IN PRAISE OF PREJUDICE: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas
by Theodore Dalrymple
(Encounter Books, Jackson, Tennessee)
Hardcover: 129 pages
Reviewed by Peter Madison
Where have we got the notion that prejudice is an evil? Day in and day out we hear the word uttered as an accusation, especially in political discourse, and all of us dread that it could one day be aimed at us.
There are some, however, who think this should not be. Theodore Dalrymple aims at saving the reputation of prejudice in his latest book, In Praise of Prejudice. In what amounts to a collection of distinct but related short essays, Dalrymple sets out to persuade us that prejudice, defined as a “preconceived opinion” or “unreasoning predilection”, is not only absolutely unavoidable in nature, but also in many cases the basis of good character. In attacking the “strong prejudice against prejudice” (p1) we now see everywhere, he produces brilliant arguments from reason and experience.
This little book is a long overdue response to a bad idea used by many as a justification for bad behaviour. Many in modern society look back to the ideas of Descartes and Mill, both men of good morals and intellectual honesty, and employ their philosophical scepticism as a kind of halberd to fend off anyone who would change their selfish behaviour.
Dalrymple explains the popularity of Cartesian doubt regarding anything that cannot be deduced from certain premises: “It is not the consequence of a desire to remove metaphysical doubt, and find certainty, but precisely the opposite: to cast doubt on everything, and thereby increase the scope of personal licence, by destroying in advance any philosophical basis for the limitation of our own appetites.” (P6)
We see examples of this everywhere. There are people who are happy enough to assume that the sun will rise tomorrow without demanding proof of heliocentrism, but if you suggest to them, for example, that it is bad to get blind drunk every Saturday night as they do, they are suddenly very eager to show you the shaky philosophical grounds you stand on by so challenging them: “Who says?”, “What difference does it make to you?”, “What’s wrong with it if it’s not hurting anyone”, “But why?” (regressus ad infinitum).
As long as they can maintain that a moral claim is dubious in the slightest, they can behave as they like. This is the value of scepticism. The same abuse of philosophy has been used to undermine the many valuable prejudices we once held in favour of monogamy, procreation, patriotism and basic manners, to name a few.
Dalrymple is well qualified to argue the case that he does. Apart from being a contributor to The Spectator, he spent many years as a doctor working in English prisons. In other words, he is not only a man who has been well versed in ideas and scientific reasoning, but he is also one who has seen the harsh realities of human life. He has seen people ruined by bad ideas, either in the loss of life or the loss of liberty. In many cases, his patients justified their foolish or selfish actions with the scepticism described above.
In Praise of Prejudice presents many arguments to show that prejudice is not necessarily bad, is sometimes good, and is in any case unavoidable. Some of these arguments come from common sense. Others appeal to more complex philosophical reasoning. On the whole, they are good arguments, and here are some of the best.
That we must go through life holding no prejudices whatsoever is an argument that, even in its clearest and most cogent presentation, is fundamentally flawed. Dalrymple points the finger at John Stuart Mill as the author of this prejudice against prejudice, which the philosopher delineated in his hugely influential work, On Liberty. Mill, it must be remembered, was raised by a highly eccentric father, who was determined to bring his son up on utilitarian principles to be a wholly rational man who would only ever do what brought the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In spite of suffering a nervous breakdown under the weight of this expectation, Mill retained much of his father’s idealism. Furthermore, Mill lamented the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling”; that is, the effect on an individual’s mind of peer pressure, customs, the values of wider society and so on. It would be much better if everyone formed each and every judgement according to his own reasoning.
It is here, Dalrymple contends, that Mill faltered, in imagining that a human being is actually capable of this: “The vast majority of men … cannot go through life as if it were a long series of intellectual and moral puzzles. If it were, and if we took them seriously, most of us would end up starving like Buridan’s ass, who, perfectly equidistant between two piles of hay, could not decide which way to turn.” (P46)
One prejudice is always replaced by another. As Dalrymple puts it: “To overturn a prejudice is not to destroy a prejudice. It is rather to inculcate another prejudice.” (P25)
This is certainly true. Proceed on along the lines drawn by Mill and you will end up where you started: “A philosophy that sets out to destroy the influence of custom, tradition, authority, and prejudice does indeed destroy particular customs, traditions, authorities, and prejudices, but only to replace them by others.” (P72)
Dalrymple cites many examples, but we do not have to look beyond the current Australian situation to find our own. There used to be a prejudice in Australian society in favour of monogamous heterosexual relationships, entered into permanently, for the sake of having children. Some people may have thought it over before deciding that this was a good institution, but for many, if not a majority, this was simply a beneficial prejudice that they held because of the time and place they lived in.
Now this prejudice has gone, but only to be replaced by another. It is now the prevailing opinion, very rarely arrived at by a rational process, that all sexual relationships are equal. We see in the Safe Schools Coalition program a whole generation of children being inculcated with this prejudice.
A second example. It was once common for people of European descent to hold a prejudice in favour of their own race, and to be somewhat more conscious of the achievements of white civilisation than of others. This, at least among the social elite, has now been replaced by a prejudice against whites, the destroyers of indigenous populations, the legislators of oppressive laws, the proselytes of the Christian religion (also evil, in their view).
Dalrymple does in fact make a comical allusion to the fact that when Keith Windschuttle presented strong evidence against the genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines, he was denounced: “It was clear that a sector of, if not the entire, Australian intelligentsia actually wanted there to have been a genocide.” (p15) Such is the current prejudice.
In Praise of Prejudice, written as a series of essays in clear, concise prose interspersed with flashes of brilliant wit, demonstrates compellingly that prejudice has its place in our lives. Not all prejudices are bad, some are good, and prejudice of some kind is at any rate inevitable. We can see the damage to our civilisation done by our modern “prejudice against prejudice”, and Dalrymple proves that it is in our best interests to remedy this.