I encounter people of all sorts fairly regularly on social media. There is a real debate about how the word "racism" should be used. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. There are those who have tried to rework our categories in such a way that prejudice and discrimination are not racism. Racism is purely a structural or systemic thing. Prejudice and discrimination are bad, but they are not racism. We ought to resist them and avoid them to the extent that we can, but racism is just the institutional, structural, and systemic stuff. In their view, we should reserve the word "racism" to refer to the system itself, not the people who do it or their attitudes or actions. Thus racism can only be in one direction, the direction that society enforces with structural, systemic, and institutionally determined forces that act mostly to the advantage of white people and mostly to the disadvantage of others. I happen to think that approach to how we should use the word "racism" is wrong in a few ways, but as I said I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. I'm interested in a reaction against that view that I think goes too far in the other direction.
A very common response to those who reserve the word "racism" for structural, systemic, and institutional stuff is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism. That sort of statement has been increasingly common on the right in response to what they (rightly in my view) regard as problems in how people (mostly on the left) are conceiving of racism. But what seems to me to be an overreaction is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism or to deny that it is our most serious sort of racial problem.
The idea of systemic, institutional, or structural racism goes back before the Civil Rights era. People had been calling attention to these sorts of problems well before the time of MLK. But it began to be more mainstream as people noticed that changes in laws and societal attitudes were not bringing along changes in some of the other forces that advantage or disadvantage people along race lines. MLK began to see this toward the end of his life, and he began to recognize that just getting people having the right attitudes and making changes in laws to prevent explicit and deliberate discrimination would not be sufficient to solve all of our race problems. There are systemic, structural, and institutional forces that lead to disadvantage and advantage in ways that no one intends. No one is deliberately discriminating or explicitly prejudiced. Yet disadvantage and advantage occur. The problem is in institutions, structures, and systems rather than in beliefs, desires, emotions, or actions of individual people. That is the concept of systemic racism.
On one conception of racism, the one I was raised with, the one that feels to me like how the English language actually operates, these systemic problems are simply not racism. I completely understand those who don't like to call it racism. I myself don't like to call it that. Racism is an attitude of the heart or a set of actions of individuals. But that's a linguistic issue. It's not an issue of what the world is actually like. The thing people are in fact calling systemic racism, and in fact the only thing that term has ever referred to, is real. Not only is it real, but it consists of what seem to me to be the more significant and substantial problems that we have in our society at this point. The stuff I'm inclined to call racism is becoming less present, less effective in causing real problems. Why? Because there is such a stigma attached to racism, to even being perceived as racist, that it's diminished to a much greater degree than the systemic problems have. But the systemic problems remain. And the systemic problems do trace back to racism in the classic sense, when you look hard enough and far enough. They wouldn't be present without racism having occurred.
Here's an non-racial example for anyone having trouble understanding the concept of a systemic problem. Adderall is a controlled substance. People take it when they have no condition requiring it, and people take doses that are much too high. That means it's illegal for a pharmacy to put it on auto-refill, and it's illegal even to prescribe it with refills. You have to call your doctor every month to get them to submit a new prescription. Typically, the people who are taking Adderall are the same people who have executive control issues and are going to have a harder time being organized and remembering to call about that new prescription, which places an additional burden on people who are already worse off when it comes to things like this. That results in days without the medication that helps them be more organized and attentive. No one is trying to make life harder for people with ADHD and autism who rely on this medication. That's not the point. The goal is to prevent abuse by those who don't need the medication to begin with. But because of laws designed to prevent that abuse, the people who need the medication suffer. This is what a systemic or structural problem looks like.
Are there such problems that occur along race lines? There certainly are. There are institutional, systemic, and structural forces in our society that work against people of color, some of them stronger for certain groups than for others, some of them not because of any present discrimination but just because of the effects of past discrimination (e.g. housing segregation today is not a result of present-day bank practices but because of past discrimination in mortgages and racial contracts of who could live in which neighborhoods), and there remain disparities in infrastructure, housing quality, locations of shopping or other necessities nearby, and so on. School segregation no longer has any laws forcing it, but kids tend to go to school where they live, and the quality of schools reflects the resources of the neighborhood. Together with policies like school choice, which allows enterprising parents and students to get out of the bad schools but also thereby makes the bad schools worse for those without that initiative and drive, our schools get more segregated and more disparate in quality and outcome, and that occurs along race lines. There is many careful studies that identify biases that affect law enforcement and criminal justice, disparities in health care, stigmatizations and stereotypes that affect our behavior even if we think the stereotypes are false, and so on. It should be obvious that many of these things are not racism in the classic sense, but they are the only thing that people have ever meant by terms like "systemic racism." They are disparate results that occur along race lines in ways that are predictable and systemic. The forces in our society tend to produce those results along certain lines in ways that are consistent and recurring. And these problems are much more serious than a privileged white kid using the N-word or not inviting the one black kid in the mostly white neighborhood over for a birthday party.
