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Post No.: 0575arbitrary


Furrywisepuppy says:


The circles we’re obliged to cause no harm to (i.e. everyone) are different to the circles we’re virtually obliged to actively jump to the aid of if needed (e.g. family, extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers who are right in front of us, neighbours, locals). Consequently, most of us accept a bit of discrimination rather than strictly ‘treating everybody the same’.


We’re not expected to harm anybody but are expected to help family first, although not exclusively. There are exceptions, like not favouring a biological parent who was never there for you over an adoptive parent who was. But it’s complicated. Are you obliged to turn in a family member if you know they committed a terrible crime? Can we hurt other people to save our own kin?


People fall into many different types of groups according to their proximity, age, gender, ethnicity, etc.. But how we define and put people into groups can be arbitrary e.g. someone can be simultaneously ‘too white to be black’ and ‘too black to be white’ or something similar. Because of this arbitrary nature, some suggest that it’s indeed immoral to treat any group above or at least exclusively over others. As we learn more about morality, our circles expand to include ever more people and possibly other creatures too; albeit it cannot include every single living thing because that’ll impact on us e.g. deciding to not even eat plants, or saving embryos versus female abortion rights. So the dilemmas of arbitrary group boundaries present yet another set of line-drawing problems in ethics and morality.


The stereotypes we form about people more easily fall along the dimensions of age, gender and/or race – if we forget who said/did what, we’re more likely to misattribute it to another person of the same age, gender and/or race e.g. a referee mistakenly showing the red card to someone of the same skin colour. Okay, differentiating people by age or gender makes sense because it helps to recognise who might be our caregivers, teachers or potential mates – but why race?


Race is probably a (awfully crude) proxy for determining whether someone might be from a rival tribe. But when there are greater coalitional groupings, these can swamp lesser ones e.g. if people are presented wearing different basketball jerseys, people will now, if a mistake is made, largely mistake people according to who are wearing the same jersey rather than by who have the same skin colour – one coalitional grouping (the sports team one supports in this case) can replace or swamp another because it’s considered relatively more important in a tribal sense.


Experiments have shown that babies are born with an innate bias to differentiate according to age or gender – but babies aren’t born with an innate bias to discriminate according to race i.e. this must be picked up later in life. They may better recognise and prefer to look at faces from their own race – or more accurately whoever they’ve been raised by, seen the most and are most familiar with, who’ll likely be people of the same race – but they’ll accept a toy from, say, a white or black person equally. Even who speaks the same language, and then accent, is more important than race to babies. Racial discrimination therefore appears to be learnt rather than innate, possibly due to the surrounding culture and/or the lack of personal exposure to diversity when young. Woof.


Later in life, people might group themselves according to all sorts of arbitrary factors. If a classroom of pupils is split into two based on either an arbitrary coin toss or the arbitrary whim of a teacher, so that one group wears red tops and the other wears blue – these pupils will end up favouring their own group and deprecate outgroups based on such arbitrary factors like the colours of their tops. Our coalitional groupings (allies or enemies) matter quite strongly – but they can be completely arbitrary.


Stereotypes can efficiently aid our survival because we don’t need to have seen an exact version of something to have some kind of statistical chance to know what it is and what it might do. Some genuine patterns do exist e.g. a red fruit means ripe and nutritious to eat, or someone can suddenly behave kindly towards us because they’re seeking a favour or forgiveness for something; so these heuristics help in a world where we’re constantly meeting new things or events, and they work for the most part.


But they’re at times dangerously fallible e.g. holly berries can make us very sick, or someone can be kind to us without an agenda or still behave badly towards us despite doing something wrong. Historical patterns are useful but they shouldn’t override seeking evidence for the present case.


Errors in the generalisations we perceive can also result from ‘rubbish data in, rubbish conclusions out’ – such as when exposed to propaganda or misinformation about an outgroup, or a skew in the samples we’ve personally experienced e.g. having only ever met four Pomeranians, and all of them were pie-eyed drunk.


These are problems that can be encountered in the field of machine learning too i.e. stereotypes, or heuristics in general, are here to stay for their computing efficiency, even though on the odd occasion they’re going to produce errors – possibly catastrophic errors. Artificial machines are beginning to compute, or think, more like biological machines in many ways, for better or worse e.g. seeing patterns that don’t really exist, or faces that aren’t really there.


If we understand and remind ourselves that generalisations are just generalisations, rather than believe that ‘all people from country x are y’ for instance, then they’re useful. Failing to understand this is where people go wrong. This might be down to media distortions or whether a certain group is now considered an ally or enemy. In some cases, our over-generalisations can be wildly incorrect yet persistent, including many of those spawned by our nationalistic affiliations or wherever the concerted spread of propaganda is prevalent.


