Thursday, June 28, 2018

"It is not mistaken to be prejudiced against cheats and liars, fanatics and demagogues"

I probably first read Russell Kirk while in high school in one of the columns he wrote about education for National Review. One summer I read The Conservative Mind. It stretched my understanding and that was good for me. Soon I was reading some of those conservative minds he had written about, especially Burke. One of Kirk's books I collected and still have is his Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (1963), a collection of short essays, many of which were first published as newspaper columns. This one is titled "Prejudices."
Like me, the several million readers of my daily column all entertain prejudices. Nor is this altogether a misfortune. Some of our prejudices are silly and perhaps harmful; but others are simply the necessary rules by which you and I live.

"Prejudice" means pre-judgment: that is, decisions we reach speedily without having to weigh much evidence. So whether our prejudices are sound or unsound depends upon the source of our deep-rooted beliefs and preferences.

Of course, one may cherish foolish prejudices against the shade of another man's skin or the color of his hair or the character of his religion. But also it is true, as Edmund Burke wrote, that by a wise prejudice a man's virtue becomes his habit.

Thus people of healthy inclinations and decent moral training nourish a prejudice against murder. When we hear that homicide has been committed, we react against it from our prejudices—and rightly so. We don't ask whether the murdered man was a good sort, or whether the murderer had pleasant manners, or whether (supposing you and I should feel like giving somebody his quietus) we might be able to get away with the act undetected. Unlike the principal character in Dostoevski's novel The Idiot, we don't rationally weigh the beneficial and baneful aspects of a particular murder, and then decide whether to take another human being's life.

On the contrary, we simply obey the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," if you and I are normal. On learning of a murder, we resolve that whatever the particular circumstances, murder is evil; and we resolve that justice must be done. A sound prejudice, acquired early in life, informs us that murder is forbidden, and ought not to be tolerated out of sentimentality.

Similarly, we are able to maintain a decent civil social order because most of us act on wise prejudices against theft and cruelty and fraud. We don't have to be forever hesitating and trying to reason about the loss or gain possibly involved in cheating or beating our neighbor. If we are good, most of us are good from moral habits. We don't have to perform a kind of moral calculus every time we are compelled to make a moral decision.

We deliberately instill desirable prejudices early in life—by spanking little boys, for instance, if they persist in kicking other little boys in the shins. Prudent parents rightfully bring up their children prejudiced against shop-lifting, window-smashing and dog-tormenting. They don't teach their offspring to inquire, "Would anybody see me hurt that puppy?" or "Would it be more fun than danger to turn the hose on Sally?"

Let me add that healthy-minded parents also endeavor to keep their children free from false prejudices. It is a matter of early discrimination. But to be reared altogether without prejudice is to be brought up irresolute and essentially immoral. It is not mistaken to be prejudiced against cheats and liars, fanatics and demagogues.