Now if you prefer to call these things "systemic advantage" and "systemic disadvantage" or something like that, I have great sympathies for why you might want to do that. But the fact remains that these are the only thing that terms like "structural racism" and "systemic racism" have ever meant. Words mean what they are used to mean. So those terms do in fact refer to these sorts of problems. That is so, whether you want to think of these sorts of issues as racism or not. I tend to be in the "not" category on that myself. But systemic racism is real, and those who consistently deny it are in effect denying that any of these problems are real. It does not help the cause of the political right in trying to push back against some of the excesses and unhelpful behaviors of the left on race issues if it just looks like you are denying observable facts, and that's what denials of systemic racism look like to the left. If you want to have real conversations where you engage with real people and actually try to convince them of things, to help them see that you have a legitimate point against anything they are saying, it helps to understand their view and get it right first. You are not doing that if you simply deny the reality of systemic racism and say no more. That strategy is doomed to failure. It is no wonder that they will call that strategy "white fragility" or "white supremacy," because it just looks like a desperate attempt to pretend that our most serious problems along race lines simply don't exist. Let's stop doing that, please. If you don't want to be accused of white fragility and white supremacy, then do not set yourself up to be accused of it by behaving in exactly the way the left predicts you will act. And then maybe there will be room for an actual conversation where people seek to understand each other and move forward.
Here is what I don't see a lot of people saying in response to the Dr. Seuss books that the publisher will no longer be making. Theodore Geisel was a very progressive, liberal-minded person, anti-racist in the most literal sense of that term. Yet he portrayed people in ways that we today recognize to be stereotypical and somewhat offensive. People have been calling him a racist for years, when his views were anything but. How could the author of the Sneetches, an explicitly anti-racist story in the literal sense of that term, be counted as a racist just because he had absorbed some of the stereotypical imagery of his day and brought it out in his depictions of people from around the world when wanting to expose children to multi-cultural stuff and to think more globally?
"To be White is to see oneself outside of Race." -- taken from an advertisement for a race discussion coming up at Le Moyne College.
I believe the quote comes from Robin DiAngelo. Yes, there is something she means by that that is true. She's talking about the structures and unconscious ways of behaving that are unfortunately and systematically associated with some of the ways that white people conceive of themselves in relation to race. In short, they don't conceive of themselves in relation to race. Race is something other people have, in effect. They are the norm, and others are the deviation, and racial identity is not something they have to think of themselves as having. It is a problem when white people conceive of themselves that way.
Even so, I would maintain that it's a misuse of language that is both misleading and alienating, and I think it's a terrible idea to use the word "white" or the word "whiteness" in that way. The actual meaning of "white" when used in a racial way, to most people, does not refer to those social patterns. It refers to which ancestry someone has, and talking this way is the best way to reinforce the unhealthy and problematic racial patterns in our social relations.
Talking as if this is essential to races and race relations gives the impression that (and therefore reinforces subconsciously) the idea that the unhealthy patterns are just the way things are. It does not allow us to separate whiteness as someone's ancestry and whatever social stuff we have added to that. It doesn't allow us to move away from thinking problematic racial relations are part of white identity, because it deliberately defines them as part of whiteness.
Not only that, but by saying something that seems patently false to most people, it comes across to most people as ignorant and racist. There is something the person actually means that is not ignorant and racist and is in fact intended to serve racial justice. But it comes across that way, and in my view people who talk that way are in fact to blame for that misimpression. They are the ones who are talking unclearly and using terms in nonstandard ways that ordinary people will not understand. So they are damaging their own message by coming across as racist extremists.
Furthermore, it is alienating to white people who care about racial justice and who recognize that there are many ways that white people can do the thing described in the quote, because it is speaking as if it is essential to white people. As I said, I know that is not what DiAngelo means. She means that it is essential to whiteness, and she isn't seeing whiteness as what it is to be descended from Europeans or whatever. She is seeing whiteness as participation in societal behaviors and patterns. And there is something right about what she is recognizing. That is important to see. Many of her critics refuse to see that, and there is something intellectually dishonest about that if they have actually read her carefully and charitably with an intent to evaluate her rather than to start with the assumption that she is wrong.
But what it comes across as is the kind of racial essentialism that science disproved in the mid-20th century. It comes across as treating all white people as being the problem. It presents itself as othering white people in order to get out a message about how white people other non-white people. And that is the "but you did it first" Trumpian whataboutism that the left frequently recognizes and points out when they see the right doing it but yet engages in just as frequently and loudly when they feel like being just as toxic as those they regularly condemn. Those who care about racial justice need to move beyond this kind of talk if we are to have real conversations about race that move people in a direction where they can hear us and accept what we are saying.
I have now completed my metaphysics of race series, so here is a list of all the posts with links for easier navigation.
1. Metaphysics of Race: Introduction
2. Classic Biological Racial Realism
3. Race Anti-Realism
4. Races as Social Kinds
5. Social Constructionist Views of Race
6. The New Biological Race View
7. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race
8. Minimalist Race and Whiteness
9. Short-Term Retentionism, Long-Term Revisionism
This is the eighth post in my metaphysics of race series. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the list of all the posts with links.
In the last post, I introduced the notions of retentionism, revisionism, and eliminativism. Should we give up on race notions (eliminativism), keep them as they are (retentionism), or seek to modify them (revisionism)? I argued that in the long-term we ought to seek to change them but in the short term need to keep them as they are. What does this look like in practice? I will start by looking at a couple issues regarding the use of race language itself, and in the next and final post in this series I will look at practical behavior that seems supported by evidence-based studies to serve the short-term and long-term goals of my approach.
