Posts tagged prejudice

Column on Good Bye to Reason?

Good Bye Reason?

Tibor R. Machan

“Every one of us has our perceptions filtered by the thousands of stories and assumptions and rituals that constitute our culture. Every one of us has held beliefs that seemed self-evidently accurate but were actually contingent elements of the time and place that produced us. This is true not just of the people reading this article, but of every person, in every era, who has been capable of perceiving anything at all. You can stretch those perceptions, expose yourself to new worldviews, learn new things, but you’ll always be embedded in a cultural matrix….”

This passage comes from the managing editor of Reason Magazine, which I helped launch back in 1970 and which set out to be a corrective to our society’s widespread embrace of various versions of subjectivism and relativism. The passage exemplifies just such a viewpoint, whereby no one is capable of objectivity and everyone is caught in some set of preconceptions.

The aspiration at Reason had been to further the cause of using our reasoning powers so as to avoid being caught in the traps of prejudice, hasty generalization, bias, preconception, and the like, all of them foes of getting it right about the world. Indeed, some had argued even back then that prejudice is inevitable, we are all afflicted by it no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. Racists were particularly fond of this line of thinking since it would have served them well had it been sound. Who can help but be prejudiced? No one, just as the passage above indicates.

Of course, there is that famous problem with such an outlook of being hoisted on its own petard. After all, if we are all “embedded in a cultural matrix” no matter how carefully we consider evidence, argument, facts, etc., then the passage itself would be no more than a declaration of the author’s own prejudice about, well, prejudice!

Of course, there is a great deal of prejudicial thinking afoot everywhere since human beings aren’t automatically careful in how they see the world. Many do permit their tastes, preferences, biases, wishes, and the like to dictate how they will understand the world, including–and some would argue, especially–themselves. That is supposedly one reason for getting a decent education, studying logic and scientific methods, and getting a clear head before undertaking difficult, challenging tasks. That is why those who care about the outcome of their investigations try hard to overcome powerful emotions that might intrude, including their hopes and agonies.

No one in his right mind can claim that it is easy to be objective, to overcome all the likely obstacles to thinking clearly. All those devices in the sciences, natural or social, by which one tries to secure a reliable, dependable picture of the world, are designed to stave off the evident enough threat of tainted judgments. And not all of us succeed, that is for sure.

However, some do, which is fortunate for us all since otherwise one couldn’t have any confidence in any of the work done in the fields that attempt to understand the world. The claim that it is all hopeless is, of course, an ancient one. It is advanced at various levels of sophistication. Perhaps the most impressive skeptical view comes to us from the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant who didn’t so much hold that we are all biased, all the time, but that whether we are or are not isn’t something we can ascertain. We might be right but we will never be able to tell since in order to tell, we would need to overcome the kind of obstacles listed in the paragraph from Reason Magazine. And that is impossible.

Kant was mistaken, however, mainly because he held the odd view that the human mind instead of being an instrument for coming to know things is, in fact, a source of interference. That is like saying that the spoon we use to eat our soup is an obstacle to proper eating, not a means to it. Or that our eyes are not organs that enable us to see but ones that stand in the way of pure seeing.

The discussion will, no doubt, go on as long as there are people around to think of ways to make the case pro or con. However, I am sad that one effort to put in a solid, unyielding defense of our capacity to think objectively, namely Reason Magazine, now seems to be managed by someone who finds the effort futile.

Positive Externalities of Riches

Positive Externalities of Riches

Tibor R. Machan (from my archives)

Although I came to America as a poor immigrant and after leaving home at 18 became dirt poor, with no family support, I have also been fortunate as well as industrious enough to do reasonably well in my life. From the start it seemed to me that a chance such as I faced (namely, to make my way in the country of nearly every poor foreigner’s dreams) demanded the best effort on my part, lest I blow it. Not that everything went smoothly but all in all I got nearly all I set out to obtain, including a superb education, a career that could be many people’s envy, wonderful children, a great deal of travel, some of the best friends one could ask for, and at least a tolerable economic life that sustains me well enough albeit by no means in luxury.

What all this leads me to suggest is that clearly there are many who are far more prosperous than I, even if I doubt that too many have enjoyed the degree of happiness I have been fortunate to experience thus far. Still, I could easily benefit from having a good deal more money, pretty much like everyone else. Yet, I have never felt envy in my life. Somehow the sight of greater wealth on the part of others has never lead me to desire to exchange their lives for mine. Nor, especially, have I ever felt ill will toward those who are rich. On the contrary, I have been thoroughly pleased that the very rich are with us. And there are some good reasons for my pleasure with them, even if I can barely think of myself in their shoes.

For one, the rich remind me that if I wanted to aspire to be one of them, I would have a decent chance at it. I know some rich people and some of these started nearly as low if not lower on the economic ladder as I did. But they wanted to be well off and found a way to do this while also gaining satisfaction from their work. I know some people who are millionaires, a few who probably have a billion or so, and in each case I know that the way movies or sitcoms or pulp novels depict them is grossly inaccurate. None of these folks is mean or greedy or amoral, quite the opposite. I know that if I had wanted to concentrate my energies on securing wealth and great prosperity–e.g., by means of expertise in finance or corporate management–I could have given that a decent shot, with not too bad a chance at success.

Another reason I welcome the existence of the rich in our society–near enough to the lives of my family and friends to witness what their lives are like – is that without them we and millions of others would scarcely have a chance to occasional luxury, a taste of the finer aspects of nourishment, entertainment, decoration, art and culture in general.

Who but the rich sustain good restaurants? Who but the rich make fine porcelain or jazz clubs or beautiful rugs or fancy furniture, not to mention stunning architecture and enthralling theater possible? I cannot afford to support artists, musicians, actors, great chefs, and the other people who create and produce some of the marvelous features of our culture, nor can my equally middle level and poor income earning friends. But once in a blue moon we all manage to go to a great French restaurant, an art gallery, a neighborhood where fashionable estates are located, or a shopping center that features exquisite merchandise.

It is wonderful to go to an elegant mall such as those strewn about in the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and other areas of the country where these businesses can count on enough wealthy folks to sustain them. I, and others like me would not be able to support elegant ocean cruisers, superb automobiles, and great sports events such as Wimbledon or the America Cup. But there are those who can and I, for one, am extremely glad for that.

This is one of the reasons–although not the main one–for my distress about the kind of rich bashing that is so common in our culture. I find it disgusting how the envious among us would rather destroy the rich than witness the gap between their own modest economic status and that of the very wealthy. It is especially loathsome how so many American politicians, who ought to know better, gladly capitalize on this envy and persist on using the rich as a scapegoat of their own unwillingness to do the right thing, namely, concentrate on defending us from foreign and domestic aggressors and leave us be to fend for ourselves in peace, however much economic disparity this may generate–far less, incidentally, than is generated in societies where politicians try to even things out and run the country to the ground.

Of course, the first thing to be said about the rich is that they have every right to seek their kind of life, so long as they do this in peace. But there is also this point, namely, that their existence is of enormous benefit to the rest of us, not just in jobs and national wealth (especially in times when, unlike now, politicians haven’t mucked things up) but in keeping culture at a level that is there for all of us to enjoy, to save up for a bit of luxury once in a while, even if we do not wish to live as some of them are, namely, in persistent pursuit of abundance.