want, but can’t, yet, bring them selves to vote for them. The campaigns that started around the time of the election (a bit to late) are mostly about this: stating in no uncertain terms that, no, we don’t think or want what they think and want. Emphatically so. It’s not just that their politics differ on certain issues from the policy we happen to habitually support. It’s not just that we disagree about the most effective route to some common political goal. We really, truly, disagree with their views. In particular, I think, we hold that the relevant factor is not what happens to our standard of living when immigrants arrive (some of us believe that this increases, when you count properly), but what happens to theirs.

Conservatives and Socialists in this country disagree to, of course. They disagree on how people (and, consequentially, the economy) basically work. The differences in social policies is the main expression of this. But the differences seem, here at least, to be one in degree, not in kind. We disagree a bit about about how motivation and incentive works, and how the unemployed, sick and needing should be helped. Most of these differences, then, seem to regard (psychological) facts and not, really, morals, and just barely that strange in-between-beast ideology. (While it does smack of morals when you say that someone should just ”snap out of it”, the underlying question of fact is whether they can). Few people hit the streets to tell the conservatives that, say, the schools should not start grading kids earlier, because that has little or destructive effect on performance and development, or that unemployed people shouldn’t be forced into demeaning jobs, but should be given the opportunity to develop worthwhile skills in pretty much their own time. One reason we don’t often hit the street with these messages and opinions is that we don’t know those things are really, unproblematically, true.

It’s often construed as a problem that our conservatives and our socialists agree on so much, but the thing is that they agree on things that usually seem right, and the things they disagree about are usually things that seems to be pretty undecided, fact-wise. With the new party, things are different. It’s not just that they seem morally and factually mistaken, but that they also seem to be ignorant. To borrow a term and an argument from Harry Frankfurt, their policy seems to be full of bullshit: It’s not just that it is based on falsehoods, it’s that it doesn’t care about what’s true.

One factor that doesn’t count (and probably shouldn’t) in the election is the degree to which we disagree with particular other parties. While 95% didn’t vote with the left-wing party, that’s not because 95% voted against them, but that 95% found a better alternative. This new party, however, 95% probably would vote against. If we voted with a ”Rate from best to worst” scale, the outcome of the swedish general election would probably look a lot less worrying.