The Ordinary, Minimalist Concept of Race
I want to start by thinking about what Michael Hardimon calls the minimalist concept of race. He also calls it the ordinary concept of race. He is distinguishing this notion from a more robust notion of race like the scientific essentialist notion that races have genetic components built in that determine all kinds of things about us, such as our intelligence, moral value, and capabilities of various sorts. He thinks that notion of race is no longer part of the ordinary concept of race. There might be experts who look at the history of race who see that it was true about early ideas in the modern development of the concept of race, but ordinary people do not think that that's what race is. One way we know this is that philosophers working on these questions have collaborated with sociologists to do careful empirical study of people's notions of race and of particular races. We can also look at how language is used by ordinary people, a opposed to scientists, sociologists, or philosophers working on these questions. Words mean what people use them to mean, and all it takes for a word to change its meaning is for people to use it in a different way for a long enough time that it gradually becomes a new meaning for the word. If we stop using it in the first way, then that no longer becomes its meaning.
Hardimon argues that the minimalist notion of race is the ordinary concept of race of most people. It's the view on the street. We don't let academics or activists decide what words mean unless we start using the words the way the activists and academics are using them. Once we do, then those are part of the meaning. But we don't defer to expert son the meaning of a term. The experts have to do empirical research to see how people are using terms, and we should listen to their expertise on that. But it's not like physics where we just have to hear what those who have studied subatomic particles think about the nature of electrons. There are no such experts on what race-language refers to, other than those who have done empirical research on how language is used.
So here is Hardimon's account of what it is to be a race:
"A race is a group of human beings
(C1) that, as a group, is distinguished from other groups of human beings by patterns of visible physical features,
(C2) whose members are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of the group, and
(C3) that originates from a distinctive geographic location"
I tend to think that's a pretty good definition. It might require a tweak or two to allow for weird cases like a duplicate of Chris Rock, say, appearing out of nowhere and with no ancestry or history, who I think obviously would still count as black. (But I realize there are philosophers who think the Chris Rock duplicate wouldn't even be human, never mind black.) I also think Tuvok, a black Vulcan in Star Trek, is obviously black, and he certainly isn't human. But those tweaks are oddities on the extremes of our language use, and problems with that sort of thing are similar to problems in deciding whether someone is the same person after being dismantled entirely by a Star Trek transporter, while a duplicate is constructed somewhere else out of new matter that looks and talks and has memories just like mine. I happen to think the transporter killed the original person and created a duplicate, but a lot of philosophers agree with how Star Trek presents such cases and thinks it merely transports the original person to a new location. We don't need to think our disagreement on such side cases tells us our definitions of "person" or "human being" are wrong. We can push those issues aside for most discussions, and the same is true of weird side cases of race (although in both cases I would want to get to those discussions eventually to get a full theory together).
But I agree that Hardimon's account is the basic idea that most people have of what it is to be a race and what is true of the racial groups we ordinarily refer to. Hardimon's definition notices that races are groups of people with differences. Those differences have to do with patterns of visible physical features and common ancestry distinctive of each group. That common ancestry originates from a certain location.
That's it. There is no commitment to whether races are social kinds or biological kinds. For all this says, they could be both or neither or one or the other. This definition captures what it is to be a race in a way that we can then still have the debate about which kind of thing the races we have are. And it seems to get the basic aspects of racehood correct, in my view, and Hardimon and others have given empirical research that I think back that up.
Given such a definition, I want to get to an issue that looms large right now in certain circles. There is, in my view, a very harmful way of talking about certain kinds of race-based phenomena. It's also a very popular way of talking, and I don't think those who talk that way realize how harmful it is to speak the way they do. It is confusing to many who hear them and don't understand them, and it reinforces the very things about race that we should want to revise long-term and remove from our notions of races. It in fact is not in the minimalist, ordinary concept of race, so speaking this way reinforces aspects of race that are not even in the ordinary concept. In my view, what we ought to do is steer more toward thinking of race in that way and away from other ways, including ways tied to the social constructions we add to race. We need to realize those constructions are there, but we don't want to reinforce them.
This way of talking that I think is so destructive is common in a field that is sometimes called whiteness studies. It is common on an academic level from people who do whiteness studies or who work on questions of systemic and structural problems related to race. It has filtered down into a certain segment of the general public, especially among activists, but I am seeing it more and more among people who are just becoming aware of and interested in race issues (those who might describe themselves, or those whom their critics would describe them as, becoming more woke). Thr National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a subsidary of the Smithsonian, recnently caused a bit of a flap over posting a document to their website that engaged in this use. The document was removed, and they replaced it with this justification of that use of language.
I think this way of talking is both false and dangerous. It involves thinking of and speaking of whiteness as something other than being a member of a race in the sense of the ordinary concept of race above. It is becoming common to speak of whiteness as an ideology or a set of social constructions or a set of advantages rather than as simply the property of belonging to a certain group. In this way of seeing whiteness, it is the way that systems of power and influence, advantage and privilege position white people. It is an agenda of seeking to preserve those and continue to institute them. It is the way that society maintains white advantage. This is a real phenomenon. Most of it is unconscious. Some of it is the very indirect consequence of practices long ago that set up systems that still have those results today. Some of it just the inevitable result of not very carefully evaluated ways of living life as a member of a majority group. Some of is is from having been affected by stereotypes to have biases that are often unconscious. Some of it is having absorbed stigmatized notions and a sense of what is normative from what is around us. All this is to say that I am not denying the phenomenon that people are calling whiteness. What I want to say is that we should not be calling it whiteness, and I think it is morally wrong to do so.
