Profiling (Sam Harris is Wrong, part 6)

Sam Harris has argued in favor of profiling (in airports, for example). He explains his position: we can exclude from inspection some people who we so obviously don’t need to worry about. He even euphemistically calls it “anti-profiling.” It’s insane, he says, to search the old Chinese granny’s shoes just as vigorously as the 22 year old crazy-looking dude’s.

And we shouldn’t profile based just on behavior, he says. We shouldn’t ignore age, sex, ethnicity, race, or any other piece of outwards appearance.

Sam Harris is …. right? Maybe this is correct. Actually, profiling is quite simple to defend.

Who is more likely to be a terrorist?

This person:

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Or this person:

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Suppose you only have enough resources to search one. Which one do you spend your time searching?

Don’t lie, you know the answer.

So Sam isn’t necessarily wrong. He might be right… it’s a bit more complicated than that.

By taking this stance he is, unknowingly, rejecting certain principles, however artificial and arbitrary those principles are, that also need to be evaluated with respect to other moral issues. In other words, he’s not grappling with the full logical consequences of the belief he’s espousing.

What are the logical consequences? Here it is: if profiling is ok, then the concept of “protected classes” is a perverse political construct.

I am far from the first person to notice that the concept of “protected classes” is incompatible with “equal protections.” These terms are only disguised as compatible, like euphemisms. If all people deserve equal protection, why do we need to identify specific classes, and further, why do we need to make special rules about protection that only apply to members of those classes?

I’m not ignorant; I do know the common arguments that are used to justify this absurdity. The argument goes that certain types of people are being pulled down with the weights attached to them by the ripple affects of past and current group oppression. If that is your argument, that’s fine. But it means you can no longer support equal protection.

Fine, support affirmative action, but what you are espousing is decidedly not equal protection (if english words should have english meanings), but “more protection for people who need it more,” or special protection. I can abide perverse positions, what I cannot abide is an internally hypocritical ideology.

I am aware that there’s a way to get around this. The progressive specialty: inventing a contrived definition to confuse people.

Speaking of which, “equality” (similarity), and “diversity” (difference) are incompatible. Being the same and being different are opposites. I noticed that in the Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of the Beholder,” the tyrant used the word “equality” to refer to his clearly evil actions (purifying the world of “ugly” people by locking them away).

The tyrant was using the term “equality” in a difference sense than how progressives use it, but both attach manipulative connotations to the word (and words in general). The meanings of “equality” and “diversity” were divided into orthogonal, mutually compatible categories, and you may not have even noticed. To suit a political agenda, the definition of each word was narrowed so that they could theoretically coexist. This is how you control thought: you attach extra baggage to words and hope people don’t catch on.

And we see this in “protected classes.” We were harmed in the past, they say, so we need recuperation now.

A society that wishes to be truly equal does not behave this way; it does not engage in a form of historical bookkeeping where slights are tactically tallied up for remediation.

“But Sean,” you say, how hard is it to agree that a group has been oppressed in the past?

First, the answer is “hard;” I personally might disagree with your judgement. Ideally, laws should be based on eternal truths, not historical happenstance. Second, I hope I can convince you that it’s even more complicated than that.

Suppose the criteria for protected class is (A) something about yourself you did not choose, and (B) something discriminated against. Being of low intelligence is both genetic and discriminated against. Should low intelligence be a protected class? Can I refuse to hire someone because you perceive them as low intelligence? If not, isn’t that a contradiction in the rule? (Incidentally, it actually is illegal to not hire someone just because they’re low intelligence. If you like this state of affairs, I have no idea how to help you.)

The counter argument to me is that I am excluding a third criterion, (C): stupidity affects performance, whereas being a member of a protected class doesn’t. Or does it?

Being smart doesn’t guarantee good performance, just like having a good resume doesn’t guarantee good performance, and vice versa. And the personality vibe that you got from someone as they sat up from their chair after the interview doesn’t guarantee anything. These are all just predictors. They have predictive power: having a good resume makes you more likely to do well in the job, so you are allowed to consider it. Being smart, or educated, etc. has “predictive power.”

Everyone is always judging everyone else at every moment, if not over obvious traits like race and sex, over very subtle traits. Do these judgements have predictive power? Probably yes, or we would not have evolved the capacity to judge based on them.

Here’s the important question. Does being of a protected class have predictive power over behavioral matters? It doesn’t, only if that is built into the definition of “protected class.”

Therefore, when deciding if a group should constitute a protected class, you need to make sure that the designation (age, country of origin, etc.) has no predictive power over the whole set of behavioral items you are concerned with. I.e, men and women are exactly equally competent at any job, etc.

Whoever decides that can claim to base said determination on data and evidence, pretending it’s not entirely political. But what you’ll end up with is a human judgement call concerning the traits of groups, not a fact of nature.

At this point in the discussion, most people will accept that there is “justified” discrimination (denying someone a job as a traffic controller because they’re blind) and “unjustified” discrimination (denying someone a job as a programmer because they’re black). But in actual practice, deciding which is which is not so easy. This is just kicking the can down the road to decide things on a case-by-case basis.

It’s very difficult for our society to parse the actual reality in these matters, considering that a large number of very powerful people can’t even bring themselves to believe men are more athletically/physically capable than women. This fact should be obvious to anyone who has ever done sports in high school (or remembers gym class), but it has somehow eluded the knowledge of college professors. In such an environment, the criteria (C): the predictive power of group traits, is impossible for our government to ascertain.

You can completely avoid this conundrum by assuming that, even if the groups in question do differ, and therefore group distinctions have predictive power, we should simply behave as if they don’t. “Protected class” is a mandatory suspension of disbelief.

But if you espouse that, it is no longer justified to promote profiling in airports.

Obviously, a person’s religion, race, age, sex, and tell you how likely someone is to be a terrorist. But if we act on that information, we are forfeiting the idea that all classes of people should be treated as the same. Does Harris believe that? Yes, but I don’t know whether he would endorse the wider implications.