Thursday, August 29, 2002

Group-to-Individual Inference

Groups (of People) and Inferences about Individual Members of Groups (of People): Thoughts Provoked by Professor Sharon Davies – but through absolutely no fault of hers!

Can or should inferences be drawn about individuals from their membership in a group or groups of people?

Can inferences about a particular person’s behavior be drawn from a person’s membership in the group (i) Roman Catholics, (ii) Muslims, (iii) French citizens, or (iv) the Aryan Brotherhood (a once-widespread racist prison gang committed to violence and other vile matters, see United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45 (1984))?

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Not all members of a group of people always or even ordinarily act the same way under the same or similar circumstances. For example, the behavior of “French citizens” and “Muslims” (often) varies widely.

Therefore?


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Can the membership of an individual in a group of people support inferences about the behavior of that individual?

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Individual people – all individual people – belong to many groups, perhaps an infinite number of groups. For example, one person may belong to the following groups: (i) French citizens, (ii) Roman Catholics, (iii) females, (iv) adults, (v) regular newspaper readers, (vi) practitioners of voodoo, (vii) child molesters, and (viii) homo sapiens.

Therefore?


N.B. A riddle: Since there are not an infinite number of people, how is it possible for individual people to belong to an infinite number of groups of people?


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It is reasonable to suppose that male Roman Catholics tend to act differently than female Roman Catholics in some circumstances.

It is reasonable to suppose that adult male French Roman Catholics tend to act differently than adult male German Roman Catholics in some circumstances.

And it is definitely reasonable to suppose that adult male Bavarian Roman Catholics act differently than adult male Prussian Roman Catholics!

Therefore?

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It is unlikely that any of us have ever observed the behavior of other people who belong to exactly the same constellation of groups to which any individual person belongs. This would in fact be impossible – since all individual people are to some extent different and thus belong, to some extent, to different constellations of groups of people.

Therefore?

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Of course, many us – indeed, all of us – are profoundly ignorant about the behavior of many groups – often without being aware of the depths of our ignorance.

Therefore?

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Is it immoral to base inferences about individuals on the behavior or characteristics of groups?
Is it illegal to do so (in, say, the courtroom)?
Is it unconstitutional to do so?


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Is it possible for anyone to draw inferences about individuals – individual people – without drawing on knowledge or assumptions about the behavior or characteristics of groups – including groups of people?


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