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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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

  1. Immediate reaction: (a) lots of folks, including myself, reject CP, so you’ll need to address this issue in some way; you might make a conditional claim (‘if CP is true…’) but that will be of less interest to lots of folks, (b) you – and perhaps Hursthouse, though from what I know of her work I would think not – take racism to be, at root, a doxastic phenomenon; is this a standard view?; I gravitate toward the idea that the most basic phenomenon of racism concerns non-belief-attitudes and states – in particular, unjustified attitudes and emotions of superiority or condescension (and, paradigmatically but not necessarily, contempt, disgust, hatred). I’m not sure this helps at all – just my immediate reaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comments. I’m going to blather on about them a bit–a reflection of how helpful they were.

      Re (a):
      I can’t argue for CP in this paper, but it would be illegitimate simply to accept its truth as uncontroversial. What I want to say is that I’m criticizing a thesis that Hursthouse is asserting. Since she’s asserting it, she bears the burden of proof for her thesis. Her thesis is not primarily one about racism or moral luck, but about virtue and the emotions. Call this the primary thesis. The claims about racism and moral luck might be called the secondary thesis.

      My claim is that the primary thesis requires a defense that is logically independent of the secondary thesis. The secondary thesis is doubly defective on logical grounds. It blithely presupposes CP so as the defend the primary thesis, and is then used to underwrite CP itself. That’s a kind of uber-circularity–circles within circles. My claim to Hursthouse would be: if you are going to rely on ~CP, you have to confront CP directly, without begging questions. If you don’t, you haven’t met your burden of proof for either the primary or the secondary thesis.

      So I am in the end conditionalizing my claim about CP, but since the paper is a critique, I think I’m entitled to do that.

      That said, I think one aspect of CP has to be clarified, whether in Hursthouse’s hands or mine. I think it’s nearly self-evident that if we are talking about praise, blame, reward, and/or punishment (=”ascriptions of moral credit”), CP applies. Some sense of control is essential to a finding of moral responsibility with respect to S’s phi-ing, and all ascriptions of moral credit presuppose a finding of individualized moral responsibility for S’s phi-ing. Someone might deny that, of course, but if so, I’d find the denial pretty puzzling.

      The real action concerns CP’s relation to virtue. Someone might insist that ascriptions of virtue are not reducible to ascriptions of moral credit, and that anyone who attempts or presupposes such a reduction has too narrow an understanding of virtue (or is arbitrarily dividing virtue up into virtue and moral virtue). Everything here turns on one word in CP, the italicized one:

      (CP) We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.

      Obviously, we are all assessable for things beyond our control. If I’m born with a debility, I’m medically assessable for it. Things get more complicated when we venture into the vicinity of personality. I am certainly assessable if I suffer from or have involuntary racist sentiments (or for that matter, have some other psychological malady). These sentiments make my life go worse than it would have gone in their absence–or just go badly, full stop. If I were in control of them, but still had them, I would be blameworthy. If I could get rid of them, and did, I would be praiseworthy. In the case where I can’t control them or get rid of them, I still have sufficient control over myself to take stock of them in some loose sense, to acknowledge their existence or importance to my life, to arrange my life in such a way as to express the realization that I have a personality-related, morally-relevant problem that I can’t simply ignore on the grounds that “it’s not my fault” (it’s not my fault, but I still have it).

      So my claim is not

      (1) If trait X can be predicated of S, CP entails that X is only morally relevant to S insofar as X is in control of the etiology of X.

      Nor is it

      (2) If S is not blameworthy for having X, S can’t be non-morally assessed in virtue of having X.

      Contra (1), trait X may be morally relevant to S’s life, and contra (2), S need not be blameworthy for having X in order to be assessed for having X. What I’m insisting on is that even so, none of this counts as a moral assessment of S.

