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If it is not immoral to love one's own children more and put them above all

If it is not immoral to love one's own children more and put them above all other children, then why can't that concept be extended to one's own race? Biological polygenesis and philosophy of history makes it clear that colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples is not always immoral and human perceptions of skin color will never go away.

Let's start with your second sentence: "Biological polygenesis and philosophy of history make it clear that colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures is not always immoral." A few obvious points.

First, biological polygenesis (distinct origins for different races) is not widely accepted among scientists. In fact, far as I know, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Second, even if polygenesis happens to be true, that wouldn't show that colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples was okay. Compare: suppose that sometime in the future, humans travel outside the solar system and find intelligent creatures on other planets. Those beings certainly have different origins than we have. But from that it doesn't follow that we would be justified in colonizing them, let alone destroying their culture or killing them. After all, if intelligent aliens make it to earth, that wouldn't make it right for them to colonize us or kill us.

And finally, "philosophy of history" doesn't show what you claim without a very specific, detailed argument about particular cases. No doubt such arguments have been offered. Whether they are any good is another question.

But let's go back to the question you begin with. Let's agree that it's not immoral to love your own children more than other children. That doesn't allow you to ignore the welfare of other children. It doesn't justify you in doing things that actually harm other children. And it certainly doesn't give the law any reason to favor your children, or mine, over anyone else's.

Our emotional attachments are a complicated business. It's true: most (though not all) of my friends are white, like me. But that's a very different thing from my having some sort of general preference for the Caucasian "race" as such. If I subscribed to all sorts of peculiar beliefs about people of other races, I might end up with that attitude. But there's no reason to think the beliefs would stand up to scrutiny. In any case, it would be one thing if, as a matter of psychological fact, we tended to prefer people of our own race to people of other races. But if I think it would be wrong for me to treat my white neighbor in certain ways, then I ought to think it would be equally wrong if my neighbor wasn't white.

Maybe humans will always pay attention to skin color. What they make of it is another matter. My daughter and her friends are much more "color-blind" than people were when I was her age. This strikes me as a very good thing, which brings us to the point we'll end on. In spite of what you seem to suggest, it's hard to make the case that racial preference has done the world any good and easy to make the case that it's done a lot of harm. Extending concepts like love of one's children or love of one's friends to love of one's racial group is skating on micro-thin moral ice.

Let's start with your second sentence: "Biological polygenesis and philosophy of history make it clear that colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures is not always immoral." A few obvious points. First, biological polygenesis (distinct origins for different races) is not widely accepted among scientists. In fact, far as I know, the evidence points in the opposite direction. Second, even if polygenesis happens to be true, that wouldn't show that colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples was okay. Compare: suppose that sometime in the future, humans travel outside the solar system and find intelligent creatures on other planets. Those beings certainly have different origins than we have. But from that it doesn't follow that we would be justified in colonizing them, let alone destroying their culture or killing them. After all, if intelligent aliens make it to earth, that wouldn't make it right for them to colonize us or kill us. And finally, "philosophy of history"...

Isn't racist to find the word "nigger" racist? As in when it's merely said

Isn't racist to find the word "nigger" racist? As in when it's merely said around you and not directed towards you. When someone calls another an "asshole," there isn't a normally a particular ethnicity that comes to mind -- yet The "N" Word is automatically associated with people of African descent. This all seems to fit into the ideology of race making racism possible.

I'll have to admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following you.

In the sorts of cases that matter for this discussion, the "N" word is a slur. It's also a slur that, unlike "asshole," has a racial meaning. It's belittling someone because of their race. I think we agree on all that. The reason the "N" word brings "a particular ethnicity" to mind is because of what the word means; no mystery there. You write "yet the 'N' word is automatically associated with people of African descent" as though this was somehow puzzling or in need of explanation, but there's no puzzle that I can see.

Close enough for present purposes, a racist is someone who has a negative view of some people simply because of their race or who mistreats people on account of their race. Seems pretty clear that that's bad; also seems pretty clear that there are plenty of people like that. Using a racial epithet like the "N" word is stereotypically racist behavior, and I can't see why that should seem puzzling.

So what's left is your first sentence and your last one. Start with the first. You suggest that it's racist to find the "N" word racist even when the person making is judgment isn't the target of the insult. But why? I don't have to be the target of an insult to recognize that someone has been insulted, just as I don't have to be the one who was hit to tell that someone was assaulted.

