This is the seventh 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. I was going to have this be the final post, but I've decided to split this material in two. This post will look at some general issues, and the final one will get into some specifics.
What do I mean by the ethics of the metaphysics of race. As I said at the beginning, metaphysics is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality, and looking at the nature of race is thus an exercise in applied metaphysics, in the same way that utilitarianism is an example of an ethical theory and then abortion is an example of an applied issue in ethics. The previous posts in the series look at questions such as whether race exists, what sort of thing it is, and so on. They are questions about reality. And if you've followed along with me in my arguments, then you should be convinced that race is real, the groups we usually call races are social kinds, their social construction involves problematic notions, the categories themsevles came into existence from false views, their current existence is nonetheless real, and where racial boundaries are drawn can vary from place to place, across time, and even from conversation to conversation. Social kinds are like that, because what defines them are social conditions that change as people use language differently, have different concerns, or think differently about what they are discussing.
If you followed me in my line of reasoning in the last post, you would also agree with me that there are groups that biology can identify that seem perfectly reasonably to call races but that are not remotely like the old biological theories of race and are much closer to the social kind races that we refer to in ordinary conversation. Our ordinary racial terms don't quite refer to precisely the same groups as these newly recognized biological races, however, so it wouldn't be accurate to say that these groups are the same races that we ordinarily speak of. They just overlap a huge amount.
So now the ethical question comes: what should we do after considering all that? How should we use our language? Are certain ways of talking right or wrong? Should we be classifying people into these groups? There are a number of ways of talking about races that we might rightly find very worrisome. But if races are real, and if real problems occur along racial lines, then we have to be able to refer to races, right? So that's what the ethics of the metaphysics of race is about. What are the moral issues related to how we recognize or don't recognize races and how we talk or think about them or how we don't talk or think about them?
In metaphysics, you have categories like realism and anti-realism, which get to whether you think the thing in question exists. If you think there really are moral truths, then you would be a realist about morality. If you don't, then you would be an ethical anti-realist. But there are varieties of both. We saw that in the case of race you could be a realist and think races are biological entities or social entities (or both, if you accept my arguments). But there are a number of further attitudes you could take.
Eliminativism is not about what exists as much as what we should stop believing in and talking about. The concept developed in philosophy of mind. Eliminative materialism starts from the view that minds don't exist. There are brains and neurons and neurological structures, but there aren't any such things as beliefs, desires, choices, and so on. So eliminativism in this case starts with an anti-realist claim. There are no beliefs. But then the eliminativist program is to work ourselves to a point where that mental language is no longer necessary by doing science and learning how to talk in brain terms. So the metaphysical component is the denial that beliefs exist, and the ethical component is working ourselves toward a point where we don't talk about them anymore. We stop thinking in those terms. (And, ironically, we stop having beliefs about beliefs.)
It's important to see that eliminativism is grounded in the metaphysical claim of anti-realism. I have already argued that anti-realism about race is false. So that shuts down eliminativism in the standard form. But could you get another argument going, that we should implement a long-term strategy of getting ourselves to a point where anti-realism is in fact true, and then we can stop talking about these racial groups that have their origin in false and morally problematic ideas. So it would not be eliminativism now. It wouldn't be accurate to say races don't exist now, after all. It would be a long-term eliminativism.
The problem with this view has already come up in this blog series. In the social construction post, Sally Haslanger's view is long-term eliminativist in this sense, and Chike Jeffers' response contains arguments against that. I explained why I agree with him in that post. As he argues, along the way the racial groups that were imposed by people with false views about those races nevertheless have become real groups whose existence has continued while conditions of membership have changed and how people have thought of those groups have changed, and some of them have developed within each racial group some cultural aspects that are common to many members of the group. This happens on a level larger than ethnicity, e.g. African-Americans are a much larger group than an ethnicity. Those cultural traits then become associated with the race, even though not all of those cultural traits are present in other African-descended groups around the world. Some of those traits are positive and neutral. Removing racial talk and thought could then eliminate things that are not bad, and that would be bad. And along the way, we still have to address racial problems. We need to keep using the terms all that time, which means people's sense of the existence of those groups is not likely to disappear very easily. Passing a law to ban racial terminology won't stop people from thinking in racial terms or engaging in all the biases that we have about various racial groups, most of which are unconscious and develop in early childhood. It doesn't seem as if eliminativism is a good response, then, even long-term eliminativism.
