In Praise of Prejudice

The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas


Theodore Dalrymple

Brief Encounters, 2007, 129 pp.  ISBN 978-1-59403-202-8



Dalrymple is a retired physician and psychiatrist who regularly saw patients in an English prison.  He is the author of several books and writes for the London Spectator.  Although claiming no religious belief, he insists that prejudices are necessary for good character and a functioning society.  It’s a fascinating little book of connected essays.


Prejudice is a premature judgment or bias or an unreasoning predilection.  To discriminate against someone because of race has become the worst of all vices.  “I very much doubt whether anyone, at least in polite company, would admit to a prejudice about anything.  To admit to a prejudice is to proclaim oneself a bigot….” (3) 


However, to be an unprejudiced person, one must subject all his presuppositions to constant re-examination and become an original thinker on every subject.  He must determine his opinion about everything on the basis of principles that are beyond doubt.  Clearly, this is impossible.  We are not a race of philosophical giants. 


We no longer have pupils.  We have students.  No one feels that anyone has the right to tell them what to do.  Therefore they are not pupils.  “A pupil is under the tutelage or direction of someone who knows what the pupil, for his own good, ought to know and learn; a student has matured to the point at which his own curiosity or ambition permit him to follow his own inclinations….”  (17) 


This change in attitude toward authority is manifested in the “failure by parents to inculcate self-control in their offspring.  And this is the result of investing their children with an authority to make choices and exercise vetoes as soon as they are able to express, or even to indicate them. … By abdicating their responsibility in this fashion, in the name of not passing on their own prejudices or preconceptions to their children, and not imposing their own view of what is right upon them, they enclose their children within the circle of their childish tastes. …in the absence of experience, children will always choose the same thing, the thing that is most immediately attractive or gratifying to them. … [This] is soon followed by arrested development.  A young child, constantly consulted over his likes and dislikes, learns that life is, and ought to be, ruled by his likes and dislikes.  He is not free of prejudices just because he is free of his parents’ prejudices.  On the contrary, he is a slave to his own prejudices.  Unfortunately, they are harmful both to him as an individual, and to the society of which he is a member.” (18-20)


“The horror of unhappy marriage, and the cruelty of the prejudice against illegitimate children and those who gave birth to them, became truths universally, and even joyfully, acknowledged. … The solution, then, was to destroy the prejudice—philosophical, social, and economic—in favor of the family structure that wrought so much harm.” 


However, “to overturn a prejudice is not to destroy prejudice as such.  It is rather to inculcate another prejudice.  The prejudice that it is wrong to bear a child out of wedlock has been replaced by the prejudice that there is nothing wrong with it at all.”  “The prejudice of centuries had been overturned, made to appear ridiculous, and replaced by another, the unedifying practical consequences of which I saw daily in my work as a doctor.”  [He means substantial populations of unemployed and purposeless mothers with children living on government welfare.  Quoted interviews with some of these mothers are very revealing in their lack of articulation and their entitlement expectations (prejudices).] (24-25)    


“A blind prejudice in favor of constituted authority has been replaced by a blind prejudice that authority, other than one’s own, is inherently illegitimate.”  “We can rid ourselves of any particular attitude to any given question, no doubt, but we cannot give up having any attitude whatsoever towards it.” (28, 29) 


“[Young teens] need first to be inculcated with useful prejudices before they can be expected to make for themselves the most fundamental (and difficult) choices in life.” (32)


Dalrymple argues that being unconventional has become a virtue in itself.  “An artist who breaks a taboo…is likely to be praised for his originality, courage, and so forth, irrespective of whether the taboo ought to have been broken, or the social effect of having done so.  The habitual breakers of boundaries are not so much objecting to any particular boundary, as objecting to the existence of boundaries as such.”  (39-40)  It has become a convention to escape convention.


The vast majority of our knowledge comes to us on the basis of authority.  “I have known from a very early age that a battle took place at Hastings in the year 1066, but I still do not know how to prove that it did.”  It is quite difficult to demonstrate for yourself almost any of the discoveries of previous generations.  We believe them on the basis of authority. 


By contrast, people tend to think that “the most important quality of an act or opinion is not that it should be right, or striving to be right…, but that it should be the person’s own. …  Many an argument about substantive matters of fact is now brought to an end by one or several of the disputants claiming, at a point of irreconcilable difference, ‘Well, my opinion is just as valid as yours.’ … Thus freedom of opinion becomes equality of opinion…”  Any opinion is equally valid, irrespective of the evidence. 