There are several strong reasons for thinking this way of talking is deeply immoral. And no, it's not that it's racist. I believe I've said enough to show that it's not racist. It's targeting a genuine phenomenon and simply mislabeling it, and that sends a message that people wrongly perceive as racist. They can be blamed for that only to the extent that they understand this gross misuse of language is occurring, and many of them don't. The most obvious reason not to talk this way is that it is inaccurate. You end up saying false things. If you say that whiteness causes some kind of disparity, you are telling a falsehood. Whiteness is simply membership in a group that has ancestry and surface-level physical features in common, going by the Hardimon definition above that I have endorsed. Unless you are die-hard essentialist about races, thinking races have essential natures that make people racists, you are simply saying something false when you talk about whiteness in this way. We should care about truth. Truth is important. Whiteness does not actually cause anything of the sort. Merely being a member of a group that has certain visually identifiable features and ancestry does not cause anyone to resist calls for a living wage. So why are we calling it whiteness?
Marilyn Frye saw this problem 18 years ago when she distinguished between what she called whiteliness (which corresponds to how the use of "whiteness" I am critiquing) and mere whiteness, which corresponds more to what the ordinary, minimal concept of race would say that whiteness is. She called the stuff we should avoid and seek to change by some new term rather than trying to co-opt an existing one that already has a meaning and thus could sow nothing but confusion among those not in the insular circle of those talking about whiteness in this way. Alas, her voice did not win out.
A further reason we should avoid this way of talking is that it confuses people. The point of communication is to get what you are saying across to the person you are talking to. This use of the term is very insular. People who read a lot of scholarship about race understand it. People who spend a lot of time in activist circles understand it. But go back to the ordinary concept of race. How do you expect most people are going to hear if I say that we need to dismantle whiteness? What do they hear if you tell them that oppression of black people is whiteness? What do they hear when I say that I am engaging in whiteness when I exhibit unconscious biases against certain racial groups? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness (and it is bad) to expect people to be on time for something or to want to do well in school? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness to have little concern for those of other races or to use white privilege to discount the experiences of others? I would add that the newest trend (and it's all over social media) is not to stick with using "whiteness" in this way but even to extend it to "white people," i.e. saying that white people do such-and-such and then when challenged on it to say that they don't mean it's something white people do but something that whiteness does, in this already-problematic sense of the term. And we get even further along on the path to make the statement sound as racist as possible while insisting it does not mean that.
I will tell you how most white people hear this sort of statement. They feel as if they are being accused of being the most despicable racist possible. They hear it as saying that all white people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis of the worst sorts, because the statement is connecting something terrible and evil with whiteness, as if there is something like a racial essence (something biologists rejected more than a half century ago) behind why white people are so evil. In other words, it comes across as the most vile racism there can be. Saying something that sounds like that in order to try to communicate something very different is simply a big communication fail. I feel like posting one of those "You had one job" memes with someone using the word "whiteness" (or worse, "white people") in this sort of way. It's almost as if people who talk this way are trying their hardest not to get their message across and instead to try to make lots and lots of white people mishear them in order to be able to accuse them of having white fragility when they object. As a friend of mine has been saying a lot recently, I'm generally not one to go for conspiracy theories, but this seems like a case where it's sorely tempting. I hope that's not the motive, but it's accomplishing that goal very well. People are drawing their battle lines. I spend lots of time literally every day having to explain what people mean when they say stuff like this and how it's not the racist thing that it sounds like, and people simply don't believe me. They think I'm trying to explain away and justify actual racism for simply explaining what people who talk about whiteness this way mean. That alone is an incredibly powerful reason never to talk this way. Ever. It's easily one of the best ways you can divide people over race without ever lifting a finger.
As if falsity and miscommunication, leading to divisiveness, were not already enough reasons, there is a more subtle reason why we should not talk this way, one that connects directly with the overall project of short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism. It actually gets things backwards. What we want to do is recognize racial realities and use racial terms in a way that captures what really happens, but we want to move toward removing the problematic associations and assumptions connected with those terms in practice. We want to move toward the ordinary, minimalist concept of race, and speaking this way goes the wrong direction. It actually reinforces the aspects of race thinking and racial interaction that we want to move away from.
I have two sons with autism, and one of them has low impulse control. Behavior is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, and we have spent much time looking at evidence-based research about autism and behavior. One of the things an evidence-based approach will do is expose him to various conditions and then see how he responds. He is very quick to figure out what people will respond to. The behavioral therapists who worked with him would stop responding to his attempts to fake-hit them to get away from a certain task, and he would quickly learn that fake-hitting wouldn't get him the iPad he wants. He would have to ask or write it out or sign, depending on which method of asking they were reinforcing during that trial. When they gave him the iPad if he fake-hit them, they reinforced the fake-hitting. When they ignored the fake-hitting by only gave it to him when he asked, they were reinforcing the asking. It is well-documented that in cases like his nearly any audible or physical response to the behavior you want to reduce will reinforce it, because he's likely either seeking sensory feedback (and you are giving it to him) or trying to get attention (and you're giving it to him. So when he pushes me during one of his online sessions with his teacher during this pandemic, and I respond by telling him, "No" or pushing back or any other response, careful study of him and other people like him actually shows, I am reinforcing the behavior. The way to reduce to behavior is to ignore it when he does it but to model for him what he should be doing and to reinforce that when he does it. That's a bit counterintuitive, but it's what careful psychological studies have shown over and over again in this kind of case.
