Of the marvels of humankind, I am most often fascinated by our ability to assign things into groups. If people couldn’t do this, it would be impossible to do reasoning, even at the most basic levels. We librarians deal in this concept every single day, although I probably am the only librarian on the planet who is geeky enough to think about it every day.
A central idea of groups is that of attributes. These attributes are the properties that makes something what it is. For example, what makes something a Taco Bell? We can come up with a list right now: (1) Orange and purple sign (2) the funny smell (3) synthetic meat substance served on a processed-corn shell. (4) You buy a fakey species of knockoff Mexican food, and (5) it’s served quick, (5a) sometimes at the window of your car, (5b) with Mountain Dew, so you can get going. these attributes make a Taco Bell. That, the disturbing scent, and the frown on the workers’ faces, let you know *every time* when you’re near a Taco Bell. It’s what we do as humans. We group things in our minds. We winnow things into groups based on experience, definition, function, etc., and this allows us to, ultimately, make judgments (i.e., conduct reason) about things.
Sing, librarian, of Aristotelian logic, for thy words are sexy and have much meaning.
Ok. If you’re anything like my students, you’re wondering why the hell any of this matters. Let me give you a few examples. Suppose you have an opinion about restaurants (“I love Mexican food places” is a good one). Now, you know what a Mexican food place is, so your friend says “Hey – you really have to try Taco Bell if you want great Mexican!” Now, you’ve never been to a Taco Bell. In fact, you’ve never even been downwind from one. So you go along with your friend to this new Mexican eating establishment–this Taco Bell–and try it out. Of course, it sucks. “Hey. Let’s don’t be hasty. There are others!” your friend says. “Maybe you got a bad burrito. You should try a second Taco Bell in town.” So you take your Imodium, and try another. Of course, it sucks too. NOW you can draw a conclusion. Given your vast experience with Taco Bells, you decide, unequivocally, that All Taco Bells Suck. All of them. All the rest of them in town. All the rest of the Taco Bells in the *world*. Like the Roto-Rooter man, they spend their days and nights sucking.
NOW we have a premise. (Premise 1) Taco Bells suck.
Do all fast food joints suck? We don’t know the answer to this question. We’ve only tried Taco Bell. Maybe we should try Del Taco and we’d be impressed with their authentic Mexican cuisine. But we don’t have enough information to draw that conclusion. Our realm of experience only covers Taco Bells and its high suckiness quotient (not all Fast Food Joints).
Do all restaurants suck? No! We can’t say this either. We’ve tried other Mexican places and were quite impressed. We fall down and worship at the feet of Quetzalcoatl for another burrito as good as that one we ate at Pepe’s Cocina.
Our realm of experience only allows us to draw one conclusion: Taco Bell sucks.
To make matters even MORE murky, we don’t even know if all Taco Bells suck. We’ve only tried two of them. Maybe Cleveland has a killer Taco Bell, and not in the dyspeptic sense.
I can hear you all saying “WHY are you telling me this?” Here’s why: because labels matter, dammit.
A group, by logic, is comprised of individuals. Some Restauants are individuals called Fast Food Joints, and some fast food joints are individual franchises called Taco Bell. and ONE Taco Bell is that individual down on Main Street, where you ate that churro with your honey. What you can say about that Taco Bell on Main is only a partial picture of all things in the universe we call restaurants. The effects of this one tiny “parts-of-the-whole” rule are staggering.
- Leisure: I had a bad experience one time on Delta Airlines. I’m never flying with that airline again.
- Financial: never put your money in a 401K. The stock market bottomed out in 2007 and I lost all my retirement.
- Religious: A few Catholic priests are child molesters. I can never get behind the Catholic church.
- Civic: The No Child Left Behind Act has been a massive failure. Educational reform is a huge waste of federal taxpayer dollars and only take place at the state level.
- Commercial: Due to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we should all0w no more offshore drilling.
The opposite effect is true. You always can’t argue from larger groups to smaller ones.
- Leisure: I love the San Francisco Giants! Barry Bonds should be exonerated of all crimes.
- Financial: Real Estate has always been a solid investment decision. You should buy a house as soon as you leave college, never mind the debt-to-income ratio.
- Religious: Jesus never fails. Your faith will heal of your diabetes, and no longer need insulin.
- Civic: I hate the Democrats. I’d never vote for that Barack Obama.
- Commercial: Wal-Mart is a huge company. They must treat their employees well.
So… What’s our responsibility as moral human beings? (HA! Bet you thought you’d get off free from a holier-than-thou lecture today!) Forming judgments based on groups is not only inescapable, but it’s necessary. It’s how we form families, and businesses, and churches, and community itself. It’s a powerful force, given to us by God, or fate, or nature. Can a duck look at a cigarette butt tossed in a pond and know it’s not food? Not before he tries to gag it down because it sure as hell looked like a chunk of bread. It’s (so far as we know) an exclusively human gift. And it builds our society as we view it. most of our views of right and wrong stem, ultimately, from the groups we make, and the judgments we pronounce based on what we know of those groups.
But let’s face facts. Powerful as they are, groups are an artificial construct. WE name something Taco Bell, Or Republicans, Or gay, or Christian. We assemble the world in such a way that its actions make sense to us, and so that we can discuss this world with others of our species. Ultimately, a group is a human-assembled collection of things, people, or ideas. What we do with these groups focuses our societal opinions about things, for good or ill. Christ said “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (good). I could give you any number of “bad” judgments based on the group you’d put a person in. I’ll let you come up with your own. In fact, I implore you to do so…
I challenge you to spend the day, just one single day, thinking about the categories we put people in, and the attributes we assign our fellow human beings because of the categories, and let’s really examine the value of the judgments we’ve made, based on them. It’s not only a nice thought exercise; I believe that it’s our moral responsibility.
We are not a duck, folks. To act like one is to eat our own butts. And I’m only joking a little bit.