THR Web Features   /   November 5, 2014

Prejudice and Place

B.D. McClay

9780674726840-lgAdam Sandel of Harvard University gave a lecture last Friday, “The Place of Prejudice,” adapted from his recently published book of the same title. His argument put briefly is that the removal of prejudice from human judgment was an Enlightenment project that has robbed us of the ability to reason “within the world.”

To disclose my own prejudices: I went in and came out a skeptic. I do not consider prejudice particularly worth defending and I am often suspicious of ideological genealogies that begin with the assumption that Francis Bacon and René Descartes burst onto the scene in the seventeenth century and ruined everything, a narrative that Sandel leans upon pretty heavily.

But my other, bigger problem with “The Place of Prejudice” is that under the name of “prejudice” it groups together all manner of things and excises those that we do think of when we hear the word “prejudice.” Not defended here are racism, misogyny, ethnic stereotyping, homophobia, and other assorted forms of prejudice. Defended instead is “any source of judgment whose validity we have not explicitly examined and justified,” such as “tradition, habit, custom, and upbringing…[and]…our natural desires.”

Are these things really prejudices? Insofar as they are received and unconsidered, perhaps. But a habit, something acquired by a person over time, seems different from a received tradition. And “our natural desires” is so wide a concept that it’s difficult to place. Our natural desires toward—what? Which natural desires? And so on.

Sandel attributes his definition of prejudice to Immanuel Kant, and particularly Kant's 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” But Kant’s essay is not really so simple as a blanket condemnation of any opinion previously received. It’s a condemnation of opinions received without any critical reflection:

If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me. That by far the greatest part of humankind…should hold the step toward majority to be not only troublesome but also highly dangerous will soon be seen to by those guardians who have kindly taken it upon themselves to supervise them; after they have made their domesticated animals dumb and carefully prevented these placid creatures from daring to take a single step without the walking cart in which they have confined them, they then show them the danger that threatens them if they try to walk alone.

Kant was, after all, dubious that it would be possible to create a kind of reasoning free of the human perspective, informed by ways of understanding the world that are in the end beyond our control. As Kant points out later in the essay, we are all stuck in the details of our circumstances: a citizen is obligated to pay taxes, an officer to obey orders. But those taxes and those orders should be criticized even as they are paid and obeyed. Traditional obligations should neither be automatically obeyed nor immediately discarded; they should be understood and subject to reflection (and to change, if necessary).

In these reflections, Kant is not so much destroying particular experience as engaging in the same philosophic tradition that can be seen in Plato’s Meno, where the point of the conversation is to begin with certain human experiences and assumptions and attempt to rise above them toward an understanding of the world. This tradition relies on and assumes that we have particular perspectives on the world; it just don't stop there. And if one accepts that bad prejudices exist, then Sandel is not really disagreeing with Kant or Bacon or even Descartes, because he agrees we ought to consider why we think what we think.

Finally, if by “prejudice” Sandel means “subjective understanding,” then I’m not entirely sure it needs defending. It's certainly true that we are concerned with removing prejudices from situations that require rule-administering judgment or justice—in his lecture, Sandel used the examples of umpires, test-grading, and jury-selection—but that we desire to remove prejudice, as Sandel understands it, from every walk of life seems more questionable. We live in the golden age of the memoir, the confessional piece, and the thinly-veiled autobiography. In academia, feminist theory and critical race theory both rely on the primacy of certain situated experiences.

A lecture of a book is, of course, doomed to touch upon its subjects only incompletely. It's entirely possible that these objections are discussed thoroughly in the book itself. As it was, though, I left with my skepticism intact—and my prejudices, too.

B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.

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