How does using "whiteness" the way I have been describing reinforce what we want to remove? Well, it builds it into the very definition of whiteness. You can't very well tell people that whiteness is evil and that they need to divest themselves of it, all the while building into their very identity that they are the kind of people who have essences that manifest themselves this way. Those who use this term this way don't believe that, but they are speaking publicly to people who see whiteness just as their belonging to a group that is grounded in skin color, hair type, ancestry, etc. When you say of such a group that something that sounds like it is part of their essence to behave in this kind of way, it reinforces all the associations with whiteness that we should be working hard to remove from our racial identities. You can't very well divest yourself of whiteness when people are working very hard to send a signal that being white includes all these terrible things. And I can't imagine what this is reinforcing about white people in the minds of those who talk this way regularly. We don't want to build racism into our race definitions. We want to move toward the minimalist concept so that we can affirm that racial essentialism is false and not send any messages that come across as assuming it, We want to remove racist elements from our racial concepts, so let's not reinforce those notions by using language in a way that divides rather than brings us together, that sounds like it has assumptions about racial essences that science disproved 70 years ago, that confirms all the notions that any racially forward person should not want to reinforce.
If that doesn't convince you, compare the parallel way of talking that we would get if we did the same thing to blackness. If we want to see whiteness as an ideology of white supremacy or a set of systemic structures that perpetuate white normativity, then we should also see blackness as an ideology of black inferiority or a set of systemic structures that disadvantage black people. We should not see blackness as merely belonging to a category of the minimalist race. We should not see blackness as cultural, either, not if the cultural elements we are referring to could ever be seen as positive. Blackness would have to be (to be parallel) the forces in place that operate to exclude, stigmatize, and enforce disadvantage. Blackness would be just as evil as whiteness. It would be because of someone's blackness that they do less well on standardized tests. It would be because of someone's blackness that they don't know what clothing is appropriate for a job interview or would need to be prepped for how to dress for such an interview. Can you see how racist that sounds? Yet it's precisely parallel, and if it's conceptually legitimate to use "whiteness" in the way that people are, then it is equally conceptually legitimate to use "blackness" in such a way. Indeed, both concepts are getting at a real phenomenon. But should we call that phenomenon whiteness and blackness? I don't see how it is remotely legitimate to do so, either in terms of accuracy or when we evaluate this way of speaking morally.
I have no problem talking about these phenomena, but please don't do so by calling it whiteness or blackness unless you want to perpetuate the racial disparities and stigmatized associations that we already have, indeed unless you want to reinforce those and make them stronger and to foster pointless division over a mere disagreement in language. There are philosophers who define races as groups that are put into a hierarchy, so that they wouldn't be races at all without the hierarchy. They do this to address the fact that hierarchies do exist in how we see and treat each other. But it's counterproductive to define races in such a way. We need to go the other way, which is why the minimalist view of race is so important. It moves us in the direction of allowing us to refer to races and say that racial groups are in fact treated in a hierarchical way while also not building it into the notion of races that the are hierarchical. So we can move toward the revision, which you can't do if whiteness (or blackness) is evil. But we can name the evils that are present by having racial terms that we preserve and can use to state such problems.
I was going to finish up the series with this post, but it got too long, so I will be continuing in one more post. So the ninth post will look at some much more practical matters of how to live in a way that keeps in mind both short-term retentionist and long-term revisionist goals.
One of the philosophy Facebook groups I'm in was talking about Ayn Rand, and several people expressed consternation that some philosophers treat her seriously as a philosopher. I think that's a big mistake. I think seeing her as a non-philosopher undermines the effort to convince students that we are all philosophers, and some of us just choose it as a profession by publishing and teaching philosophy, but philosophy is for everyone, and it's good for us all to engage in it. I always point out when I teach her that she was not a professional philosopher in the sense that most of the recent philosophers we are reading are, but that's also true of most of the earlier philosophers we read. Socrates, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz and many others who are part of the canon of Western philosophy had their main sources of income doing things other than philosophy.
A few things that I see as a reason for including Rand in the canon:
(1) She is a woman, and I think it's good for students to see women doing philosophy. If philosophy is for everyone, then only giving them readings by men undermines that.
(2) She is an outsider to the discipline who has offered a theory that contributes to the philosophical discussion in a way that is unique.
(3) Her particular contribution is worth having on the table among the views students are presented with. She is an egoist but not an entirely consequentialist egoist, and that's interesting. It's a deontological/virtue egoism, and we don't quite see that in Epicurus (who has a consequentialist/virtue egoism) or the Sophists (who seem purely consequentialist egoists), whereas she thinks we have deontological obligations to ourselves to seek our own good and to other people to allow them to do so. That's a unique view in the history of philosophy and shows creative theoretical philosophical reasoning.