So let's consider your last sentence: "This all seems to fit into the ideology of race making racism possible." Now it's certainly true: without racial distinctions, racism isn't possible. You can't demean or mistreat someone on account of their race unless we can talk about their race in the first place. Same goes for gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, economic status, educational level and so on. But if I recognize that someone is being shunned simply because they don't have much money, I'm not buying into an ideology; I'm recognizing bad behavior. Same in the case of race.

Now someone might argue that by acknowledging race at all, we help make racism possible. But let's think that through. I might think that race is a category with no interesting biological basis. I might think that distinctions among so-called races are shallow. I might also think it would be better if we all just left the idea of race behind. But thoughts like that might be exactly why why I object to racial slurs. We don't live in a post-racial society, and pretending that we do doesn't make it so. Racism is real and it's wrong. Even if I dream of a world where people are judged by the content of the character and not the color of their skin, that's not the world we live in.

One last stab: maybe the idea is that the best thing to do with racism is to ignore it. By calling it out, we draw attention to it and help keep the idea that race is important alive. If that's the thought, then there's an empirical question in front of us: what ways of responding to racism are most likely to help bring it to an end? In particular: would ignoring people who make racist insults be better in the long run than worrying about it or calling it out?

Since this is an empirical question, I can't pretend that I know the answer a priori, but even a casual glance at history makes a strong case for saying that confronting racism rather than ignoring it is what's brought about the demise of many ills (slavery being an obvious example), and the diminishment of others (job discrimination, for example.) The question of how best to move forward isn't always easy to answer, and if that's part of your point, I agree. But it seems to me that we have a ways to go, and I find it hard to convince myself that racist acts and attitudes will go away if only people of good will ignore them.

I'll have to admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following you. In the sorts of cases that matter for this discussion, the "N" word is a slur. It's also a slur that, unlike "asshole," has a racial meaning. It's belittling someone because of their race. I think we agree on all that. The reason the "N" word brings "a particular ethnicity" to mind is because of what the word means; no mystery there. You write "yet the 'N' word is automatically associated with people of African descent" as though this was somehow puzzling or in need of explanation, but there's no puzzle that I can see. Close enough for present purposes, a racist is someone who has a negative view of some people simply because of their race or who mistreats people on account of their race. Seems pretty clear that that's bad; also seems pretty clear that there are plenty of people like that. Using a racial epithet like the "N" word is stereotypically racist behavior, and I can't see why that should seem puzzling. So what's left is...

My friend and I were having a discussion about racism. He made a claim to me

My friend and I were having a discussion about racism. He made a claim to me that he would never date a black woman, but that he wasn't racist. Now, to me, that seems like a racist comment. But he says that I am misunderstanding him. These are his arguments: "I do not find black women attractive, and so I would not date one. You might call me racist then, but if I said I didn't like women with brown hair, or women with gray eyes, does that necessarily mean that I am discriminating against women with those attributes? It would just mean that I wouldn't consider a woman with gray eyes or brown hair a prospect for a sexual relationship. Furthermore, I could say that you don't wish to have sex with men, and by your logic, that would make you sexist against men." His arguments are persuasive, but I find something very wrong with them. It seems to me that if someone is otherwise compatible with you, it shouldn't matter what race they are (or, in fact, if they had freckles or blond hair, et cetera). ...

Your friend represents you as offering a bad argument: people who saythey're unattracted to people with characteristic X are prejudiced;your friend says he's unattracted to black women; hence, your friendsays, you conclude that he's prejudiced. But that doesn't strike me asa plausible diagnosis of what's going on. The problem isn't that you are relying on the bad argument your friend accuses you of. The problem is that yourfriend's supposed preferences are awfully hard to credit.

The obvious question to put to your friend is this: does he find all women with dark complexions sexually unattractive? If he says yes, then he might be telling the truth, but it's not easy to believe. If he says no, then things are equally puzzling: among people conventionally labeled "black," there is a wide, vast variety. Could it really be that there's something that all black women have in common that makes them unattractive to your friend? What could it possibly be?

And so we have a puzzle. Your friend is expressing a preference that's awfully hard to fathom given what we know about most people. When we're faced with cases like this, we cast around for explanations. And when race is part of the mix, the hypothesis that there's some unacknowledged prejudice at work has a certain plausibility.