Stereotypes can be harmful, not just because of individuals receiving prejudice but also because they can set negative self-fulfilling prophecies in young minds and foment anxious and threatening feelings in them for being discriminated against in their own communities. Being labelled as ‘inferior’ can make one not try something ambitious because ‘what’s the use?’ and can even cause one to culturally view one’s own group as truly inferior (which clashes against the more innate bias where people tend to think that their own ingroups are superior). Some people can even overtly mock their own type e.g. a ginger-haired male mocking a baby by jesting, “I bet you he’s going to be ginger”, as if that’s anything remarkable to try to make a funny assertion about even if true.


We must note though that some self-fulfilling prophecies can be positive. However, when it comes to positive stereotypes and positive discriminations of this type, these can seem harmless – but they’re the other side of the same coin of negative stereotypes and negative discriminations. It’s like a company claiming to ‘really think that all men are great rather than all women are useless’ and they ‘really like employing men as board members rather than having anything against women per se’(!)


The ‘model minority’ stereotype is a myth because all ethnic groups are internally diverse rather than monolithic. So don’t be surprised if some East Asians are poor at mathematics or don’t know martial arts. We might assume that high expectations are always helpful but they add pressure on those who can’t meet them or wish to be less conformist.


Equality, at least based on factors like gender and ethnicity, should be the goal. However – perhaps a temporary application of ‘affirmative action’ for groups who’ve been historically negatively discriminated against is necessary to rebalance these injustices. But we must eventually seek the absence of any kind of arbitrary discrimination otherwise it’ll be some people being ‘more equal than others’.


Post No.: 0558 was about treating individuals as individuals. Even if a stereotype is fairly accurate – unless it’s 100% accurate i.e. it applies to every single individual in that group, it can create individual injustices. Hence a dilemma regarding criminal profiling, where the societal costs arguably outweigh the benefits. Even when people consciously believe they’re not biased, an implicit-association test (IAT) might reveal that they are at a subconscious or unconscious level, and this might mean a police officer is quicker to shoot a black man with an unknown object in his hand than a white man with an unknown object in his hand. So-so CVs from applicants with ‘white-sounding’ names are more likely to be accepted than so-so CVs from applicants with ‘black-sounding’ names when they’re being quickly scanned and judged during one’s busy day. People are less likely to stop to help a black compared to a white person in a ‘bystander effect’ situation when there are lots of other people passing by. And people are more likely to buy goods when they’re presented with a white hand holding them, rather than a black hand, in adverts.


These are judgements where fractions of a second can matter. (IATs as tests for implicit biases have been criticised for their low reliability and validity though; although this doesn’t criticise the existence of subconscious or unconscious biases – only that test for it. Being under the influence of drugs that make people less inhibited, which reduces a person’s ability to self-censor their raw thoughts, could perhaps reveal the extent of a person’s implicit racial biases; but such experiments are trickier to conduct.)


Trying to block out these arbitrary biases with conscious endeavour is effortful, it requires self-control (which might have a limited capacity) and it presumes our ‘system two’ will be alert at every waking moment rather than mostly in a low-power ‘standby’ mode; thus this strategy is largely unreliable. Therefore arguably the best way to counter them is to nudge or put systems in the environment that counteract them, like diversity quotas based on the diversity of the overall population (this would be fairer than believing that ‘they’re taking our jobs’), or getting someone else to hide all of the racial clues (e.g. photographs, names) before assessing job applicants. Diversity quotas based roughly proportionally on the diverse mix of the population don’t favour minorities – or if minority members are said to be only getting jobs because of diversity quotas then that could also be said of majority members too, who’ll get the most representation whether they deserve this on merit or not(!)


Good intentions and the force of will are typically, and evidently, inadequate – we should use our adaptability to reshape the environment, such as via laws, constraining options or incentivising others, in order to allow us to overcome or side-step the gut feelings and desires that work against us (just like a ban on high-sugar snacks in the house if we want to stop eating them in the house). So nudging or engineering systems in the environment that guide us towards making more moral decisions is probably the best way to counteract our moral shortcomings in any situation because we cannot rely on our lazy system twos.


Woof! Some assert that quotas can be badly implemented and alone aren’t enough e.g. minority members get jobs, but low-position ones. Some minority members may be made to feel less competent too, as if they need special help to succeed. So we need to watch out for these kinds of unintended side-effects. But they’re not negative discrimination against majority members. Diversity initiatives are in fact trying to correct any negative discriminations and systemic disadvantages against anyone, to level the fairness e.g. if girls and boys in school are roughly equal when it comes to their STEM grades, yet overwhelmingly far more men are in top engineering jobs – even before women settle down to start a family – then something doesn’t quite seem right.


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