Some of you may have seen this material before, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted it at PoT, so I’m exhuming it in the interest of getting some comments on it, as I’d like to work on the paper a bit this summer, and am hoping to trundle it about at conferences this fall. (Apologies if I’m breaking blind with that claim, but this is the age of the Internet.) I’m particularly interested in getting comments and/or bibliographical suggestions on some of the empirical issues implicitly raised by the paper.
David Potts recently cited Martin Seligman’s claims in Authentic Happiness to the effect that childhood experiences count for little as regards adult experience. I haven’t fully digested Seligman’s claims (and references), but I don’t think that he had childhood upbringing in mind when he wrote Authentic Happiness. At any rate, I’m interested in empirical answers to questions like the following:
- What are the longitudinal effects of a racist upbringing? How powerful are they? How amenable to control or reversal? And in what form? Naturally, the longitudinal effects of racist upbringing are a function of the effects of upbringing, so I’m interested in the more general phenomenon, as well.
- What is the role of trauma in the production of racial identity in racists? Does trauma explain the production of racial identity? If so, what is the mechanism?
- What does racism (or “racism”) look like in small children? I’ve put “racism” in scare quotes because arguably children with racist upbringings may lack the cognitive sophistication to do anything but act as though they believed in the truth of racism. But behavioral racism without cognitive understanding does not strike me as genuine racism. A child who imitates racists is not herself a racist (at least not necessarily).
I haven’t done an extensive search in the psychological literature, but the first 750 abstracts I looked at were rather unpromising. The bulk of the literature I browsed through discusses racial personality formation in minorities, or trauma as a response to racism. Much of it also blithely seems to assume that racial personality formation in minorities excludes racist personality formation in minorities, with exceptions made for racist personality formation in Asians. There’s also a great deal of theoretical literature “modeling” etiologies of racial personality formation–ranging from game theoretic treatments to the sort of thing Sartre did in Anti-Semite and Jew. And then there’s a popular, testimonial literature on “recovering racists.”
But none of that is particularly helpful for my project; what I need are empirical studies of racial personality formation in racists (or studies of the power of childhood upbringing as such), and empirical studies of racialized trauma as a catalyst for further racism (or studies of the personality-forming power of trauma as such). So if you have bibliographical tips, leave them in the combox. (Unfortunately, the site is not yet equipped to accept monetary tips, though it should be.) Obviously, if you have just plain old philosophical comments to make, those are fair game, too.
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 On Virtue Ethics (2001), 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 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:
- Parts of the text suggest that repentant racists suffer racist thoughts into their adulthoods from deterministic causes beyond their control.
- Other parts of the text suggest that these same thoughts are within the agent’s control.
- And 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 having (some) stray racist thoughts in adulthood no matter what they do by way of moral reform. In that case, the objections to Hursthouse’s argument fall into two categories—those that grant the assumption that an agent (in this case, a child) can blamelessly be inculcated into racism, and those that contest that assumption.
Granting the assumption. Suppose 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 convicted of vice for any lingering racist thoughts he still has, even if those thoughts are caused by factors beyond his control. Given Hursthouse’s claim, we need to ask how the etiology in question produces a defect of moral character. The answer to that question depends in turn on answers to questions like the following:
- Is the repentant racist’s character rendered vicious by the involuntary coming-to-be of the thought, or is it caused by how he reacts to those thoughts? Are both of these factors beyond his control, or just one?
- Can a person’s moral character be rendered vicious 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?
- 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 vicious?
Hursthouse fails either to address these questions, or to address the concern that motivates them.
The concern in question 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, an inherited debility is not a moral defect. (Put another way, there is an ambiguity throughout Hursthouse’s discussion between S’s having a morally vicious character and S’s having a defect of personality.)
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, thereby rejecting CP. She also fails to see that her prescriptions for the repentant racist require self-deception (or repression) on his part: on a plausible reading of the text, Hursthouse can be read as demanding that the repentant racist 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.
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. The insistence on non-blameworthy inculcation of racist beliefs 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. (I leave open the possibility that there are intermediate or hybrid cases here, involving degrees of understanding and approximations to belief.) 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.