(4) It's a way of exploring what a moderated Glaucon-style egoism can look like in modern times. I cover Book II of Plato's Republic and have them read Antiphon the Sophist, and her view allows some fleshing out of what that can look like in the 20th century.
(5) Her examples of bad character, the beggar and the sucker, while way overblown in her actual application to real-life categories, still represent actual vices, and everyone knows examples of people who are like those, so it illustrates both Aristotle's doctrine of the mean and how that can be misapplied if you misrepresent what's going on in terms of the facts of a case.
(6) Her critiques of altruism, while they don't actually show altruism to be bad, offer some good criticisms of ways that it is sometimes done, without any concern for the desires of the people intended to be helped or what's actually in their best interests rather than the projected interests of those doing the helping.
Now I do think teaching her can be done in a responsible way or an irresponsible way, and teaching her without exposing them to some opportunity to hear critiques of her ways of thinking would be irresponsible. But that's true of every philosopher I teach. I haven't found one that I think got everything right. I either get to critiques when I cover later philosophers' arguments against them, or I look at objections while covering them, because we won't get to those with later philosophers. Some of her arguments rely on several overstatements or misrepresentations of those she disagrees with, and it's irresponsible to teach her sympathetically (as I try to do, at least at the outset), without also confronting some objections to those arguments.
I think it's good for them to be exposed to her approach, her creative and unique way of putting together various approaches that we have already covered in the class, and the glaring problems her overall pictures faces when you look at it more carefully. That's precisely what a philosophy class should be doing, and presenting her as not a philosopher gets it so very wrong that I resist that kind of attitude pretty strongly. She was certainly doing philosophy, and some aspects of her approach to doing philosophy are actually a good model for doing it creatively and thoughtfully. Some were not, and they serve as a good model for how not to do it. In that light, why wouldn't I teach her?
I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
The Supreme court released a bunch of opinions yesterday. One of them isn't all that interesting to me, but a little exchange on a side point caught my attention. From the SCOTUSBlog writeup:
In a five-page concurrence, Justice Kennedy went out of his way to raise concern over the proliferation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, bemoaning the extent to which "the conditions in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest," even though "consideration of these issues is needed." Thus, he concluded, "[i]n a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required . . . to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them." Justice Thomas responded in a rather curt, one-paragraph opinion, noting that "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims . . . now rest," and that "Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."
I'm not interested in adjudicating that particular dispute, but I'm interested in (1) its very existence and (2) the particular reasoning used in each case. There's a correct moral principle behind each justice's point (just retribution for a heinous act and ensuring we don't ourselves do evil in how we treat those who do evil). It seems as if this might be a case where we can't satisfy either concern without going against the other concern, so we have to decide which principle we'll give more importance to. These two justices end up on opposite sides on that question.
Some of the early reports about yesterday's report from the Vatican conference on family issues seem to me to betray a serious misunderstanding of Catholic teaching on these issues. In the NPR story I just linked, we see two views being put into contrast that I don't think any Catholic who understands the concepts involved would recognize as being in conflict. On the one hand, Catholics have long taught that homosexuality and same-sex sexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, and Catholics insist on the wrongness of any sexual relations outside marriage. On the other hand, this report speaks of Catholic communities "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation" and "positive aspects to a couple living together without being married". It all depends on the context and what is meant by these expressions, but I see no reason yet to take these in a way that contradicts anything in Catholic teaching.
The crucial element is the concept of intrinsic disordering. If something is intrinsically disordered, it means that the good in the relationship is put together wrongly in some way. It means either something is missing, or the parts are not working together the way they ought to. But the concept of intrinsic disordering requires there to be some good, since intrinsic disordering means something is less good, as opposed to some positive evil being introduced, which is impossible on an Augustinian conception of evil that serves as the basis of the notion of intrinsic disordering.
You can't have something intrinsically disordered that doesn't have some positive good. No positive good means no existence. Intrinsic disordering means a disordering of positive good. That means there is positive good. And that means this change in emphasis isn't a change in doctrine, if all it's saying is that there is some positive good in same-sex relationships and in unmarried couples living together (implying sexual relations).
In particular, you can think value all manner of things about a same-sex relationship: you can recognize the good in a couple's self-sacrifice for each other, the good in their parenting of any children they might have, the good in the degree to which they fulfill their desire for companionship, even some level of good in the sexual pleasure they provide each other. You can do that even if you think the relationship itself is immoral and if you think they're seeking the wrong object to fulfill sexual desires and the wrong ways of fulfilling their companionship needs. You couldn't think they are good in every respect, but you have to think there is some good there, or else there would be nothing. That follows from the very notion of intrinsic disordering.
Similarly, the Catholic church holds that there are good things in opposite-sex sexual relationships between unmarried people. Catholic doctrine declares such relationships immoral. There is a difference in that they're not disordered in terms of the object of sexual desire (or at least in terms of the sex of the object of sexual desire). But there's plenty of intrinsic disordering of a different sort in those relationships (e.g. the marital status of the two people, which is an issue to do with the object of one's desire, just not about the person's sex). Most importantly, the person and relationship are placed on a higher level than God, because they refuse to honor God's command to marry before having sex. That is an intrinsic disordering, since it demonstrates one's desires are not well-ordered, which is what virtue is on an Augustinian view. Any sin is an intrinsic disordering, since it involves a disordering within one's desires. That assumes some good in the desiring and in the fulfillment. Otherwise there would be no desiring or fulfillment.
