Symposium on Alex Madva’s “A Plea for Anti-Anti-Individualism”

It’s my pleasure to introduce our third Ergo symposium, featuring Alex Madva’sA Plea for Anti-Anti-Individualism: How Oversimple Psychology Misleads Social Policy” with commentaries by Saray Ayala-Lopez (California State University, Sacramento), Sally Haslanger (MIT), and Jennifer Saul (University of Sheffield). I’d like to thank each of the participants for their great work and John Schwenkler for helping me put this together.

According to “structural prioritism”, policymakers should prioritize “structural” reforms over “individual” reforms when trying to combat prevalent forms of social injustice, such as racism (Madva 2016, 702). This is because, with respect to the goals of eliminating discrimination and inequality, structural prioritists think it is more effective to work on changing social institutions and infrastructure, such as the average distance between homes and available jobs, than it is to work on changing individuals’ psychology, such as their prejudices toward disadvantaged groups.

Although Madva accepts that structural intervention is required to alleviate discrimination and inequality, he argues that structural prioritists are wrong to prioritize the structural over the individual. In particular, he attempts to show that central controversies within social policy—e.g., whether increased integration and positive intergroup contact are productive or counterproductive toward ending racism—make sense only when both sides of the dispute acknowledge a role for both individual and structural interventions. That is, what’s at issue in these debates is not the relative priority of individual versus structural intervention, but which individual and structural interventions to prioritize over which other individual and structural interventions. Structural and individual-psychological changes are, Madva suggests, “inextricably intertwined” (702, 709).

In the second half of his paper, Madva addresses the assumption, sometimes voiced by structural prioritists, that “structural change will itself be the best way to effect lasting individual change” (712). On this view, structural change manages to kill two birds with one stone: it eliminates the systemic sources of injustice, and in turn uproots individual-psychological prejudice. For example, when counterstereotypical members of a disadvantaged group achieve increased visibility, as occurs with affirmative action, those individuals act as ‘debiasing agents’ for the rest of society.

In response, Madva warns that “psychological change does not come for free along with structural change” (715). Not only are structural reforms like affirmative action insufficient for debiasing, Madva presents empirical evidence to suggest that such reforms can even backfire, exacerbating prejudice. For structural interventions like affirmative action to be successful, Madva suggests, they must be supplemented with individual-psychological interventions that promote individuals’ acceptance and cooperation with respect to the proposed structural change.

Moreover, Madva suggests that the structural prioritist’s belief that structural change is by itself sufficient to cause individual-psychological change reflects an empirically discredited view of the human mind as a passive ‘mirror of social reality’ (717-18). On this view, biases merely reflect the social reality to which one has been exposed (including distorted representations conveyed by the media). If the mind is just a mirror, then we should expect, with structural prioritists, that these biases will change once society changes. While Madva acknowledges that few structural prioritists would endorse this conception of the mind explicitly, he nevertheless suggests that it exerts an implicit influence on their thinking and, in particular, motivates their prediction that structural reform will by itself be enough to eliminate prejudiced attitudes toward discriminated groups.

You can find the target article, commentaries, and Madva’s response below.

Target article:

Alex Madva: “A Plea for Anti-Anti Individualism: How Oversimply Psychology Misleads Social Policy”


Saray Ayala-Lopez – Comments-on-Madva

Sally Haslanger – Comments on Madva

Jennifer Saul – Comments on Madva

Author’s response:

Alex Madva – Reply to Commentators

Back to Top