      Most controversially, I don’t think S’s being or having X should affect whether or not we ascribe moral virtue to S. I take ascriptions of moral virtue to be ascriptions of credit, and would insist that our conception of moral virtue reflect this fact. It’s an adequacy condition on a conception of virtue (I would say) that any agent who qualifies as a functioning human being is fully capable of achieving moral virtue.

      Sorry, that’s a long way from the topic of the paper per se, but it gives you an idea of where I’m coming from. It’s also relevant to our reading of In Praise of Desire.

      Re (b):
      This is a really good question. Had you asked me, say, a year or two ago, I could have given you a crisp, simple answer–that racism is simply a doxastic phenomenon, and that what you’re calling non-belief-attitudes are really just complexes of doxastic and affective states driven entirely by the doxastic side of things. On a cognitive view like this (which I took to be the whole story), an unjustified attitude is merely an unjustified belief plus the affect that arises from such a belief.

      I still hold a weaker version of the preceding thought, but now acknowledge some complications for it along the lines that Hursthouse herself discusses (On Virtue Ethics, pp. 108-113). My baseline view used to be a rather crude form of cognitivism about the emotions, of the sort defended by Leonard Peikoff in OPAR (pp. 153-58), and also by Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness (pp. 69-70), and cognitive therapy generally. I don’t accept that any more. Hursthouse attacks cognitivism as a form of Kantianism (On Virtue Ethics, p. 110), but that’s a straw man, and her attack on cognitivism is on the whole crude and unhelpful. Lear’s work on Aristotle and Freud defends an interesting, plausible somewhat-non-cognitivist view of affect–close to Hursthouse’s at times, but subtler. (I’ve already sung the praises of Lear’s Freud, but I’d also recommend chapter 5 of his Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, and his Love and Its Place in Nature.)

      That said, while Lear’s weakened cognitivism complicates things, it doesn’t fundamentally change my view of racism-as-doxastic. I can now imagine a kind of proto-racism that is not doxastic, but I don’t think that changes what I want to say about Hursthouse.


    • Michael,

      You may already have caught this, but Arpaly-Schroeder discuss virtually the same issue as Hursthouse in In Praise of Desire, pp. 217-218 (citing Hursthouse, but discussing sadism rather than racism). I disagree with them for the reasons I cite in the abstract/original post, and am guessing that I agree with the Rosen paper they argue against (Gideon Rosen, “Skepticism About Moral Responsibility,” Phil Perspectives 18 [2004], 295-313). I haven’t read Rosen, so I don’t know for sure, but it might be interesting to discuss this here at some point.


  2. I’m afraid I have nothing to offer concerning the development of the racist personality, if there is such a thing, or its relation, if any, to trauma. But I did read two papers a couple of years ago on implicit racial bias as measured by something called the Implicit Association Test. In the IAT, pairs of items are presented, such as a face and a word, and the participant presses one key for one sort of pairing and another key for another sort. In research on race, typically the faces are either of a black or white person, and the words are either good or bad in meaning (e.g., “love,” “joy,” “friend,” etc., versus “hate,” “vomit,” “bomb,” etc.). There are two conditions, one where participants are looking for either a white face or a bad word or else a black face or a good word, and a second where they look for either a white face or a good word or else a black face or a bad word. The idea is that if a person has bad associations to black people, he’ll perform better in the second condition. The IAT was developed in the late 1990s and is a standard test of implicit association. It isn’t just used in race research. Basically, it is tapping the processes of what I have been calling (in the Freud thread and other places) associative memory.

    Baron and Banaji (2007) tested 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. All three groups showed a significant bias in favor of whites. Not a large difference, mind you, but significant and reliable. (Curiously, all their subjects were white. I guess there are no black people in Cambridge, Mass.) Interestingly, they also tested their participants’ explicit biases by having them choose between pairs of black and white faces. The 6-year-olds strongly preferred white faces, 10-year-olds mildly preferred them, and adults showed no preference. So people’s overt biases decline or disappear with age. But their implicit biases remain.