Compare the intrinsic disordering of a shoe fetish. What's disordered about that is that shoes are not an appropriate object of sexual desire. Homosexuality, by contrast, involves a desire for a human being. Human beings are the appropriate objects of human sexual desire in general, even if there is some intrinsic disordering when it involves same-sex desires. That means there's something good about same-sex desire that isn't present for the shoe fetish. It's not clear to me that the Catholic statement is doing anything more than acknowledging things like that. That's compatible with thinking same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered to the point of being immoral. I think people who don't have a view like the Catholic view will be inclined to think that anyone who thinks homosexuality is intrinsically disordered must think it the height of all evil, with nothing redeemable or good about it, but that's simply not what the view holds. Many who hold the Catholic view might not see this, but there's a difference between how proponents of a view understand it and what the official view is, at least when you're talking about a view held by those who believe their views come from some authoritative source. (The No True Scotsman fallacy is simply not an issue when you have an authoritative person, text, or organization that determines what the official view is. There is a genuine Catholic position, and those who don't hold that view do not hold the Catholic view.)
There may be a different emphasis here, but it's not at odds with thinking the relationship is intrinsically disordered anymore than the idea that it's good to support our troops is at odds with being opposed to a particular conflict they've been fighting in. So don't believe anyone claiming that this is a change in Catholic doctrine. It's not a conflict or departure from the concept of intrinsic disordering. It in fact brings to the fore something that follows from the notion of intrinsic disordering. Perhaps that's something that those who believe homosexuality is intrinsically disordered should be emphasizing more. But it's not a new position. It even follows from the idea of intrinsic disordering. Anyone claiming the two are at odds simply doesn't understand what it means to be intrinsically disordered, or they couldn't think that.
Thabiti Anyabwile has come under a lot of criticism from many quarters for his recent post on the gag reflex and Christian opposition to same-sex sexual acts, increasingly called "homosex" of late. [I'm still getting used to that word, because it still feels like an adjective to me (one without its proper ending), but it's a useful word compared with writing out something like "engaging in same-sex sexual activity, so I will use it.]
He has just posted a followup responding to some of the criticisms as well.
As I see it, there are several issues going on here, and I don't think all the participants in the conversation are keeping them straight. There are a number of ways his argument is being misrepresented (and then made fun of in pretty vile ways as a result), but there are also some genuine philosophical difficulties with some of the things he's saying, and I'm not entirely sure I agree with some of the key points. Even so, I think some of the things for which he's being unfairly made fun of by a lot of the opposition seem to me to be largely correct and even relatively obvious, things I'm not sure many people will really want to rid themselves of in their ethical theorizing if they were to think their views through more carefully. So maybe they should refrain from making fun of them, if I'm right about that. I want to work my way to that gradually, however, with a bit of a review of some of the key philosophical moves that have been made about the connection between morality and emotion.
1. Ethics and Emotion
I'm not interested first in the application to homosex, although I will say a few things about that later on. I'm primarily interested in the general strategy of ethical reasoning that involves paying heed to emotions like disgust. A good friend of mine complained on Twitter about the arguments found in the original post, arguing that if we allow disgust to guide our ethical judgments it would mean racists' disgust for racial interaction could generate moral principles against interracial marriage (or more particularly against interracial sex). If disgust shows us anything at all about genuine moral principles, the argument goes, then we have to follow our disgust whatever it leads us to loathe. And people can loathe all sorts of things, in ways that don't at all track genuine moral principles. So we shouldn't rely on our disgust to show us anything about morality.
I think this argument is a mistake. The fact that disgust can be directed against things that are not wrong does not show us that disgust isn't ever a guide to morality. All it shows us is that disgust can be fallible. It can sometimes be directed against things that are not morally wrong. But the same is true of emotionless reason. Emotionless reason presumably led Immanuel Kant to say that lying is always wrong. However, it also has presumably led other philosophers to say that lying, while usually wrong, is sometimes the morally right thing to do. If emotionless reason can generate both principles, then obviously it's fallible. But that doesn't mean it never helps us end up with correct moral principles. It just means it's fallible. It sometimes gets things wrong. We can't trust it 100%. But only a radical skeptic (or someone who grants the radical skeptic far too much, as Rene Descartes did) would claim that a source of information is worthless just because it's not 100% reliable. So I don't think we can rule out a connection between emotion and morality so quickly.
As it happens, recent work in feminist ethics has drawn a lot of attention to attempts to separate emotion from ethical reasoning that have led to a bias against ways of moral reasoning that have tended to be more paradigmatic of women than of men. This bias has had the effect of marginalizing women's ethical reasoning, to the detriment of our overall ethical reasoning. Alison Jaggar has argued that much of the history of ethical theory, which happens to have been done mostly by men, has either treated emotion as something completely isolated from ethical reasoning (as Kant did; emotion cannot be trusted, and the only way to get ethical understanding is to reason in a way that doesn't involve emotion) or as the foundation of all our ethics but a foundation that has no basis in any ethical truth (as David Hume did; there is no ethical truth, because ethics is pure emotion and not reasoned).
