Generalisation in this discussion refers to inductive reasoning that takes information about parts of a group and uses that information to make a claim about every member of that group. This generalisation may work in two ways:
The information about the parts is either:
- extended to apply to every member of the group, (Generalisation)
- or used as evidence to make another claim about the nature of the group. (Induction)
Perhaps the most common form of philosophy are sayings and proverbs. Philosophy books by great authors are on the other hand less popular, possibly because they are much longer and generally harder to follow. It is not only the short length that make proverbs so popular though; in probably any field of study, a statement that is broadly reaching and broadly applicable is considered deep or important, or even truer than one that isn’t. The more popular proverbs tend to be about whole groups or preferably the entire human race. It sounds a lot cooler to claim to know something about how humans think or act, rather than to say that -some- people -may- act in some ways -sometimes-. Such a specific (but more accurate) statement doesn’t offer the same attractive and supposedly meaningful wisdom as does a statement that makes a claim about human nature in general. With such a broad “fact” one could think that they have learned something important that may help them understand and interact with -everyone-.
The fact that a proverb tries to have depth while being so short means that it must omit information or accuracy, which is often done through generalisation.
A specific and narrower fact that does not claim to be general is less appealing because it is:
- More work: If the statement isn’t always true, then you will have to think about when it applies. On the other hand you can apply a general statement without thinking, since it supposedly is always true.
- Less useful: If the statement doesn’t apply to everything, then it’s only useful in those specific situations, and will be useless otherwise.
- Less deep or meaningful: A general statement often has more depth or meaning as they are often reflective of a fundamental truth.
In reality though there aren’t very many general statements we can make, because there are often many factors that make such “rules” more complicated. Many proverbs that make a claim about humanity or human nature are often simply false. They may be true in certain situations, but they tend to claim that they are universally true, either explicitly or through a lack of clarity. So while people think a universal proverb is useful because it can be applied everywhere, it’s actually less useful because it’s so often wrong. In order for them to be more true, and therefore more useful in reality, they should specify what situations they apply in, such as stating when and for whom they are true. This is more useful because you know when this information will help you and when it will not. What would also help would be if the proverb explained the reason for what it claims. By knowing the reason, we can perhaps determine by ourselves when the proverb is applicable.
Many of us like proverbs because they offer what seems like a lot of deep and fundamental wisdom about ourselves and the universe, and do so in such a short sentence. However as stated before, a long and specific proverb is not attractive. It comes across as not elegant, not important, not meaningful, academic, and finally uncertain and unconfident. This is why statements about human nature are so common, but they are also very diverse and contradictory because they are based on so little. This is also why the “theory of everything” is so enticing for scientists, not only because it will reveal new things about the universe, but because it will reveal the fundamental and general workings of the universe. It’s why a theory about how -all- stocks on the market work is more appealing than knowing how some of them sometimes work.
In a way, people like a general claim because it would be more powerful than a specific claim. It would be like having a machine gun that they can fire without thinking, rather than a precise and slow weapon that requires skill and knowledge. While the slow weapon is more likely to hit, the machine gun is thought of as hitting everything, but really it only appears that way because of the shots that hit but ignoring the many more that did not. In the same way, there might be collateral damage that occurs from trying to use inaccurate generalisations. This is exactly what happens when racists blame all Muslims for the acts of just a few, which can result in the harming or killing of innocent Muslims.
If you think all African Americans are criminals, you will eventually find some that are, and you might think that that validates your claim, despite all the African Americans you ignores who weren’t proven as criminals. Focusing on evidence for your claim while ignoring counter-evidence is part of confirmation bias. You likely won’t realise that you’ve excluded many exceptions to your generalisation, which is why this is a bias.
Many people mistakenly praise confidence, and are even more attracted to it. Making a general statement is often seen as being bold, but in reality is just making an assumption about a general group. Some people will agree with someone who has the confidence to claim that their statement is so fundamentally true that they have no issue saying it applies to lots of things, rather than only the cases they know of. Saying that all humans are inherently selfish sounds deep and meaningful, but there is no justification for it. Saying that some people are selfish on the other hand doesn’t sound deep, it in fact sounds obvious, and to extremists will sound overly cautious. Such people might claim you lack the courage to make a general statement, and restrict yourself to the less general and less deep specifics that are justified with evidence.
Confidence has nothing to do with truth itself, it only serves as a tool to trick people into believing what you are saying is the truth.
If people are convinced to believe things such rather than seeing the reasoning in them, they will believe them dogmatically. This often results in the people looking for or inventing reasons to justify what they believe, since they don’t actually know why it is true but would sometimes like to argue that it is. This can lead to them subconsciously inventing reasons and believing it themselves, since they are so confident about it that they feel the need to back it up to ensure that their confidence isn’t broken. They use confirmation bias to
An extreme form of generalisation is racism, the idea that a whole “race” of people can be judged as having traits that should be hated. Since generalisation makes people feel like they are in the right and that they know the truth, it also makes them feel powerful, and justified in hating and acting against that race.
Many people have trouble thinking, and so they simplify their thought processes and ideologies. Many adopt an “us or them” mentality, where moderate or reasonable ideas are rejected as weak, or as indecisive because such people take the easy choice of one of the extremes and tell themselves that those are the only valid choices. They see compromise as surrender. The very idea of “centralism” only makes sense in the context of two or more extremes for it to be in the center of. These false assumptions make them prefer extreme ideas, such as ones that are broadly applicable, and reject the more accurate and specified ideas as unimportant.
People who don’t think are prone to believing a proverb that makes a claim to generality simply because it’s appealing and has a ring of truth to it. This will strengthen their extremism and their belief in generalisations.
As with any issue, there may be times when you are forced to make a decision based on insufficient information. In such a case it might be justified to act despite not knowing for sure what the correct choice is, perhaps because of limited time. The current immigrant problem in Europe, but moreover the general topic of immigrants requires a balance of compassion and security. Turning away immigrants might doom them to suffer and die, and accepting them may result in violence from both the local population and the immigrants. Obviously it is not all of the local population nor all of the immigrants who are doing bad things, so one cannot accurately say that either group is inherently bad or violent. Despite the lack of any accurate generalisations, a decision would have to be made to allow or reject the immigrants. It might be determined that given all the information currently available, the immigration would cause too much trouble, but it is a logical fallacy to therefore believe that the entire group of immigrants would cause trouble, or to generalise that to their entire race.
There are certain generalisations that are accurate, but they tend to be obvious. The only thing we can say for sure about all Americans is that they are inherently American. We do not know if they all have American passports or ID’s, or if they all know their national anthem or if they all have the same values. When we make an inaccurate generalisation or inaccurately use inductive reasoning, that conclusion is only useful if we understand the inaccuracy of it. Deductively using an inaccurate generalisation will result in mistakes sometimes, and if we do not understand that then we are prone to failure, perhaps harmless or perhaps lethal.
When we wrongly generalise things, we wrongly make assumptions about many things by taking a simple view that ignores individuality.