A Philosopher's Blog

Checking “Check Your Privilege!”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2014
Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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    The American Oligarchy

    Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 21, 2014

    Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

    One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

    While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

    What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

    Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

    The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

    The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

    As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

    It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

    One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

    One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

    The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

    Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

    This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

    Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

    A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

    Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

    Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

    Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.


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    The “Princeton Mom” & Sexual Assault

    Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2014
    Princeton University

    Princeton University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Susan Patton, better known as the “Princeton Mom”, has been making the rounds of the talk and news shows promoting her Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE book. This book presents the 18th century view that a woman should focus primarily on finding a husband and do so quickly—fertility diminishes with time.

    Patton attracted more attention with her March 11, 2014 interview with the Daily Princetonian. In a letter to the editor written about a year before the interview, she had make a rather provocative remark: “Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage” and claimed that a woman who is drunk and provocatively dressed “must bear accountability for what may happen.” When asked why the woman is responsible in the case of rape or sexual assault, she had the following to say:


     The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, ‘Well I had a green light,’ well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, ‘Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him,’ well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.


    As might be imagined, this view has generated some backlash from faculty at Princeton and other people. Given the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and such controversy can help sell books, it is not clear that the view expressed is one that Patton truly holds. However, when discussing the ethics of the content of her claims, her actual belief does not matter. As such, I will take her expressed view at face value.

    Patton’s first claim is that since the woman is most likely to be harmed, she needs to be responsible for her safety. There are at least two ways to view this claim. One is the very reasonable claim that a person needs to be responsible for her own safety—that is, a person has an obligation to herself to make sure that she is not needlessly in danger. This view that self-preservation is rational and obligatory is nicely defended by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Another way to view the claim, which is that apparently taken by her critics, is that the burden falls completely on the woman. While this is certainly a prudent view, it does run afoul of the notion that the person who wrongfully inflicts harm on another should bear the majority of the responsibility for the harm inflicted (if not all of it).

    Patton’s second claim is that a woman has an obligation to not allow herself to be incapable of self-defense. Presumably Patton means that a woman has an obligation to not become some drunk that she cannot defend herself from a man who means to assault or rape her. In defense of this claim, Patton offers her analogy: a woman who gets assaulted or raped when she is too drunk to defend herself is like someone who gets hit by a car because they did not look both ways before crossing the street—even though she had the light.

    The analogy does have some merit—while drivers are obligated to take care not to hit people, a person should take due precautions to avoid being hit. To do otherwise is clearly foolish. However, there is a distinction between what is prudent and what is morally obligatory. While it makes perfect sense that a woman should not impair herself when she has reason to believe that she will be vulnerable to assault or rape, this is a different matter than her having a moral obligation to herself to avoid being vulnerable in this way. There is also a third matter, namely who is responsible when a drunk woman is raped or assaulted.

    In regards to the second matter, this is essentially a question of whether there is a moral obligation for self-defense. It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense and for the sake of the discussion that will be assumed. This right gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be an easy victim. However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

    On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

    John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection or restraint of others rather than one’s self. However, there are arguments against this.

    I will start with a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

    This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense and this would include not intentionally making herself vulnerable to well-known threats. These threats would, sadly, include those presented by bad men. As such, a woman would have a moral obligation to avoid being vulnerable. This seems reasonable.

    The third matter is the question of moral responsibility when a drunk woman is assaulted or raped by a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability.  In the abstract, it could be argued that the woman does bear some of the responsibility—if a woman has an obligation to defend herself, she would have failed in her obligation by becoming vulnerable in this way. As with her analogy, someone who crosses the road without looking and gets hit has failed in a clear duty to herself. However, even if this point is granted, there is still the matter of who bears the majority of the responsibility.

    On the face of it, it seems evident that the man who assaulted or raped the woman bears the overwhelming moral responsibility. After all, even if the woman should have avoided being vulnerable, the man has a far greater moral obligation to not harm her. There is also the matter of reasonable expectations. To be specific, while a person is obligated to protect herself, this does not obligate her to be hyper-vigilant against all possible dangers. To use an analogy, if woman does not buy body armor to wear on campus (after all, there have been campus shooting) and she is shot by a gunman, it would be absurd to blame her for her injury or death. The blame rests on the shooter—his obligation to not shoot her vastly outweighs the extent of her obligation to be prepared.

    In the case of rape and sexual assault, while a woman should be prudent for the sake of self-protection, the overwhelming moral responsibility is on the man. That the woman makes herself vulnerable to rape or assault no more lessens the rapist’s responsibility than the fact that the woman was not wearing body armor lessens the responsibility of the shooter. The principle here is that vulnerability does not mitigate moral responsibility. This is intuitively plausible: just because a victimizer has an easier time with his victim, it hardly makes his misdeeds less bad.

    Patton does acknowledge that men should act better, but she does insist that a woman must take care of herself. This could be seen as sensible advice: a woman should not count on the goodwill of others, but be on guard against reasonably foreseeable harm. This advice is, of course, consistent with the view that the rapist is the one truly responsible for the rape.



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