    Richeson and Shelton (2007) ran adults through an IAT of just the same sort as Baron and Banaji. They then conducted interviews with the participants by an experimenter who was either white or black. The idea is that, for example, if a white person has negative associations with black people, then an interview with a black person will require the white person to suppress these associations, which will be cognitively stressful and will deplete cognitive resources. Richeson and Shelton tested this idea by giving the participants a Stroop test after their interviews. The Stroop test is where you are presented color words (“green”) in colored ink (for instance, red ink) and are asked to name the color of the ink, ignoring the word itself. It’s hard to do, and if your cognitive resources have been depleted, you’ll perform worse than otherwise. Richeson and Shelton duly found that interracial interviews caused people to do worse on the Stroop test. Moreover, the stronger were people’s implicit racial biases as revealed by the IAT, the worse they did on the Stroop test. (Richeson and Shelton tested both white and black people, and both groups revealed implicit bias against the other group. Irritatingly, they don’t report effect sizes.)

    This is just two papers, but the implication is that essentially everybody has significant implicit racial bias and is accordingly “imperfect in virtue” by Hursthouse’s standards. Apparently, we all have bad moral luck. Of course, this doesn’t make her wrong, but I wonder if Hursthouse is quite aware of her own bad moral luck.

    If you saw my last comment to Raymond Raad, you can predict my take on this. I would say there is no reason to suppose that the adults in Baron and Banaji’s study who gave equal preference to black and white faces were merely fibbing or being politically correct. They probably were perfectly sincere. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons beyond their control, they had some negative associations with black people sufficient to produce the measured effect. And although associations can influence beliefs, as well as judgments, preferences, and feelings, they aren’t themselves beliefs. Belief is a system of representations about the world that is responsive to evidence and argument. Associations are, well, associations. As you persistently hear “doctor” and “nurse” paired in speech, an association forms. Thinking of the one begins to make it easier to think of the other. Ultimately, thinking of the one makes thinking of the other inevitable. You cannot stop or change this process. It does not mean you believe anything in particular about doctors and nurses.

    It’s hard to see how associations of this kind can constitute defects of moral character (or excellences either, for that matter). So I think you have a strong point here.

    For more on this, see Gendler’s “Alief in Action,” another article along the same lines as the one I recommended to Raymond. This one spends a lot of time analyzing the case of an “anti-racist” who nevertheless involuntarily reacts differently to persons of different races.

    On the other hand, I don’t know about the “challenging the assumption” strategy. You say:

    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.

    The first part of this seems wrong to me. Children are absorbent sponges of knowledge who soak up pretty much whatever their parents and appropriate prestigious others tell them. Eight-year-olds learn that George Washington was the first President, that rain comes from clouds formed from evaporating moisture, that the earth goes around the sun, and that the heart pumps blood through the body when they’re told these things by their teachers. They believe implicitly what the teacher tells them. I think they understand what is being said perfectly well enough to call it “understanding,” although naturally they don’t have the depth of understanding that (some) adults have. Yet they believe them totally on authority. It is true that children, like adults, are watchful for signs concerning the credibility of their authorities. They don’t believe everybody, and there is research evidence that erratic behavior can cause adults to lose credibility in children’s eyes. Nevertheless, children mostly believe what their parents and teachers tell them on authority, and this seems completely appropriate. And when a child’s mother tells him that he and his family are better than the people down the street, because they are of another race, and he believes it, I don’t see how this is much different from the child’s being told and believing that George Washington was the first President.


    • David,

      Thanks very much for that comment–enormously helpful. We basically agree on the main issue, but just a few added thoughts.

      On racism and trauma, the hypothesis I was considering was something like this: Imagine that someone is consistently on the receiving end of trauma by members of a single race. Would the trauma create a propensity, on the part of the victim, to animosity for members of that race? I haven’t found a literature on this yet, but there must be one: it just seems like such an obvious topic for research. In fact, I suspect that you wouldn’t need repeated trauma to get the result; one instance might well do it. Anecdotally it’s said that rape victims have trouble dealing with/trusting men after being raped, so mutatis mutandis, perhaps that phenomenon generalizes to race.

