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Before I married I dated a few guys from my group of friends from university.

Before I married I dated a few guys from my group of friends from university. This group included a great variety of people in terms of health, wealth, race, looks, etc. The only common point was that we were all similar age. As I was lucky enough to be popular, I was choosy. I never wanted to date a smoker, because I find this a filthy, disgusting habit: I never wanted to date a fat man because I felt physically repelled; and I never wanted to date a black man because I find them physically unattractive. I liked all of my friends as friends, but when it comes to physical attraction I just cannot bring myself to something more physical with a black guy. Nobody would call me "smokeist" for not wanting to date a smoker, or call me "weightist" for rejecting a fat man; so why should I be labelled "racist" for finding black people unattractive? Our views of what is esthetically pleasing are personal and we are entitled to them; we should no be forced to like or dislike certain characteristics. Furthermore...

Your beliefs about smokers obviously do affect your reaction to them. Likewise, it's not impossible that your beliefs about black people affect your response to their appearance. Not impossible. But not inevitable either, so let's suppose your lack of attraction is innocent. The rest of your question is: why shouldn't you comment on people's appearances in just the way you'd comment on art? Why can't we proclaim the ugliness of some person or race? Simple answer: people aren't art. There are different rules for talking about people because the impact is different. If you are tempted to openly announce your dislikes, you might want to ask yourself why.

Is racial profiling against Muslims morally permissible under any circumstances?

Is racial profiling against Muslims morally permissible under any circumstances? If so, why?

I wonder if you meant "impermissible" rather than "permissible", but either way I'll try to address the question. With respect to any ethical principle, at almost any level of abstraction, it's hard to say that it applies under literally any circumstance (maybe "do the right thing" is an exception, but it obviously doesn't help much). "Never torture innocent children" seems a pretty secure principle, yet it's not hard to devise a situation in which maybe one has to violate it - say the fate of millions of lives really depends on torturing this one child. (Leave aside how you can know that this is so, a real problem for alleged "ticking bomb" scenarios.) So I would say any kind of racial profiling is wrong because it violates certain basic rights, especially the right to be treated with dignity and to be treated fairly under the rule of law - which means that you have to have specifically done something to be singled out for negative treatment. But like all rights, this one too can be swamped by utilitarian considerations when the expected (dis)utilities go sufficiently high. Remember though, expected (dis)utilities require not only the possibility of really bad consequences, but also a plausible case that the probability is sufficiently high as well. In the real world, it's awfully hard to see making a reasonable case of that sort, so the ban on profiling is pretty secure.

My parents unnecessarily refer to people's race when narrating. When I tell

My parents unnecessarily refer to people's race when narrating. When I tell them I find this offensive, they laugh it off, and say something like 'It's not like we're members of the KKK', or, 'people should be proud of their race, there's nothing wrong with us mentioning it', or a variation of the typical 'I have friends who are (whatever race it is)'. Of course, when I say "unnecessarily mention", I don't mean that the mentioning doesn't sometimes have a purpose, but it's usually a subtle and/or "unintended" one, like to emphasize the nature of a situation by relying on racial stereotypes. Something like "I was out late at night and I stopped at the gas station, and I was very nervous because there were all these homeless-looking black people around". What's going on with them, and how do I explain in a clear way why this is racist and offensive (they are 'offended' by my suggestion that they are racist or offensive)? As a final resort, my parents will sometimes respond with "well, that wasn't my...

How about sharing some of the literature from the social psychology research on stereotypes? This way you won't be arguing back and forth about "intentions" (conscious or unconscious) but instead giving them some robust research on social cognition that shows how racial (and gender and other social group) categories can bias thinking even in well-intentioned individuals. Ziva Kunda's book _Social Cognition_ is a good place to start, as is Virginia Valian's book _Why So Slow?_.

We recently learned about racial profiling in my social studies class. While I

We recently learned about racial profiling in my social studies class. While I disagree that it is unethical (and plain old incorrect) to assume that all people of a certain race are criminals, there did seem to be some logic behind the idea that I didn't want to bring up in class. I am not a racist and am in fact involved in closing the achievement gap in my school district, so although this question is definitely not PC, I am hoping I can ask it here without being judged: If statistics show that for whatever unfair reason (maybe because of discrimination), a greater percentage of people of race A become alcoholics or grow up in poverty or something, and statistics also show that alcoholics or people who grow up in poverty are more likely to commit crimes, then isn't it only logical to conclude that a randomly-chosen person of race A is more likely to be a criminal than a randomly-chosen person of race B? I acknowledge that there is definitely some circular logic going on here, and saying "he's of race...

