About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

What's the matter with racial profiling,with a note on torture

Living in New York City these days I hear a lot about racial profiling. The NY Police Department undoubtedly engages in it (data recently released by the Department itself – after much recalcitrance – clearly support that conclusion), and yet also vehemently denies it. This isn't just a Big Apple quirk, since law enforcement agencies all over the country, involved both in domestic and anti-terrorist activities, have repeatedly gotten themselves into trouble with civil libertarians on this issue.

The problem with racial (or other kind of “type”) profiling is that it both works and is unethical. From a purely statistical perspective, if the police knows that, say, drivers of red sport cars are more likely to exceed the speed limit or engage in dangerous driving than the rest of us, then it makes sense for the police to keep a particularly watchful eye on drivers of red sport cars, i.e., it is reasonable to engage in profiling. Analogously, and I know this is highly politically incorrect, it is a matter of verifiable fact that young black men are (for a complex series of sociological reasons) more likely to engage in drug dealings than any other gender/ethnicity combination. Which means that non-randomly stopping young black men is, from the police standpoint, a perfectly rational way to deter and prevent crime.

However, in an open society, profiling of any sort – no matter how effective – is a breach of the fundamental principle that all our citizens have the same rights and ought to be treated equally by the law. To make exceptions, for whatever reason, is tantamount to undermining civil society itself, beginning the slide toward fascism.

This slide has of course been well underway since the Bush administration started its oxymoronic “war on terrorism” (terrorism, like cancer or poverty, isn't the sort of thing one wages wars against). Interestingly, a popular TV show, 24 (produced, of course, by the inane Fox-TV) seems to be helping Bush & co. in their endeavor to make fascist practices such as profiling and, much more troubling, torture, acceptable to American citizens. A recent article in The New Yorker reports how the writers and producers of 24 constantly present torture as a “necessary” evil in the war on terror, depicting “American heroes” as willfully engaging in it to help prevent catastrophes like an atomic bomb going off in downtown Los Angeles.

The case of torture, however, is different from that of profiling, for the simple reason that intelligence experts agree that it doesn't work, thereby being both immoral and ineffective. People under torture largely react in one of two ways: they are either strengthened in their resolve not to divulge the information one is seeking (after all, these are fanatical nuts, and if the bomb is about to explode, all they need to do is to hold on for a few hours or days and they'll be heroes and martyrs), or they will talk but give either already known or entirely false information. Airing a show like 24 is, of course, within the rights of any entertainment channel, and I am most certainly not calling for censure here. However, let the Fox people not hide under the thin defense that “it's just television,” because disturbing evidence from military commanders shows that our soldiers not only watch the show (which is, not surprisingly, very popular at the White House), but come away from it thinking that the techniques shown there are perfectly reasonable and effective. Fox doesn't have a legal responsibility to stop, but it does have a moral one.


  1. "Fox doesn't have a legal responsibility to stop, but it does have a moral one."

    The "law of value" infect all media and nobody (from media at least) who makes much money from something seems to be disposed to think in moral responsibilities. Very bad from companies that should help to develop people's rational thinking.

  2. I am, as you know, REALLY suspicious of anything Fox does whether it appears to target conservatives in some of it's programming or not.

    Their programming often contains, as best as I can describe it, mixed messages. And I, even as conservative, often am just not interested in whatever sensational thing it is that they are drumming into peoples minds this week.

    My husband watches 24 sometimes. I believe that a friend suggested that he might think it interesting. So I have asked him from time to time, "why is someone always being tortured or beat up on this show?" What is it that the writer, producer or owner of FOX is really trying to get across here?

    Is he trying to enhance the image that this is really what conservatives are all about? Or and also to reinforce it in their minds?

    Frankly I don't like the show at all. I KNOW that there is something wrong with the structure of the story lines. But then, I don't like series (or TV)anyway.


  3. Cal, is this the first time we actually agree on something? :)

  4. 1. What else would one expect from the fascist news channel?

    2. Torture is ineffective in extracting useful information from a suspect. However, it is very effective in extracting false confessions. Just ask John McCain.

  5. Massimo,

    I am not sure if the show helps Bush or not. I have never had enough patience to watch a whole episode all the way through to be honest. I just know that even listening to the shows dialog from another room raises my stress level.

    And we probably didn't disagree because we didn't approach the racial profiling issue.

    Am I wise to ruin that fleeting agree-ability or not? :)

    MP "However, in an open society, profiling of any sort – no matter how effective – is a breach of the fundamental principle that all our citizens have the same rights and ought to be treated equally by the law."

    Then you have a radically unscientific approach here. If our society managed disease control this way we would all consider it highly irresponsible. If known pathogens are contagious, we automatically know well enough to categorize them keep it away from the population.

    Categories and stats don't bother much when it pertains to bacteria tho, because of course they so seldom raise emotional arguments against their treatment or segregation.

    It is a total shame that some races have been given the green light to think that it is alright to live anyway you want and let society pay for your actions, (Bill Cosby is all over this issue as far as African Ams are concerned),but knowing that this is thought and practiced by some people doesn't mean that everyone who isn't of that race should withdraw any form of judgment whatsoever. That would just be stupid.

    Equal rights mean something if all is equal. Today, however, some people groups will simultaneously get both the worst and best treatment in our society just based on their race alone.