      You say:

      This is just two papers, but the implication is that essentially everybody has significant implicit racial bias and is accordingly “imperfect in virtue” by Hursthouse’s standards. Apparently, we all have bad moral luck. Of course, this doesn’t make her wrong, but I wonder if Hursthouse is quite aware of her own bad moral luck.

      Chuckle. Richeson and Shelton aside, I think the implication is that all white people are racists. And Hursthouse has no problem with that conclusion. She seems fixated on the white contribution to black-white racial conflict in Western white-majority democracies. Reading her, you would not get the sense that racism exists anywhere else in the world, or concerns any other groups of people. Of course, as I say this, I wonder whether there is cross-cultural IAT research data. I’d like to think that someone is administering IATs in Jerusalem and Gaza, among other places, and getting interesting findings out of it.

      I’d have to hunt down the citations, but I myself came to this issue by noticing what seemed to me an oddity in philosophers’ attitudes toward moral responsibility. When it comes to traits like racism, sadism, or lookism (i.e., judging people on their physical appearance), philosophers seem to hold people blameworthy for the sheer presence of the untoward trait regardless of etiological considerations. The sheer fact of “failing” an IAT with respect to racism, sadism, or lookism convicts of you moral impropriety (however we define “failing”).

      But if you change the subject to sex, the sky seems to be the limit: no one, it seems, can be convicted of moral impropriety on the basis of their sexual fantasy life, regardless of what’s in it. If I say “next door neighbor,” and your immediate, counterfactually stable reaction is “adultery,” no bien pensant “grown up” will gasp in horror and conclude that Potts wants to cheat on his wife. Or if they do conclude that, few would regard it as a moral big deal, either because infidelity is not that big a deal, or because fantasized infidelity isn’t. There are some exceptions to this rule, e.g., feminists who regard rape fantasies as indicative of sexism regardless of etiology, but I think Nagel expresses a consensus view in his papers on privacy (cf. “Personal Rights and Moral Space,” and “Concealment and Exposure“). The consensus seems to hold that when it comes to sexuality, our associational/fantasy life is “unruly,” but that unruliness doesn’t reflect our moral character. Change the subject to racism, however, and all of a sudden the associational unruliness does reflect on our moral character.

      If fantasized sexual impropriety is not a big deal, I don’t understand why associational (or alief-based) racism, sadism, or lookism is, either. The bottom line is that we need a better account of what counts as a moral big deal, and why. (Generally, as I think you’re suggesting, the alief/belief distinction has to be better integrated into moral philosophy.)

      I’m going to save most of what I want to say about the “challenging the assumption” strategy, because for now I can only offer a sketch or a promissory note in defense of it, and ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. But acknowledging everything you say, I still think the strategy works.

      Let’s grant the “absorbent sponge” thesis about children. In the case of racism, the child absorbs the parents’ racism. Surely (I’d grant), at some level, the child understands the words and sentences that the parent is uttering. She can repeat them, draw inferences from them, and act on them. But I would say that there is another form or level of understanding that is the morally relevant one, and that the child clearly lacks.

      It seems to me that there are two relevant questions here. First, how counterfactually stable is the child’s racist doxastic-linguistic behavior in the face of input from the world? Does the racism collapse at first contact with reality, or does it remain stable? That leads to a second closely related question: how internalized is the belief? Does it operate at the margins of the child’s doxastic life, or is it relatively central?

      My view is that if the racist beliefs are passively imbibed, counterfactually unstable, and peripheral to what the child has on reflection come to believe, they are likely to fall short of either culpability or of understanding in the morally relevant sense that goes beyond the superficial rote-repetition just described. The child who mindlessly spouts racist dogmas is going through the motions of being a racist in just the way that the child who prays is going through the motions of prayer–or the child who pretends to pay the mortgage is going through the motions of paying the mortgage. Yes, at some level, the 4 year old who says “Black people are stupid” or “God loves us, and will give us salvation,” or “Shut up, I’m busying paying the mortgage” understands what she’s saying. But in another sense, she doesn’t. She’s parroting something she’s heard, including inferences she’s gotten by osmosis. The content of the propositions mean much less than the approval she gets by imitating belief in them.