First of all, I think it's good you bring this up. Better to discuss such matters openly than to pretend they don't exist.

One should be clearer, perhaps, about the step from belief to action. Surely many things correlate with race, gender, or religion; and we may notice these correlations and form beliefs about them and perhaps even test these beliefs through large-scale data collection. In some case, the mere researching of such correlations is morally dubious, by fostering contempt for a group even while serving no legitimate social purpose.

But in the case of crimes, there is a legitimate social purpose: deterrence and apprehension. So it is hard to deny that knowing more about the people who tend to commit certain kinds of crimes can be useful. But then how useful such knowledge will be depends on what one would be able and morally permitted do with it if one had it.

In the case of serious crimes there is, I think, a clear presumption in favor of using such knowledge and hence of acquiring it. If those who commit a certain kind of serious crime in some city are described (by the victims and witnesses) as predominantly fitting a certain profile, then it makes sense to concentrate scarce police resources on people fitting this profile. To take an extreme example, if virtually all rapes and attempted rapes in some city are reportedly committed by males, then it makes little sense to have half of the plainclothes anti-rape task force trailing females.

Criminal profiling of African Americans is different in three important respects. First, insofar as correlations exist, they tend to be much weaker than just described. Second, there is a long-standing history of severe discrimination and disadvantage the ongoing social and psychological effects of which racial profiling is likely to aggravate. Third, those engaging in (perhaps expressly authorized) racial profiling may have a certain degree of racism that may influence their racial profiling in ways that unduly harm African Americans and in turn deepen the profilers' racism.

These three considerations may typically be weighty enough to disqualify most actual racial profiling that has taken place. But I don't think they can show that racial profiling is wrong in principle or even merely always wrong in this country. There may be cases where racial profiling is likely to be highly effective in reducing serious crime even while its cost are much lower than usual. For example, consider a city that is racially mixed and where blacks are highly overrepresented among those who commit and also among those who fall victim to a certain crime. Suppose a special task force is formed to combat this crime, and suppose it is an all-black force. In this case, the three considerations against racial profiling are much weaker than usual, and it is certainly arguable that racial profiling can proceed so long as it really does prove highly effective against the serious crime in question.

If one were to treat someone differently based on their appearance, would that

If one were to treat someone differently based on their appearance, would that be racism, or would it only be considered racism if the outcome of this action was to hurt or insult the person of "other race" in question? If I for instance helped colored people because of their color, I am treating them differently than other human beings. Many people encourage helping people of other races out, yet aren't we simply affirming they are different based on color if our action is motivated by the color of that person?

Good question. If race is a morally irrelevant feature of persons, to what extent should it matter (if at all) in deciding how to act?

To begin, it is worth noting that there is huge controversy about what to make of our ordinary racial categories. There seems to be a fairly wide consensus amongst geneticists that there is no meaningful genetic or biological classification that maps onto the racial classification system that we currently use in the US. So some have argued from this that 'races' are illusions. However, it is compatible with this that our racial terminology actually picks out social groups, i.e., groups of people who are viewed and treated in a certain way within the dominant cutlure. It seems fairly clear that people who appear "white" and people who appear "black" or "asian" or "hispanic" are viewed and treated differently within our culture.

So when you suggest that by treating people of color differently Whites are "affirming they are different based on their color", there are several ways of interpreting this. Consider a White person X, and a person Y of a non-White racial group R:

  • X treats Y differently from how X treats White folk because X thinks that R's are by nature different from White people in ways that warrant different treatment (good or bad).

There are two things one should ask about this: 1) Are R's by nature different from White people? and 2) Does this supposed difference warrant different treatment (good or bad)? Since we have no reason to think that any racial group is different from Whites "by nature," the answer to (1) is no, and so the answer to (2) must be no as well. I think this was the thought behind your question.

But consider another interpretation:

  • X treats Y differently from how X treats White folk because X thinks that R's have been socially and historically disadvantaged compared to White folk and this disadvantage warrants different treatment, e.g., with an eye to correcting the disadvantage. [Does this count as being "motivated by the color of that person."? I'm not sure.]

Again there are two questions: 1) Are R's different from White people due to social and historical factors? and 2) Does thissupposed difference warrant different treatment? Sincewe have no reason to think that there have been social and historical differences between Whites as a group and non-Whites, the answer to (1) is yes; the answer to your question then turns on how we answer (2). It seems to me that there are facts about the social and historical differences between the races that justify institutions having different policies toward different groups: if injustice has been done to R's in the past, there should be efforts to remedy the injustice. But what about individual interactions? Should I treat my Black neighbor differently from my white neighbor? This is tough, for it will depend a lot on the details of the situation, I think. You'll have to look at the ways in which the social and historical differences matter in the particular situation and so might (or might not) warrant different treatment. I don't think you need to worry, though, about ignoring color completely and always treating everyone the same, for that would, in effect, be ignoring an important part of our history that has caused serious harm.

