Racist Dreams: Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (1 of 2)

In a post I wrote here back in 2016, I sketched an idea for a paper (as yet un-written) challenging Rosalind Hursthouse’s views on virtue, moral luck, and racism as expressed in chapter 5 of her book, On Virtue Ethics (2001). Hursthouse’s overall view is that ascriptions of virtue and vice are sensitive to moral luck. In other words, ascriptions to S of virtue or vice–claims of the form “S is virtuous or vicious”–can depend in part on circumstances beyond S’s control. This is as true of ascriptions of racism as of other ascriptions of vice. The implication is that S can truth-aptly be described as a racist even for behavior or traits whose existence is beyond S‘s control.

Consider what Hursthouse calls “the repentant racist,” someone brought up as a racist, and who (for a time) internalizes that racism, but who (over time) comes to see the error of his upbringing, rejects racism, and does his best to rid himself of it. Such a person might, despite his best efforts, continue to have racist thoughts and feelings after regarding himself (and in some sense being) fully repentant or fully reformed. Suppose (ex hypothesi) that his having such thoughts and feelings is entirely out of his control–a deterministic outcome of his upbringing, caused by psychological facts out of his control.

On Hursthouse’s view, the presence of these racist thoughts and feelings within S‘s mind count, regardless of their etiology, as defeaters against S‘s claim to virtue. A truly virtuous person (on her view) presumably has no racist thoughts or feelings whatsoever, a claim that seems to follow from the assumption that a truly virtuous  person has no vicious thoughts or feelings whatsoever (or more precisely put, no thoughts or feelings that would, if wholeheartedly endorsed, express vice). A repentant racist who still has racist thoughts and feelings (to any degree, in any form, ever) lacks full virtue, even if the thoughts/feelings are merely episodic mental noise, even if they involve no tendency to produce racist action, even if the agent consciously repudiates them, and even if they are present in his mind despite his best efforts to get rid of them. 

I find this a very implausible claim. In my previous post, I made two basic criticisms of Hursthouse’s view. For one thing, I suggested that Hursthouse is fuzzy on the causality involved in her claims. She oscillates confusingly between suggesting that the repentant racist’s thoughts and feelings are up to him, and not up to him. But her thesis requires her to come clean on that issue: the thoughts/feelings either have to be up to the agent or not, with different implications in each case.

I also argued that Hursthouse seems to rely on an incoherent conception of blameworthiness that violates what I take to be the defining features of that concept: you can’t be blamed for something you not only didn’t do, but had no hand in doing, and can’t change. Hursthouse seems to be suggesting, incoherently, that you can. It is by all accounts blameworthy to be vicious, and vicious to be racist. On Hursthouse’s account, if the sheer presence of racist thoughts/feelings is racist of the agent, hence sufficient for an ascription of vice to him, the agent is blameworthy for having those thoughts and feelings even if he’s done nothing to have them, and can do nothing about having them. That strikes me as a reductio

I regard these two objections as conclusive on their own, but a third and separate problem with her argument is its overly coarse-grained conception of “thoughts and feelings.” To belabor what really ought to be a commonplace in the wake of psychodynamic depth psychology (as well as recent discussions of aliefs and the like): what we call “thoughts and feelings” range from the fully determinate and self-conscious to the passing, random, episodic, vague, and evanescent. Hurthouse’s argument fails to acknowledge what I take to be two obvious facts:

  • The closer to the passing, random, episodic, vague, and evanescent a thought, the less central to moral character;
  • The more deterministic the etiology behind such a thought, the less relevant to blame.

At a certain point, when thoughts are totally random and episodic, and arise from completely deterministic etiologies, it seems clear that we pass a threshold such that they are fundamentally irrelevant both to moral character and to blame. In such cases, the thoughts we have are in our minds more or less by a kind of mental osmosis, absorbed from our environment rather than a bona fide expression of our moral identity. They are less about us than about the environment we inhabit, a reflection of how our minds automatically soak up what’s in it as they once did in childhood. To treat passing racist thoughts as relevant to moral character is like treating passing musical fixations–having a song stuck in your head–as relevant to musical talent, musical taste, or even less plausibly, to moral character as revealed by musical taste. It’s to elevate a mental non-event into a major moral event unworthy of the name.

