I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and a fragment of a sentence reads:

[...] and try to figure out why Asians are so good at math.

This is presumably based on data and statistics, which allows this generalization. However, I realized that it would be far less acceptable to glibly to write a generalization based on culturally negative statistics for a race, say crime statistics for African-Americans.

What are some common positions as to whether it is (un)ethical to quote positive generalizations (if in line with statistics) routinely, and exercise judgement when quoting negative and sensitive statistics about a race (even if in line with statistics)?

I should point out that I have no framework for thinking about this question, so would be happy to be pointed to a framework for thinking about this in a structured way.

I should also point out that I am not ideologically motivated to quote either Asian math achievement statistics or crime rates of African-Americans. I would do so if the context required it.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. What is "morally correct" is only objectively answerable if you specify a framework / philosophical school from which you're working. So, I suggest you rephrase the question to either ask for common positions and their arguments, or mention a specific framework from which you would like the question answered. Thanks!
    – user2953
    Aug 19, 2016 at 16:53
  • @Keelan Thanks. Since I have never formally studied philosophy, I cannot place this in a rigorously defined framework. I will update the question to ask for common positions. Aug 19, 2016 at 17:04
  • Thanks! I reworded your question to integrate this into the title and the body (rather than using 'edit', which we tend to not do on this site).
    – user2953
    Aug 19, 2016 at 17:09
  • One good reason as to why 'so many Asians are good at maths' might be state policy on education to 'catch up' with the West on science/technology; another good reason might be the emphasis on the scholarly tradition even in popular religion & myth. Aug 20, 2016 at 8:21
  • @MoziburUllah The statistics quoted in the question are examples. Not looking for a causal analysis of those statistics. Aug 20, 2016 at 8:25

1 Answer 1


is it ethical to quote statistics routinely?

The question of ethics would definitely come into play if:

Direct Lie

  • Ethical principles exist for intentionally misleading people, aka. lies.
  • The statistics cited were either a) out of context (didn't apply) or b) appeared fabricated.

Lies are a violation of most ethical systems. Usually statistics in books and the media are rarely fabricated (b), but very frequently they are out of context (a). This becomes very deadly when used as a premise to justify conclusions which would be an egregious premeditated lie with a false justification.

Many authors and media commentators state a ton of facts to build a case and then jump to a conclusion without making any necessary links between the truck load of raw data that is taken out of context and the idea they are trying to promote.

Plato talks about the Noble Lie. In essence his contention is that during a debate or similar circumstance you could perform a calculated lie in which your opponent in trying to dispute it would unravel the false basis of their position. I personally believe this was along the lines of agreeing with an opposing irrational view, and encourage taking the idea to the extreme.


The second ethical violation could be to purposely mislead people via Moving the Conversation to a red herring (reference). While not a direct lie, it can be seen as unethical to redirect the conversation purposely off track to avoid admission of the truth. Politicians frequently do this in debates, and a simple example could be as simple as citing a number of outlier events consuming the majority of the talk time, and claiming victory when not all of them are rebutted. This falls primary into the realm of intellectual dishonesty although many ethical systems may see this as unethical.

Noble Lies

An example of a Noble Lie could be(1):

  • Person A. The rich have all the money, lets raise taxes from 50% to 80%
  • Person B. Yea, I agree we should do something, lets tax them 100% of everything they have.
  • Person A. Ok?!? Person B. in fact lets tax everyone 100% of what they make!
  • Person A. but, I would rather move than someone taking everything I have.
  • Person B. Right. So do you see my point?

(1) First thing I could think of just to point out the structure and I am not making the case.

What are some common positions as to whether it is (un)ethical to quote positive generalizations (if in line with statistics) routinely, and exercise judgement when quoting negative and sensitive statistics about a race (even if in line with statistics)?

Lastly as you may be inferring, "Is it wrong to state something knowing it will hurt someones feelings?" Well for this I would say yes and no. When done in spite with intention to cause a harm without being sensitive to others, you can argue yes that is being a jerk. I would find it difficult to pin down a moral ought though, and it is not an effective way to get your point across. It can be useful to shock your audience into recognizing if there is a obvious pattern of lies you are trying to overcome.

Stefan Molyneux, a modern philosopher, will occasionally take this position to get a point across about untrue things he believes is being frequently said by people even though he normally speaks with more empathy to strangers then people talk to their own children. Under that circumstance, I would consider that acceptable as opposed to strictly antagonizing people for the hell of it to bait them into committing violence which would be unethical.

  • 1
    When you say, "The second ethical violation...", is that your opinion or is it about some common theory? In the first case, it doesn't fit here; in the second, you're missing a reference. This is just one example where your posts are borderline our guidelines - please review the tour and the help center.
    – user2953
    Aug 20, 2016 at 7:46
  • @Keelan It is my understanding that it is common theory for most ethical systems to utilize a logical fallacy such as a red herring or kettle logic. I will add a reference for you.
    – Dave
    Aug 20, 2016 at 19:53

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