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Bias: Reading Between the Lines

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Western University
Philosophy 1200
Ryan Robb

Chapter Two (2) Note October 21, 2013 Bias: Reading Between the Lines Bias A bias is an individual leaning or preference for or against a particular point of view. Any given individual’s biases are likely best understood as a product of their particular system of beliefs... in other words, a bias is the result of a combined set of assumptions that tends to favour certain kinds of conclusions over others. Understood in this way, bias is an unavoidable feature of every argument; for example, if you’re trying to convince someone to accept a conclusion you are likely biased in favour of that conclusion, and maybe even the reasons you present. Since bias is an unavoidable feature of every argument made by a human, it is most often not a cause for concern... The key is that an individual’s bias does not outweigh the strength of the reasons presented in support of the argument; that is, you do not simply accept the conclusion of an argument because it conforms to your existing bias. If the bias does outweigh the reasons presented, then we can say that bias is illegitimate. So, for example, we might consider the superficial biases that can be attributed to members of political parties: In Canada at least, Conservatives (those who identify themselves as being on the right-side of the political spectrum) tend to be biased in favour of ‘free-market solutions’ as a means of addressing social problems. That is, problems can be remedied by increasing economic activity, which can occur only when government refrains from interfering with that activity (e.g., lower taxes). Members of the NDP (those who self-identify as being on the left-side of the political spectrum) are less confident in the effectiveness of ‘free-market solutions’ as a means of addressing social problems. As a result, they tend to favour greater government interference (more taxes) as a means of addressing social problems; government needs to take a direct, active role in managing and implementing those solutions. Neither of these two biases is illegitimate per se... they will only be illegitimate if they cause the individuals holding these biases to accept a particular argument on the grounds that doing so satisfies their bias. One form of Worrisome Bias: Vested Interests An individual holds a ‘vested interest’ when the outcome of a particular argument stands to generate some benefit on their behalf. The mere presence of a vested interest does not guarantee poor reasoning, but it does provide grounds for questioning the plausibility of arguments presented by anyone with such interests. Page 1 of 3 For example: Leading up to the Ontario provincial election in 2011, former Premier McGuinty halted the construction of two highly unpopular natural gas electric plants in ridings where polls suggested the Liberals might lose. The cost of cancelling those two contracts is (as of this week) estimated to be in the range of $1.1 billion dollars. The Liberals won both of those ridings after the cancellation was announced. The former Premier continues to maintain the cancellation of those contracts was the best move for the province. So, the question is: Was this a purely expedient decision, made to ensure the election of the Liberal candidates? Or, is the former Premier right in maintaining that this was the best decision for Ontario? The mere existence of this ‘vested interest’ cannot provide a conclusive answer... but it does provide cause for concern. That is, it would be much easier to accept the former Premier’s claim about the cancellation of these contracts being for the greater benefit of the province of Ontario had an election not been looming. Conflicts of Interest – A Direct Form of Vested Interest A conflict of interest occurs when an individual tasked with making a decision is in a position to directly benefit from that decision. For example: Former Prime Minister Paul Martin was, before his political career, the owner and CEO of Canada Steamship Lines. When he became the Minister of Finance, and then the Prime Minister, he found himself in a position to make decisions that directly benefitted his level of personal wealth by directly benefitting his company. How was this conflict addressed? Paul Martin had to first declare the existence of this conflict and relinquish control of his company;
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