Consider what may be the clearest possible illustration of this fact–dreams. Let’s define an X-dream as a dream that expresses thought/feeling (and let’s add, actions) X in a first-personal way. So a racist dream is a dream that expresses racist thoughts and feelings/actions in a first-personal way In other words, when I have a racist dream, I am a racist in the dream: I think, say, and do racist things. And so on, for sexist dreams, hubristic dreams, intemperate dreams, fascist dreams, and so on.

What does having an X-dream prove about my moral character? If I have a racist dream, can we infer that I am a racist? Can we even infer, more modestly, that there is something racist about me?

I don’t think so. Or rather, I don’t see how. Certainly, a psychologically curious person would, for any morally significant value for X, want an explanation (even a half-adequate folk explanation) for why he had an X-dream, be it a racist dream or any other. But the hard fact is that no genuinely scientific explanatory scheme exists for this purpose: psychologists simply have not produced a confirmed, reliable, truth-tracking theory of dreams. 

So we don’t really know why people have the dreams they do, much less how their dreams express their moral character, if they do (or to the extent that they do). We can speculate that there’s some attenuated connection between dreams and moral character, but most such speculations are too ill-grounded to warrant confidence, or to ground confident inferences from the content of the dream to claims about character or blameworthiness. The degree of attenuation between dream and character/responsibility might be so extreme as to nullify any real connection at all. A person’s dream life and her moral character may be two connected things, but they’re still (obviously) two separate things. If the separation is sufficiently wide, the residual or generic connection is beside the point. It would obviously be premature to forge a connection between them on the basis of handwaving speculations.

The implication for Hursthouse’s argument would seem to be that if the repentant racist has racist dreams, those dreams are not defeaters for his claim to virtue–not even if the dreams express a sense of wistful nostalgia for the racist life he once led. The connection between dreams and character is simply too weak and inconclusive to ground ascriptions of virtue or vice. A person of full virtue can (for all we know) have dreams that, if thought or enacted in waking life, would be vicious, but as dreams, have no clear moral status.

At most, a person’s having racist dreams raises questions about why he has them. But it’s one thing to raise a question, and another to answer them. Right now, there are no clear answers to be had. Having nostalgic dreams for the racist life you once led is not the same as (or even on par with) having nostalgia for the racist life you led. And even having a passing bout of nostalgia for that life is not by itself an endorsement of racism.*

Now, what if what’s true of dreams is true of the most episodic and passing of waking thoughts/feelings? If so, what I’ve just said about dreams would apply to those waking thoughts and feelings. Given that, S‘s having racist thoughts/feelings (or X-thoughts/feelings) would not be sufficient for S‘s being racist (or S’s being X). They would be too dream-like to count.  

Are passing thoughts too dream-like to count? What is the connection between dreams and passing thoughts in waking life? My argument above only works as a critique of Hursthouse if the answers to the preceding questions suggest a plausibly relevant connection between dreams and at least a proper subset of (sufficently) dream-like waking thoughts. I’ll deal with that in my next post.

*The phrase “having a passing bout of nostalgia for the racist life you led” is ambiguous as between having nostalgia for the specifically racist parts of the life you led, and having nostalgia for the life you led despite the racism expressed in it. For instance, you might have gone to a summer camp where racism was expressed. It matters whether the nostalgia you have for this camp is about the racism expressed at the camp, or about features of the camp incidental on their own to racism, but indirectly connected to the racism by which the camp operated. Suppose, for instance, that the camp’s administration imposed consistent, systematic racist mistreatment of the camp’s African American staff (without whom camp activities could not have taken place). There is a difference between nostalgia for the mistreatment itself, and nostalgia for the camp activities made possible by the staff. Even if the latter are morally problematic, their problematic nature is not on par with the former.

“Apologies” for the fact that WordPress’s block editor fucked up yet another one of my posts, necessitating substantive editing after the posting. 