So does that mean we just keep these terms and never seek to change how we think about them? I call that approach retentionism. On a retentionist view, we just accept how things are and don't worry about trying to change them. Maybe we do this because we like the status quo. Maybe we do it because we see change as hopeless. Or maybe we do it just because we don't think about the ways we can make changes. But retentionism seems worrisome to me, at least if we do it in an unqualified way. Simply retaining categories tainted with bad stuff seems wrong. That's what is right about the eliminativist urge, but eliminativism goes too far. Retentionism, on the other hand, doesn't go far enough. We need to seek some change in how we think about these terms, how we use them.
I think the way forward is to recognize that there is a middle ground between simply retaining our racial categories and just getting rid of them. We could instead revise them. We can start using them differently. We can remove the bad stuff. We can think about racial groups more accurately and remove the conditions that set us up for all the racial problems that we have. However, I don't think we can just do this revision now the way some have argued we should. anymore than we could just eliminate the terms overnight. Short-term revisionism and short-term eliminativism both face the same problem. If we decide we need new definitions of race and start trying to implement them, it won't change people's thoughts, and it certainly won't change the biases they formed as children. What we need to do is change the conditions that lead to our racial views forming the way they do and that lead to biases forming in young children. I would therefore urge a long-term revisionist proposal.
What about the short-term, then? Well, we have no choice, actually. We can pretend we're trying to eliminate or revise racial terms overnight, but it won't work. It won't be likely to catch on, but even if it did it would be lying. We'd be pretending. It would be like parents who do the Santa Claus thing. We'd be living a fiction to try to get people to do something we'd rather they do, but it would all be founded in a lie. No matter how much we pretend there aren't any races, there are. No matter how much we want to say that there is only one race and then confusedly say that the human species is also a sub-species or race, it simply will be false, and we'll be spreading a lie. Sure, it's a noble lie with good motives behind it, but those of us who care about the truth should never tolerate such a proposal. It should certainly not be a view that a philosopher should endorse. Philosophers should seek the truth and should acknowledge it when they discover it.
And the fact remains that you have to be able to talk about these groups we call races in order to recognize biases, disparities, mistreatment, and so on. Those are realities, and we need terminology to do that. Even most anti-realists now are recognizing that. While they are still denying that races are real, they have at least found other ways to refer to the groups that we call races. They call them racialized groups or races* or the like. But what that recognize is that the groups we call races are real and that they need to be named. They are just resistant to calling those groups races. If you really want to insist on that, I won't fight it too hard, although I still think that relies on false assumptions about how our terms refer to things in the world. If we have consistently called those groups races for hundreds of years, and we agree that the groups exist, why not simply recognize that the word simply refers to groups like those at this point? Even if the word once meant something else, it doesn't anymore and hasn't for at least several decades. But if you're going to resist on that point, at least recognize that the groups exist and that we need to refer to them while also recognizing that the vast majority of people use racial language to refer to those groups.
So I think short-term retentionism or at best a very minor revisionism is all we can do right now, while pursuing a long-term revisionism, especially about the conditions that lead to how we think about races and form our racial concepts so that we can end up with different racial notions than we have. And now it's only taken me seven posts to explain the title of my book. A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Approach, and this blog series is almost over. But we're not done yet. We still need to get to the details of what that short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism look like in practice. There are particular proposals that I want to look at more specifically and offer some suggestions for what that would best look like, starting with a look at the minimalist concept of race and whiteness.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.