Abraham Lincoln once made this argument that white people have no right to

Abraham Lincoln once made this argument that white people have no right to enslave black people: "You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own." If I understand Lincoln correctly, he is arguing that because some white people have darker skin than other white people, skin color is not sufficient justification for slavery. Isn't this a fallacious conceptual slippery slope argument? Let's say we have three men. The first has only a few dollars, the second is a multi-millionaire, and the third is a billionaire. The third one is richer than the second. But that does not change the fact the the first and second are both rich and the first is not. In the same way, it might be true that some white people have darker skin than others. But this doesn't change the fact that there are white people and black people (as well as borderline cases.) ...

First, I need to applaud your engagement with this argument. Many people would hesitate to criticize, simply because they agree with Lincoln's conclusion. But, as you implicitly note, whether we agree with the conclusion is quite independent of whether the argument is any good.

The question worth asking, I take it, is why Lincoln thinks the justification for slavery rests upon the claim that "the lighter [have] the right to enslave the darker". Certainly you are right that this does not, and need not, follow from the thought that whites have the right to enslave blacks. But, on the other hand, it is so obvious that it doesn't follow that it seems uncharitable to Lincoln to suppose he thought it did---which is not, of course, to say he didn't think it did. What it means is that we ought now to search for some other reason he might have thought that the justification involved "lightness" rather than whiteness.

That's an historical question, and I'm in no position to answer it. But here's one line of thought one might consider. Suppose we agree that there are white folks and black folks. Suppose we grant, moreover, that one of them has the right to enslave the other. Which? The situation seems symmetrical at this point. So we need some reason difference, and perhaps Lincoln is suggesting that many people thought it was relative lightness of skin color.

It is, by the way, already questionable whether there are white folks and black folks in the sense racists suppose there are. See, for example, Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985), and many other writings along the same lines.

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.

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.

Does racism need to be legitimately harmful in order to be considered morally

Does racism need to be legitimately harmful in order to be considered morally objectionable? Suppose that black men incite an admittedly irrational fear in me, so that whenever I see a black man in public I cross the street -- should I feel compelled to correct this phobia? Or how about this: I find black men unattractive, so I don't date them.

I'm not sure what you mean by "legitimate harm," but it strikes me that any failure to accord others the dignity they are due as human beings causes significant harm to oneself and to others.

If you agree that racism is a failure to respect human dignity, you ought to recognize it as morally objectionable and ought work to correct that failure in your own life by, for example, striving to overcome the racist fears you describe.

People equate certain qualities with femininity. E.g. soft, irrational,

People equate certain qualities with femininity. E.g. soft, irrational, emotional. On the other hand, certain other qualities are equated with masculinity: e.g. hard, rational, analytical. Some feminists have said that this is an example of prejudice towards women: firstly, those qualities are largely viewed as negative, secondly, the 'male' qualities are held in higher esteem than the 'female' qualities. It seems to me that men can be just as emotional or irrational as women - but apart from this, is the connotation with those things an accident or is it purposeful and does it actually lead to prejudice? Some people also complain that words associated with blackness - darkness, black, etc, are used negatively and that is racist. Is that actually true or is it a stretch?

Masculinity and femininity have been associated with different properties at different times and in different cultures. Despite all this variation, however, that which is associated with masculinity is valued, and is often identified with the human, while that which is associated with the feminine is given lesser status and is often identified with the "other than" or "less than" human. These symbolic associations operate in many areas of inquiry, including in philosophy. As you note, these associations often don't reflect reality: men are indeed just as emotional as women and just as irrational! However, feminists think we should be worried about them for two reasons: First, they feed into the social construction of gender identity, so that they have psychological and social consequences for men and women who try to live up to the gender ideals they represent. Second, gender metaphors and associations can shape inquiry, making some questions seem pressing, hiding others from view, and bridging what would otherwise appear to be gaps in arguments. (For example, why did it take so long for there to be serious inquiry into the positive contributions that emotions make to our rationality? One possible answer is that emotion has been associated with the feminine and hence with the irrational.) The use of gender metaphors within an area of inquiry can have an ideological function; that is, it can give rise to theories that ratify current gender relations of dominance and subordination. (Sociobiology provides a much-discussed example of how this works.) For these reasons, I don't think we should think of them as "mere associations", or "mere metaphors." Metaphorical uses of "blackness" can play a similar role and so need to be treated with equal suspicion.

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