14 thoughts on “Racist Dreams: Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (1 of 2)

  1. Interesting, good point. One flavor of response might go like this: (a) fleeting thoughts, like at least one-off dreams, do not express or reflect character and so are irrelevant to virtue and vice, (b) the determination question is one of what determines the problematic thoughts and feelings — one’s character or more or less passive “absorption” from one’s environment (e.g., in childhood). However, this does not really mitigate the point that, in virtue of these two elements (or something close to them), passing (and officially repudiated) racist (or otherwise ethically problematic) thoughts and feelings can sometimes be like being a bad person as a one-off or infrequent thing in one’s dreams — intuitively irrelevant to virtue. If one takes Hursthouse’s sort of line on moral luck and blame (I’m broadly sympathetic), one has to make sure one is not stuck saying that my being first-personally bad in a dream makes me a bad person.

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    • I’ll have to go back and re-read Hursthouse, but I don’t think that her account allows her to affirm (a), i.e., an escape clause for fleeting thoughts. If memory serves, fleeting thoughts are for her evidence of racism. But I take issue (b) to be more fundamental than issue (a). If what determines the racist thoughts and feelings is wholly external to the agent’s agency, then I don’t think it matters whether or not they’re merely fleeting or “one off.” Fleeting and one-off beliefs are the clearest case of a broader category–belief-like thoughts and feelings that, given their etiology, are not relevant to moral character.

      It’s not clear to me whether aliefs are relevant to character or not, but certainly, alliefs are not fleeting. They’re counterfactually stable mental states. So if they are peripheral to character, there are stable, recurring mental states that are.

      As you’ve gathered, the form of my argument is: since (b) is fundamental, any case in which we lack an account of (b) is a case in which we lack a basis for moral assessment. This is obviously true of dreams, but I think it’s clearly true of dream-like waking thoughts. The trick is to make plausible the claim that dream-like is more morally salient than waking. In other words, I want to say that some waking thoughts are sufficiently dream-like to have the same moral status as dreams, whereas my opponent would want to say that qua waking, that can’t be true.

      One thing I want to insist on is that passive absorption of content from the environment is clearest in childhood, but continues thereafter into adulthood; it’s a residual, child-like feature of our mental life. If we live in a racist milieu (or an X-milieu), we will involuntarily find racist noise (or X-like noise) in our heads. I think this is obvious of things like music, but it’s true of discourse, norms, and attitudes as well. One way to deal with this is to accept it, and to treat such noise as passively received rather than as a reflection of one’s own character. Another way is to insist on its suppression precisely because it is an ego-threatening reflection of one’s character. (These are not exclusive options, since both things may be true at different times, of different items.) But I think Hursthouse’s view does violence to our internal lives. It abets the kind of moralized self-censorship that’s the precursor of what people worry about when they worry about “woke culture.” I’m less worried than many people about “woke culture,” but I do sometimes find it excessive. What worries me is the more general problem of failing to distinguish reflective endorsement from random mental content that happens to be in one’s head.

      One practical upshot of my view is that I question the methodology behind implicit bias tests. It’s not that I doubt that there is (a great deal of) implicit bias out there. It’s that implicit bias tests conflate exactly what I think needs to be kept distinct. What implicit bias tests measure is the unreflective association between a stimulus and a response, with an inference tacked on about the implications of the association. But if my view is right, this association is not necessarily relevant to a moral assessment of the person taking the test. The faster and more unreflective the response demanded by the test, the less clearly reflective of character-based features of the agent. The agent could just be parroting back mental noise, given the time pressure of the test. This article gives a nice overview.


      The hard fact is that folk psychology aside, no one has really devised a sound scientific method for making inferences about moral character from empirical data. That’s as true of racism as it is of other things. Failing to distinguish the sheer nonsense that goes through our heads from what we actually believe is a recipe for failure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s been a while since I read Hursthouse, but does she say that we can be *blamed* for thoughts outside our control?

