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Thoughts on racism (1): Hursthouse on the repentant racist


I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m going to be giving a couple of seminars on racism and related topics this summer at The Atlas Society’s Graduate Seminar. I’ve worked up a fair bit of material on racism etc. at this point, so I thought I’d post some of it here, partly to preview what I’ll be doing at the TAS seminar, but also just to do some thinking out loud about a contentious topic. Feedback is of course welcome.

This first item (of many) is an abstract for a paper that I’ll be working on this summer, and presenting at the Grad Seminar–a critique of Rosalind Hursthouse‘s discussion of racism and moral luck in her book, On Virtue Ethics. Though it’s not an explicit part of the abstract or paper, I think my argument below is worth comparing and contrasting with what Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley say about “inherently dishonest ideas” in their famous debate on that subject back in 1989-90. The view I take on this particular issue is (I think) somewhat closer to Peikoff’s view than to Kelley’s.

Rosalind Hursthouse

Rosalind Hursthouse

Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist: Error, Evil, and Moral Luck

A “repentant racist” (on my definition) is someone who, having been brought up in childhood as a racist, later comes wholeheartedly to reject racism and then tries his best, within the limits of the nomologically possible, to reform his beliefs and character accordingly. In her 2001 book, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse argues that given the power of childhood upbringing, a person brought up as a racist will involuntarily have racist thoughts (feelings, emotions, etc.) well into adulthood. Since (she argues) the mere having of such thoughts (etc.)—regardless of their etiology—is a sufficient condition of racism, and racism is (regardless of its etiology) morally vicious, the mere having of such thoughts indicates a defect of moral character. It follows that virtually all repentant racists are “imperfect in virtue” due to causes beyond their control. Hursthouse takes her analysis to establish the existence of moral luck, to show the plausibility of a (broadly) Aristotelian account of the emotions, and to uncover (what she takes to be) the subtle racism in certain Kant-inspired accounts of repentant racism (notably Lawrence Blum’s in Friendship, Altruism, and Morality). In this paper, I argue that Hursthouse’s argument is thoroughly misconceived, both in its overarching form and in its details.

An initial problem concerns a three-fold ambiguity in her account of the repentant racist:

(1)   Parts of the text suggest that repentant racists suffer racist thoughts into their adulthoods from deterministic causes beyond their control.

(2)   Other parts of the text suggest that these same thoughts are within the agent’s control.

(3)   Yet other parts of the text are neutral on the question of doxastic control, suggesting that it ought not to matter whether the etiology of a given thought is in the agent’s control or out of it.

Since (1), (2), and (3) each have very different moral implications, the preceding ambiguity adversely affects some crucial moves in the discussion.

Let’s suppose, ex hypothesi, that Hursthouse really means to assert (1) above: in other words, repentant racists, having been inculcated into racism at an early age, cannot help carrying (some) stray racist thoughts into adulthood no matter what they do in the way of moral reform. In that case, the objections to Hursthouse’s argument fall into two categories—those that grant the assumption that a child can blamelessly be inculcated into racism, and those that contest that assumption.

Granting the assumption. Suppose we grant that a child can blamelessly be inculcated into racism. In that case, Hursthouse’s claim implies that a repentant racist, having been blamelessly inculcated into racism in childhood, can still (as an adult) be morally defective for any lingering racist thoughts he still has, even if those thoughts are caused by factors beyond his control.

The question arises how the etiology of inherited belief produces a defect of moral character. At a minimum, the answer to that question turns on answers to questions like the following:

  • Is the repentant racist’s character rendered deficient by the involuntary coming-to-be of racist thoughts, or is it caused by how he reacts to those thoughts? Are both of these factors supposed to be beyond his control, or just one?
  • Can a person’s moral character be rendered defective by an involuntary racist thought that simply passes unbidden through his consciousness, or must some form of endorsement of the thought be involved as a necessary condition of the moral defect? Is there such a thing as an involuntary endorsement?
  • Must the racist thought recur, or is one occurrence (of an unendorsed racist thought involuntarily caused by one’s upbringing) sufficient to render the person’s moral character defective?

Hursthouse fails either to address these questions, or to address the concern that motivates them.

The concern arises from a commitment to what Dana Nelkin calls “the Control Principle” (CP): “we are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.” It follows from CP that since racist thoughts involuntarily inherited from childhood are ex hypothesi not in the agent’s control, the person having those thoughts is not morally assessable for having them. By my definition, a repentant racist is someone who does the best he can to free himself of his racist upbringing, given his (conscientious) knowledge of the possibilities open to him. Since doing one’s best is all that moral virtue can ask of a person, it makes no sense to claim that a repentant racist is morally imperfect because he is the victim of forces beyond his control. It may be true that such an agent starts life with an inherited debility that prevents him from exercising virtue in its humanly best form, but pace Hursthouse, it is misleading at best to suggest that an inherited debility is a moral defect.

A close reading of Hursthouse suggests that she has no adequate response to the preceding objection. Her presumptive response to it relies on a question-begging rejection of CP: she rejects CP at the outset of the inquiry by presupposing the existence of moral luck, but then uses the inquiry to confirm the existence of moral luck (and thereby to reject CP). She also fails to see that her prescriptions for the repentant racist require self-deception of him: she instructs the repentant racist to act as though his racist thoughts were in his control when (by her own lights) they are not. Arguably, the pervasive self-deception she demands of the repentant racist is a greater threat to moral life than the stray (deterministic) racist thoughts she intends by her prescriptions to eradicate.hursthouse

Challenging the assumption. Though she treats the claim as uncontroversial, a critic might well wish to challenge Hursthouse’s assertion that a child can be inculcated into racism by means that are entirely beyond his control. This claim motivates Hursthouse’s discussion from the start, but is never argued for, and is not (in my view) prima facie obvious. It’s unclear whether anyone can be inculcated into racism unless he voluntarily internalizes its claims. Arguably a child old enough to understand a racist claim is old enough to have the doxastic obligation of rejecting it, whereas a child too young to understand such a claim is too young to be counted as believing it. Unfortunately, Hursthouse’s discussion of this issue is vitiated by some tendentious misrepresentations of Blum’s views, by a mistranslation of a crucial passage from Aristotle’s Ethics, and by the absence of any sustained discussion of real-world examples of the alleged phenomenon.

Works discussed

(1) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.3, 1104b11-12.

(2) Lawrence A. Blum, Friendship, Altruism, and Morality (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), ch. 8.

(3) Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Cambridge, 2001), ch. 5.

(4) Andrew Latus, “Moral and Epistemic Luck,” Journal of Philosophical Research 25 (2000), pp. 149-72.

(5) Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck,” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 24-38.

(6) Dana Nelkin, “Moral Luck,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008).

(7) Plato, Republic 401e; Laws 653e.

(8) Holly Smith, “Culpable Ignorance,” Philosophical Review 92:4 (Oct. 1983), pp. 543-71.

(9) Gregory Trianosky, “Natural Affection and Responsibility for Character: A Critique of Kantian Views of the Virtues,” in O. Flanagan and A. Rorty ed. Morality, Identity, and Character (MIT, 1990), pp. 93-109.

(10) Bernard Williams, “Moral Luck,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 20-39.

See also:

David Kelley, Truth and Toleration, pp. 57-60.

Leonard Peikoff, “Fact and ValueThe Intellectual Activist (1989).



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