      Consider this video of a three year old repeating anti-Semitic dogmas:

      Does she “understand” what she’s saying? Well, she’s linguistically competent in Arabic. She knows what a pig is, what an ape is, and what it is for a “Jew” to be one. But now pause a moment. What does it mean for a Jew to be an ape or a pig? In one sense, it’s clear enough what it means to understand that claim. At another level, the claim is so preposterous it’s not clear what would count as genuine understanding of it. It’s instructive that when she’s asked whether she likes the Jews (a more mundane question), the answer she gives is obviously an imitation of some adult person: she doesn’t actually say “no,” she makes a “tsk” noise of disapproval. I think this indicates that she really has no idea what she’s talking about. She doesn’t really know what “the Jews” are. The subject matter of the conversation is fundamentally unreal to her. (“What do the Jews do?” –They make Pepsi, the sons of bitches.)

      Now imagine that she’s questioned by a kind, gentle, attractive woman who (gently) asks skeptical questions about the same dogmas. My hunch is that you could probably push the child into complete confusion about those dogmas in about 30 seconds. If so, that finding has to be reconciled with her supposed “understanding” of what she’s saying in the video clip. In other words, if the girl avows that the Jews are apes and pigs, and then, under the right kind of questioning by the right questioner, decides to take it all back, it’s not clear that she understood what she was saying in the first place–at least not in the relevant sense of “understanding” for moral judgment.

      Suppose now that our questioner schizophrenically (and cruelly) doubled back and said, “Dammit, Basmallah! That was a test! Of course the Jews are apes and pigs, you idiot! We were trying to test your fidelity to Muslim dogma, and you failed it, you half-Jewish whore!” At this point, I suspect a flustered Basmallah would likely go back to the anti-Semitic dogmas and pretend allegiance to them in order to win back the approval she’d just lost. What I would insist on is that the whole game bypasses the content of the propositions she’s avowing. She is reliably repeating dogmas for approval, not avowing propositions on the basis of a grasp of their contents. To the extent that she is doing the former, at this age, she is not culpable (and lacks understanding in the morally relevant sense). But give her a few years, and two things happen: the nature of her understanding changes, and (precisely to that extent) culpability becomes an issue.

      Maybe we just need another word here to mark out the threshold of the relevant sort of understanding one needs to be culpably ignorant of something. Perhaps in Basmallah’s case, we could say that she while she understands the words involved in the conversation, she doesn’t comprehend–or comprehend the implications of–what she’s saying. She can say the right things and make the right inferences up to a very limited point, but in a colloquial sense, we could legitimately say that she has no idea what she’s talking about.

      Frankly, my 18-21 year old students are not that different from Basmallah. Do they understand how, say, banks work? Well, of course they do. They have bank accounts, after all. If you then ask them, “So how do banks make money?” they’ll answer, “ATM fees. That’s why ATM fees are so high!” If you say, “No, that’s not how,” they’ll default to saying “Overdraft fees. If you just bounce one check, my bank charges $50!” So do they “understand how banks work”? It depends what one means by the quoted phrase.

      Or ask them about utilitarianism, and they’ll spit back mantras about “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But then ask why J.S. Mill faced a problem in simultaneously being a utilitarian and in being a liberal, and you’ll get this look that unmistakably says, “Why does he expect us to understand this shit? Why isn’t it sufficient to regurgitate our memorized lesson at him?” The point is, there’s roughly the same equivocality about “understanding” here as in the case of young children. (Arguably, my students differ from Basmallah in at least one respect. Basmallah is three, and they’re at least six times older, so questions of culpability arise for them in ways that don’t yet apply to Basmallah.)

      I’m getting off topic now. Better get back to grading.


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