January 24, 2002    PhilosophyPsychology

Ethical Ignorance

Equality as a concept is more arbitrary than we might assume. When a corporation says, “We are an equal opportunity employer,” they are suggesting a very specific type of equality. We realize that each race, nationality, and gender has a unique culture, work ethic, values, morality, and even language. The corporate culture of Citibank, for instance, is predominantly white, American, and male. They inherited their culture of banking from Europe. It is, therefore, a product of white culture, but it has also been Americanized, enough that we notice certain differences when compared to European banks. Citibank also is a product of male culture. This is not to minimize the contributions of the women who have worked for them. I am simply pointing out the patriarchal heritage. When Citibank says they are an equal opportunity employer, they mean they give everyone an equal opportunity to be a white American man.

Take another example: Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. Equal opportunity employment for them means they give you an equal chance to be a Japanese man.

African Americans have a unique culture of their own. A predominantly black company would have a culture different from white or Asian dominant businesses. The same is true for female or gay dominant businesses.

To most corporations, cultural fit is a critical aspect of hiring. It is perfectly legal to discriminate candidates based on cultural fit. It is, however, illegal to define those traits in terms of race, nationality, or gender. The irony is that, stated or not, cultural fit is largely defined by those terms. We simply repress this ugly truth. I call this phenomenon “ethical ignorance.”

Our world is full of these collectively repressed truths. Many of them are deemed so offensive that I cannot even mention them here. Since I am an Asian man, here is one I can get away with stating: Asians are not good at playing basketball. We don’t say it out loud partly because we don’t want to encourage discrimination against Asian basketball players. I also think Asian men generally do not look as good as white or black men. You might think this is an expression of self-hatred, but I just see it as a neutral fact.

Ethical ignorance can be defined as an unspoken acceptance of falsehood for the sake of social stability or peace. Personally, I prefer seeing the reality for what it is.

Statistics have no bearing on individual cases, but the misunderstanding of them makes them undeservedly powerful. If you are an ugly Asian man, there are two different ways that you might put this fact in perspective. 1. You are ugly because you were unlucky. 2. You are ugly because you are Asian. The latter is a misuse of statistics; at the individual level, there is no connection between your ugliness and being Asian.

Life is not supposed to be fair. The truth is we are not created equal. This is another example of ethical ignorance. Deep down, we know we were not created equal, but we’d like to think we were. It’s as if God made a mistake. He meant to create us all equal, but something went awry. So, we decided to cover up his mistake. But perhaps it wasn’t a mistake. Perhaps inequality was his design. Who knows?

Here is another example of ethical ignorance. Many intelligent people deliberately repress statistical truths because they know that most people would not understand them correctly, and therefore abuse them.

Ignoring the statistical facts, we agree that we are all equal inside. We believe anyone can be as smart as she wants to be. We think it’s a matter of effort, not how we were made. We structure our society according to this fantasy. We make our children take standardized tests like the SAT, which has the power to influence the rest of their lives. We feel this is acceptable because it’s only a matter of how hard they study. But intelligence, especially the type of intelligence SAT measures, is largely inherited. What it measures is as arbitrary as the height or color of our skin. Ethnical ignorance allows us to repress this truth and continue to believe that we are treating everyone equally. Meanwhile, those who were born with low intelligence are exploited, humiliated, and/or shamed.

We ethically ignore the fact that Citibank is evaluating “equality” according to the standards of the white American male culture because there are no other practical options. Meanwhile, those who must adapt to this culture as an outsider must suffer. For an average black woman, for instance, the culture of Citibank would be quite foreign. It might be legally “equal”, but in reality, it’s far from it.

The central problem of ethnical ignorance is that these efforts made by the disadvantaged cannot be socially recognized because they must remain repressed. To recognize that someone with a low IQ had to make a much greater effort to achieve an average score on SAT would require us to agree that he was born with a lower IQ, that we are not equal “inside.”

I believe ethical ignorance should be discouraged. Doing away with ethical ignorance will no doubt cause great suffering and pain in some people because of the abuse and misunderstanding that would inevitably ensue. In the long run, however, truth is the only way to avoid unnecessary suffering. Ethical ignorance only delays and compounds the pain. Repression of unpleasant truth only protects some people while inflicting injustice on others. The problem of truth is that it never goes away. If we can live in a fantasy forever, perhaps ethnical ignorance would make sense, but unfortunately, we know we can’t.


In response to the comments I received, I’m going to elaborate on some of the points above.

The word “ethical” is not what I personally think is ethical, but rather what is considered ethical by the general public. Take the physical difference between men and women, for instance. The difference in strength is so clear that we don’t even argue. When a difference is universally acknowledged in this way, we create different categories or classes to level the playing field. We consider this ethical. The Olympics, for instance, have distinct categories for men and women. If the categories did not exist, I would imagine that the vast majority of Olympians would be male. Another example is boxing, where there are several categories based on weight. We feel that it is unfair for a 200-pound 7-foot tall boxer to be fighting against a 100-pound 5-foot tall boxer.

If we all agreed that we were born with different levels of intelligence, in the same way we agree that men are physically stronger than women, we would be creating different categories for intelligence. However, this notion of classifying intelligence is appallingly offensive to many people. If, in the future, science made this indisputable, we would have to categorize people by the innate level of intelligence in order to be fair. Ivy League universities will have to accept the same number of students from each category, just as they do in the Olympics.

I’m not particularly interested in advocating for these ideas. Before we come up with practical solutions, we first have to get our society to recognize the inequality and injustice. What bothers me is the hypocrisy. Our society is built on competition, and we justify it by insisting that everyone is made equal “inside.” We tout equality by repressing inequality. In order for successful people to enjoy their success without guilt, they have to believe in fairness. No one wants to think they won the competition unfairly, which creates a tremendous demand to maintain the perception of fairness. The more competitive we become, the more we need to emphasize fairness. If we accepted the unfairness of life, we wouldn’t be able to compete with a clear conscience. But, perhaps, that is exactly what we should accept.

If our society accepted our inner inequality, we would not respect people like Bill Gates and Albert Einstein so much. We would see them as people who were lucky enough to be born with high IQs. They would receive only as much respect as male fashion models do.

I like video games because they allow me to enjoy competitions without having the pretense of achieving something important. Anything competitive in this world is ultimately as superficial as video games. Video gamers know it and accept it, but the rest of the world lives in a delusional fantasy of self-importance.