January 24, 2002   

Ethical Ignorance

Equality is a very arbitrary concept, if you think about it. When a corporation says, “We are an equal opportunity employer,” what they mean, in fact, is a very specific kind of equality. We do realize that different race, nationality, or sex have their own unique cultural characteristics: work ethics, sense of values, moral code, language, and so on. 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 from the current European banks in their practices and visions. Citibank also is a product of male culture. This is not to minimize the contributions of the women who work or worked for them. It is simply to say that it has been created by the male tradition, and that, to a large extent, it echoes that spirit. So, when Citibank says that they are an equal opportunity employer, they specifically mean that they give everyone an equal opportunity to be a white American man. Take another example: Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. If you wanted to work for them in Japan, an equal opportunity employment would mean that they would give you an equal chance to be a Japanese man.

Equality, therefore, is a very specific concept. African Americans have a very specific culture of their own. A predominantly black company would have a corporate culture that is very different from those with a white or Asian corporate culture. Similar can be said about a corporation that is predominantly female, or gay.

To most corporations, it is very important that their employees fit well into their corporate cultures. It is perfectly legal to look for candidates whose personalities match those of the corporations. It is however illegal to define those personalities in terms of race, nationality, or sex. The irony here is that they are in fact defined unavoidably by these terms. The law wants you to ignore that fact, and pretend that these corporate cultures have nothing to do with race, nationality, or sex. Here, I do not mean to accuse either the law or the corporations. After all, it is impossible to define a culture without any of these biases. I call this phenomenon “ethical ignorance.”

Our world is full of this ethical ignorance. Many of them are so unethical NOT to ignore that I cannot even mention them here, for they may infuriate many people. Since I am an Asian man, there is one ethical ignorance that I can mention relatively safely: Asians are not good at basketball. We do not want to spell this out even though we all know deep down that this is true. Some of the reasons why we do not want to spell this out may be because we do not want to discourage Asians from playing basketball, and we do not want any discriminations against Asians who may want to pursue basketball professionally.

Ethical ignorance can be defined as an unspoken agreement or acceptance of unreality or falsehood for the sake of practicality or humanity. I’ve often been frustrated with this social phenomenon, for I prefer seeing the reality for what it is. I personally don’t mind accepting that most Asians are bad at basketball. I would actually go as far as saying that Asian men in general are not as good looking as white or black men. This does not mean that I hate myself, or that I want to be white or black. In my view, statistics are statistics. If you understand the nature of statistics well, you know that it is entirely irrelevant when it comes to individual cases. There is absolutely no connection between an individual and statistics. One might argue that knowing that Mr. X is a 20 year old man will allow us to more accurately predict his chance of causing a car accident, but, “more accurate,” in this instance, assumes that you collect multiple data of 20 year old men causing car accidents. If you were only allowed to collect one sample, namely that of Mr. X, there is no way to prove that the prediction is “more accurate.” You would simply be right or wrong.

Statistics is so powerful that it is misused and misunderstood so often. 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. As an individual, there is no connection between your ugliness and you being an Asian. By seeing yourself this way, you are falling victim of your own misuse of statistics. As an individual, there are many fortunate aspects of yourself, as well as many unfortunate ones. Inconsistently, you associate some with statistics and others with general fortune. When it comes to an individual analysis, everything must be in the context of the general fortune. Statistics is irrelevant.

No one said that life is supposed to be fair. The fact of the matter is that we are not really created equal. In fact, this is another ethical ignorance. Even though we are not, we’d like to think that we are. A large part of what characterizes ethical ignorance is that it is none of our fault. That is, it appears as though God made a mistake. It seems that God meant to create us all equal, but somewhere along the way he screwed up. So, we all decided to silently cover up his mistake; “Let’s ignore the fact that he screwed up and pretend like things are as he originally meant to be.” But ultimately, this is also a human assumption. Firstly it is our assumption that there is such a thing as God, and secondly it is also our assumption that, even if he does exist, he didn’t mean it that way. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he wanted to create us all unequal.

Ethical ignorance can also be defined more specifically as ignorance of statistical facts. We accept the fact that most people do not understand the true nature of statistics. We assume that people cannot properly use statistics. From this assumption we conclude that the most beneficial thing to do is to ignore. But this ignorance does have its consequences. This is why I personally am very frustrated with ethical ignorance. For instance, through our ethical ignorance, we agree that we are all equal inside. We believe that anyone can be as smart as he or she wants to be. We believe that it is a matter of effort. So, we set up our society accordingly. We make kids take exams like SAT which largely determines their course of the rest of their lives. We feel it’s OK because we think that anyone can score high if they made enough efforts. But intelligence, especially the type of intelligence that SAT measures, is something that we were born with. What SAT is measuring is just as arbitrary as the color of our hair or skin, our height or shoe size, something that we don’t have much control over. If the ethical ignorance was exposed and proved wrong, we would have to conclude that SAT is unethical, that is, based on our ideal of treating everyone equally and fairly. Because of this ethical ignorance, those who were born with low intelligence is made to suffer, be humiliated, or feel ashamed.

We ethically ignore the fact that Citibank is measuring the “equality” according to their white American male culture, for otherwise would be impractical, but those who must conform to this culture as an outsider must suffer because of the ignorance. The fact of the matter is that, for an average black woman, Citibank is a very foreign culture. It is, after all, unfair that she must conform to this foreign culture, but from Citibank’s point of view, everything is legally “equal”. What is perceived as “equal” by law isn’t necessarily so to someone in her position. Her struggle as someone foreign to white male culture is not recognized by our society because of the ethical ignorance.

This is a very difficult issue to resolve. I personally believe that ethical ignorance should be discouraged. This will no doubt cause all sorts of pain in people because of the misuse and the misunderstanding of statistical facts, but in a long run, true understanding of the reality is the only way to avoid unnecessary suffering. Emotional and ethical resistance to certain facts which otherwise would be easily accepted, only protects certain groups of people and hurts others. If something is a fact in your eyes, you must accept it, painful or not. Once you start to see and interpret these facts correctly, you realize that there is nothing to be hurt about. Facts are facts. Life is life. You take it or leave it.