Thankfully, Jaggar is wrong about the history of philosophy. Sometimes it's because she misinterprets particular philosophers, such as her reading of the Stoics as being opposed to all emotion, which she can be forgiven for, because, well, they do actually say that. But philosophers are often bad reporters of their own views, and it turns out it's not feelings that the Stoics think we should rid ourselves of. It's bad reasoning, which is how they define emotion. There are plenty of feelings, according to the Stoics, that are perfectly fine to have as long as they're compatible with reasoning well. Certainly the Stoics emphasize reason and say they oppose emotion, but what they oppose isn't what we normally call emotion. The Stoic view on emotion is perfectly compatible with taking what most of us call emotions to be very important for ethics. In fact, having the right feelings, ones compatible with reason, is even crucial for the Stoics. They just won't call those feelings emotions.
Jaggar also seems to me to underemphasize the ways that historical philosophers even put a good deal of effort into organizing their ethical theories around emotions. Plato considered it extremely important for the best possible life that your emotions be engaged in appreciating goodness itself on an emotional level. Aristotle explained some of the most important virtues as simply having the tendency to respond to your circumstances with the right level of emotional response. Augustine's entire account of virtue makes it emotional: virtue is having well-ordered love, whereby you love the best things the most and the less-good things less fully. I myself think all three of them were largely right in these things. Ethics is very much tied up with emotion, and attempts to separate ethics from emotion the way Hume and Kant did are, to my thinking, disastrous.
But several questions remain. It's one thing to say that ethics involves having the right emotions. It's another to say that our emotions are, even sometimes, a good guide to the right ethical principles. We certainly can't just read our ethics off whatever emotions we happen to have. There are plenty of times when my emotional response isn't proportional to an offense that's committed, and I either overreact or underestimate a wrong that's taken place. Or I might not be properly placed to experience the good in something and not be as able to rejoice as I should at some good. There are lots of cases where our emotional judgments are a little off, and there are enough cases, such as with the racist example above, where they are drastically off. Indeed, a Christian who believes in the doctrine of the fall should be the first to recognize that, and that was even crucial for Augustine's ethical theory. Our emotions are often not directed in ways that remotely match up with what's truly good.
2. Ethics, Disgust, and Moral Reasoning
But that doesn't mean there's no role for disgust to play in helping us to see certain ethical truths. Jaggar's feminist treatment of this subject is a good example. She argues that women, having been oppressed for the entirety of recorded history by being told that their emotions are wrong when those emotions contradict how they're being treated, are nevertheless right to pay heed to those emotions, because those emotions are genuine clues to the reality that our socially-constructed narrative is otherwise blinding us to. A member of an oppressed group might have absorbed the narrative that they, as unintelligent slaves, have no rights and need the help of those who are guiding society along to make their decisions for them, but their emotions tell them that the views they've officially adopted on the level of conscious reason are somehow wrong. This can be so for any oppressed or marginalized group, not just women, but she picks out women as a group because women have been told (and less so in outright words in recent years but still conditioned by society in this direction) that they are emotional rather than reasoning beings, that their emotions are less trustworthy than the reasoning that's been identified as paradigmatic of men. I don't agree with everything Jaggar says along these lines, but there's quite a lot of it that strikes me as right about the history of how women are viewed and about some of the elements of how we (men and women today) are still conditioned to view each other and ourselves.
So if Jaggar is right, then there are at least some contexts in which emotions will be even a better guide to truth than the more emotionless reasoning that can easily be simply the reflex of our socially-conditioned environment, our lip service to the biases of our day. Now emotions can do that, too, as evidenced by racist disgust at interracial sex, for example. But all Jaggar is claiming is that sometimes emotions can be a better guide to moral truth than whatever process underlies what we're conditioned to call emotionless reason. And that seems to me to be absolutely right.
Even more, I think there are cases where we can show that our emotion adds something to moral reasoning that you simply cannot get from the emotionless reasoning. A friend of mine who works in aesthetics once gave a case that seems to me to indicate this pretty nicely. Suppose you're eating a kidney and a little bit disgusted at it. This is not moral disgust at all. You just ended up in a situation where you're expected to eat something that you don't like the taste of, and you find it a bit disgusting. But after you've been eating it for a few minutes, you discover that it's a human kidney. Suddenly your level of disgust goes way up. That's not from the taste of it, which didn't change, or from any emotionless reason, because emotionless reason has no emotion and thus by itself wouldn't increase your disgust. Rather, your level of disgust increases because of some moral principle lying behind the disgust, one that upon rational examination would easily stand up. Eating humans is morally worse than eating a kidney from some other animal. It should disgust us, and it does. We should feel greater disgust at eating humans, if we're morally healthy. That doesn't mean that it follows that eating humans is always wrong. It's compatible with this disgust that eating humans who died independently of our actions in a case of survival is morally allowable. Yet it does seem that there's a moral principle lying behind the disgust, one that very few people would question, and it's hard to argue that the disgust isn't a sign of that moral truth. The disgust signifies that truth. Its continuation from generation to generation helps maintain our resistance to cannibalism, and we should be glad for that.
(I should note that this example is a lot like C.S. Lewis' example of finding out that you're eating a deer that was a talking deer in The Silver Chair. The difference, there, however, is that those eating the deer didn't have disgust at all until they found out it was a talking deer. Here there's already disgust at eating the kidney, but it takes on a whole new level of disgust when you learn that it's a human kidney.)
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.