Many people have concluded that a custom is to be flouted or overthrown, not because of its content, but simply because it is a custom and therefore is deleterious.  “Here, truly, is a prejudice against prejudice.” (59)


When custom is abandoned then everything that is not illegal is acceptable.  This can result in profound social changes.  “It turns everything that is not forbidden into a right, for obviously one has the right to do what no one has the right to prohibit.  Suddenly, the world becomes filled with rights, and new ones are discovered every day. … Rights expand to meet the egos of those for whom freedom is nothing but unconstrained action. …  I want, therefore I have a right …desire is sovereign…. …the thinking goes that if a right is genuinely a right, it must be unconditional. …I have a right to play my music, it likewise cannot be abrogated by any other consideration—for example that its volume prevents my neighbor from sleeping….  Either I have a right or I don’t….”  (69-71)


“Radical individualism instills a deep prejudice in favor of oneself and one’s own ego. …  Life is conceived of as a limitless extension of consumer choice… lifestyles can be picked up as are brands of processed food, and with no deeper or more meaningful consequences. … The customer is king all right, but only of himself.” (72) 


Radical individualism leads to increasing the power of government over individuals.  Everything that is legally permissible is considered morally permissible; thus the government has to establish what is allowed.  And “if anything is addictive, prescriptive power is addictive.  Once you have it…you can never have enough of it.”  “The lack of intervening authorities, such as family, church, professional organizations, etc., accustoms us to expect, and accept, the central direction of our lives…” (74) 


The worst thing about prejudice is that it leads to discrimination.  “In the early days of my schooling, it [discrimination] meant to make a proper judgment—aesthetic, moral, and intellectual—and my teachers were possibly the last generation of pedagogues who believed that the inculcation of powers of discrimination was the noblest part of their job….”  “Accordingly, a person who did not discriminate, who was undiscriminating, was a person without taste, morality, or intellect; undiscriminating, he was likely to be indiscriminate in his behavior.  Discrimination was for these teachers the most important function of the mind; without it, truth could not be distinguished from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, or good from evil….” (75) 


“New connotations can often contaminate or overwhelm old denotations. … Hence the very act of distinguishing between higher and lower, better and worse, deeper and shallower, becomes suspect and best avoided.” (76)


“It is from social prejudice that one learns social virtue.  Metaphysical thought and reflection come later.  Nothing is easier, of course, than to demonstrate that the kind of social prejudice to which I refer can sometimes, or often, lead to terrible manifestations of bigotry and its associated cruelty. … But it is one thing to say that this or that prejudice is disgusting or extremely harmful, and another to say that we can do without prejudice altogether.  There are surgical operations often performed in the past that did more harm than good…but there is no reason why mankind should forego the life-saving advantages of surgery as a matter of principle.” (83)  “Change can be for the worse as well as for the better, and…the will to originality and to judge everything by the light of one’s own unaided opinion can be more a manifestation of a malign egotism than of a desire for truth or the good life.” (84)


“The ideal of life without prejudices, stereotypes, preconceptions, and pre-existing authority is nevertheless regarded as a proper, indeed a noble one.  Our own moral authority in everything should be our goal.”  This is the philosophy of nihilism.  “A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much the principle may be revered.” (100-01)  This is an attitude of repudiation (what would have once been called ‘spiritual pride’).  It usually turns out that a person who is against all authority is really against only some authority, that which they dislike.


“In my clinical work in England, I met large numbers of patients who were either the victims or perpetrators of terrible cruelty.”  “What I saw was human conduct as it becomes when the requirement to conform to inherited social restraints no longer exists, when it is left to the whim of individuals how to behave.  The result is an urban hell.” (105-06) 


The author had been consulted by thousands of women who had been abused by men, thousands of men who had abused women, and by not a few women who had abused men (by violence).  The most common motive was sexual jealousy.  “With the breakdown of a socially accepted structure, or script, of relations between the sexes, this jealousy has itself increased very markedly, even dramatically.”  “It proved far easier in the event to remove sexual restraint than to overcome each individual’s desire for the exclusive sexual possession of another; and it takes little effort of the imagination…to understand the result.”  “The combination of sexual predation with an insistence on the fidelity of the current sexual partner has led to violence all round.”  (107-109)


Why do women continue to fall into the clutches of men who have “abuser” written all over them?  The answer given by many such women is that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions, to judge adversely, to stigmatize, or to stereotype.  (112)  “The only ethical thing to do…is…not to pass judgment before the decision to live together.  At least then the woman can be assured that she is not acting on a prejudice or being judgmental, even if it means a broken nose and permanently terrified children.” (113) 


It is necessary and unavoidable to make statements of value.  Some espouse non-judgmentalism as a philosophy because judgment has now become synonymous with intolerance.  “Moral complacency, oddly enough, is the natural consequence of non-judgmentalism as an ideal.”  “Good and bad, beautiful and ugly, are built into the very structure of our thoughts, and we cannot eliminate them any more than we can eliminate language, or a sense of time.” (120-21) It does not follow that because some prejudices are harmful, we can do without prejudices altogether.” (125) 


“It takes judgment to know when prejudice should be maintained and when abandoned.  Prejudices are like friendships: they should be kept in good repair. … they are what give men character and hold them together.  We cannot do without them.” (126) 




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