Please note that since I don't know your friend and haven't ever talked to him about any of this, I can't claim to know what's really going on here. And since the word "racism" is so loaded, I've left it out of the conversation entirely. But one more general point might be worth making: human relationships and human attraction are both pretty complicated. If your friend isn't prejudiced, and if he's a properly modest thinker, then he might want to pull his horns in a bit. Few of us know ourselves as well as your friend's remark presupposes.

Your friend represents you as offering a bad argument: people who saythey're unattracted to people with characteristic X are prejudiced;your friend says he's unattracted to black women; hence, your friendsays, you conclude that he's prejudiced. But that doesn't strike me asa plausible diagnosis of what's going on. The problem isn't that you are relying on the bad argument your friend accuses you of. The problem is that yourfriend's supposed preferences are awfully hard to credit. The obvious question to put to your friend is this: does he find all women with dark complexions sexually unattractive? If he says yes, then he might be telling the truth, but it's not easy to believe. If he says no, then things are equally puzzling: among people conventionally labeled "black," there is a wide, vast variety. Could it really be that there's something that all black women have in common that makes them unattractive to your friend? What could it possibly be? And so we have a puzzle. Your friend...

At the moment, I'm particularly concerned about the 'personal heresy' in

At the moment, I'm particularly concerned about the 'personal heresy' in philosophy. Recently, Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, gave a speech in which he quoted several racist statements by key philosophers of Western civilisation. David Hume, for instance believed that "of all the 'breeds' of man, the darkest breed was inferior.."(quote from Mbeki's speech) and it's also believed that Kant believed black people were 'beasts'(again, Mbeki's belief). Whether these quotes are accurate or not, it's indubitable that the milieu in which these philosophers formed their various normative frameworks was a deeply prejudiced one. If philosophy proceeds from deductivism, i.e a set of axioms are laid out, rules of inference determined, and from these various judgements made, is it possible that inherent within western thought is a kind of racial prejudice? And if so, is it possible to account for it, using some kind of 'personal equation' of the kind invoked by Gauss in his work with astronomy?

I'll have to leave the bit about Gauss aside. All I know about the "personal equation" was that astronomers had noticed certain sorts of systematic variations among observers. But there was a different theme in your question that I'd like to address.

A preamble: Yes, Hume, Kant and other western philosophers, no doubt all on this panel included, operate in a mileu that's saddled with various prejudices. I'd add that I'm not aware of any large cultural mileu that's exempt from this sad fact, and Africa, like the west, provides its own set of depressing illustrations. But I'm a bit uncomfortable with using a term like "Western Thought" (or, for that matter, "Eastern Thought" or "African thought" or even "South African thought") as an analytical concept. (I'm uncomfortable for similar reasons when my students write papers with sentences that begin "Society holds that...") As noted, the history of the west embodies a good many prejudices and false ideas. Some of these make their way into political and philosophical thinking. But some of those same ideas are roundly denounced and incisively criticized by thinkers within the very same broad tradition.

This bears on a more general point. Although some philosophers reason from propositions that function more or less explicitly as axioms, that suggests a model of doing philosophy that doesn't seem to me to fit the practice very well. Part of the problem is that this "top down" model simply doesn't capture what goes on in a lot of the best philosophical thinking. Philosophers are sensitive to abstract principles when they seem pertinent, but also to low-level intuitions and to stubborn facts. To borrow a phrase that John Rawls made popular, good philosophy looks for a "reflective equilibrium" among considerations of various sorts and at various levels of abstraction.

But even insofar as some philosophy fits the model you suggest, any philosopher who formulates an explicit axiom and reasons from it can expect that the axiom will become the target of counterarguments and counterexamples. The philosopher's impulse in the face of a sacred cow is to slay it. That's an important part of what keeps the discipline honest.

I'll have to leave the bit about Gauss aside. All I know about the "personal equation" was that astronomers had noticed certain sorts of systematic variations among observers. But there was a different theme in your question that I'd like to address. A preamble: Yes, Hume, Kant and other western philosophers, no doubt all on this panel included, operate in a mileu that's saddled with various prejudices. I'd add that I'm not aware of any large cultural mileu that's exempt from this sad fact, and Africa, like the west, provides its own set of depressing illustrations. But I'm a bit uncomfortable with using a term like "Western Thought" (or, for that matter, "Eastern Thought" or "African thought" or even "South African thought") as an analytical concept. (I'm uncomfortable for similar reasons when my students write papers with sentences that begin "Society holds that...") As noted, the history of the west embodies a good many prejudices and false ideas. Some of these make their way into political and...