  6. Cal,

    yup, you just ruined our admittedly fragile truce:

    "Then you have a radically unscientific approach here. ... If known pathogens are contagious, we automatically know well enough to categorize them keep it away from the population."

    Given the context (racial profiling), this is one of the most shamelessly racist comments I've heard in a long time. Are you comparing blacks to pathogens??

    And by the way, you (obviously) missed my main point: when it comes to ethical issues, rationality cannot be the only guide (despite the title of this blog), because fairness doesn't necessarily maximize society's advantage. We are not bees, you know...

  7. "Cal, is this the first time we actually agree on something? :)" -Massimo Pigliucci

    That's possible. Or it could be the first time someone listed as anonymous wrote "cal" after the last paragraph. :)

  8. I'm not sure such an emotive-subjectivist stance on moral problems works. After all, how to we recouncil differences on moral problems if there's a large gap in two people's own emotions on an issue? Take, for instance, the divide between (many) nontheists and (many) theists on abortions.

  9. "Given the context (racial profiling), this is one of the most shamelessly racist comments I've heard in a long time. Are you comparing blacks to pathogens??"

    When I think of racism the first thing that usually comes to my mind are German white supremacists. Will it be just fine as long as I stick to criticizing my own race? Of course, there are other people groups of different shades and hues that are equally problematic.

    essentially one could criticize any race, be pretty much correct in their assessment, but if it doesn't seem like "I" am placing my interests beneath theirs it always going to look wrong to some people.

    You KNOW that I am not racist, M.

    I don't like, for starters, (of course) how the Germans treated the Jews and other races that they thought less fit.

    who really knows what fitness means anyway?

    So preventing something like the 'final solution' from going forward would have certainly been like stopping a plague. And if we are certain that a similar mentality is present in the breadth of Muslim thought, how exactly do YOU intend to decide how much surveillance (racial profiling) is applicable or necessary ?


  10. Can someone post a link to an expert or other source that says that torture is not effective? The arguments SOUNDS right to me, but I'd like to hear it from someone who knows.

  11. Stephen,

    the article in The New Yorker linked from the post cites specific experts claiming that torture doesn't work. Of course, I expect it will be difficult to find controlled experiments in the literature.

    Besides, that's actually beside the point: in an open society torture isn't admissible even if it did work (the US has signed an international treaty to that effect).

  12. Massimo,

    As I read Cal's first post, I first wondered what the hell bacteria have to do... Then as I finished I had the impression that maybe she was saying that some groups choose to live in a way that spreads diseases. Was that it, Cal? Because that was that only remotely logical connection I could deduce. But I haven't heard of blacks (or whomever) being more prone to spread some disease than others, so I'm lost here. Well, they might have a higher incidence of sickle cell anemia, but that's another story altogether... :-)


  13. "When as I finished I had the impression that maybe she was saying that some groups choose to live in a way that spreads diseases."

    What would the world be like today for instance, if there had been no holocaust? Don't you imagine that such a deep and pervasive hatred has roughly the same effect as a 'plague'? Do you understand the correlation between such severe hatred and a disease that should be quarantined?

    unfortunately, some prominent Germans still don't get it.

    "Yad Vashem lambasted a group of visiting German Catholic bishops on Tuesday for comparing the situation in the Palestinian territories with the Holocaust, calling the contentious remarks "political exploitation and demagoguery" and a gross distortion of history.

    "Making analogies between the mass murder that was part of the plan to annihilate the Jewish people, carried out under the German Nazi regime and the current situation in Ramallah, and using words whose rhetorical power is immense, does nothing to help us understand what is going on today; such words only further poison the atmosphere making it that much more difficult to find workable solutions to deeply entrenched and thorny problems."



  14. (1) Suppose a red-headed man driving a blue getaway car has just, for complex sociological reasons, murdered several people.

    Must police continue to treat all red-headed men driving blue cars in the area just like everyone else?

    (2) Suppose we had an airport security machine which could infallibly detect explosives being carried on the person, and that it could be used completely surreptiously, but that it was very expensive to use, and thus its use had to be strictly rationed.

    Should we just use it randomly, or concentrate on Muslims?

  15. First off, racial profiling has nothing to do identifying particular perpetrators. A description of a particular person including her pedegree is both valuable for effective policing and a democratic society.

    Racial profiling involves crossing an unacceptable line, in a democracy, where "potential" law breakers are identified by classifications which reinforce further victimization of minorities (or others).

    During the period following the events of 9-11 we posted officers, on overtime, at a very large number of corners, some with exposed machine guns. The crime rate dropped precipitiously.

    While it did little to deter terrorism it clearly changed street criminal behaviors. Are we willing, as a society, to live under this for long periods of time to lower street crime rates?

    The fact that racial profiling is still pervasive in NYC despite the protests only proves that certain practices are permitted when those who are negatively affected are politically powerless to stop it.

    There are other examples of where, as a society, we have values stronger than just catching criminals (e.g. the exclusionary rule and statutes against police brutality).

  16. Like another reader I would also like to know where you found the information about torture being ineffective. Which issue of the New Yorker was it, and who were the experts.

    I have previously been kind of against torture but often made reservations when it comes to extreme cases (e.g. bomb about to explode in building killing thousands or something). I think that if torture is considered ineffective by expert, that would change my mind...

    Very nice post by the way!


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