    The position I find plausible (though whether it’s hers or not I don’t recall) is that thoughts outside our control can be defeaters for full virtue even if they’re not subject to blame — that the relation between vice and blameworthiness is a for-the-most-part relation, not an exceptionless relation.

    “It is by all accounts blameworthy to be vicious”

    Not by all accounts. I’ve been arguing against that forever.

    Liked by 2 people

        • I’m going to try to read one or both of your papers, and re-read Hursthouse, before I post the second part of this series. I don’t recall if she explicitly says that we can be blamed for thoughts outside of our control, but I do think she implies it. For now, I’ll just say that I regard her view as unclear on the relation between virtue and the blameworthy, and regard the connection between them as tighter than your comments above suggest.


      • I’ve read the “Easy Virtue” paper in a once-over way. Given my current circumstances (meaning, bereavement), I don’t quite have the energy I would normally have to read it as carefully as it deserves. But I guess I find the “Unity” conception ambiguous. Put another way, I find the topic of your paper somewhat orthogonal to the topic of my post.

        Your paper is about the relationship between virtue and unwanted thoughts that bear a causal relationship to moral temptation. My posts have been about the relationship between virtue and unwanted thoughts that are essentially epiphenomenal with respect to deeper motivational states. So there is a bit of a mismatch between your topic and mine, despite some obvious affinities.

        That’s sort of the point of my invocation of dreams. It’s very implausible to think that virtue bears any particular relationship to the dreams we have. (My next post on this topic discusses a passing reference to the virtue-dream connection at NE I.13.) But if there is a sub-class of dream-like thoughts, the same thing will apply to them. We are not necessarily tempted by what happens in our dreams, nor do our dreams necessarily express our temptations.

        I want to say something similar about dream-like thoughts in waking life. The dream-like thought (in my sense) of revenge against an enemy, or that of sex with an inappropriate partner, etc. etc. does not, ex hypothesi, qualify as a temptation. It falls short of that. It’s literally a passing thought without significant motivational force, one that passes into and out of conscious in a basically passive way. The more passive it is, the less reflective on the moral character of the agent whose thought it is. But it’s still there, and the agent has to figure out what to do with it, or about it, especially if it’s recurring.

        The model I have in mind is obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Some people have a full fledged version of the disorder, but in most cases, most of us have passing compulsions–some unwawnted, some perfectly desirable, some neutral–that have an obsessive quality to them. Rachel Cohon (in a review of Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity) uses the example of being on a balcony high up, and suddenly, inexplicably, but without the slightest desire to follow through, “wanting” to jump off of it (picturing the act without really wanting to do it, and without actually doing it). I want to claim that such thoughts are ubiquitous in human mental life, and are not easily captured in a cognitivist psychology. They don’t necessarily, or obviously, trace back to, or derive from, prior cognitive judgments about anything. Given their etiology, they are not subjects of moral assessment.

        On a slightly broader note, one problem I have with the Unity conception is that I think it assumes a priori that virtue is (highly) likely to be efficacious at eliminating temptation in an across-the-board way (p. 3). But mental health, like physical health, is an external good, and all such goods bear a contingent relationship to internal goods like virtue. So I guess my view here is closer to Kant’s than to Aristotle’s: there is a specifically moral form of contentment that arises from the practice of virtue, but this moral contentment neither guarantees nor reliably produces a literally temptation-free or noise-free internal life, any more than the epistemic virtues produce a perfect ratio of truth to falsehood (all truths, no falsehoods). That’s up for grabs. So I guess I’m enough of a Kantian to think that a person might be in the grips of literal mental chaos and still have full virtue, as long as she’s doing all within her power to bring order to that chaos, and the chaos itself has an etiology external to her moral agency. And both conditions, it seems to me, can be met in the real world by real people.

        Once you give up on a cognitivist moral psychology, adopting something more psychodynamic (Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, etc.), there is less temptation (so to speak) to adopt the Unity conception. Unity is a psychological, not a moral ideal. Virtue brings us closer to it, but it doesn’t follow that those distant from it lack full virtue. A person suffering from extreme duress or mental illness cannot be expected to approximate Unity. Yet they can be expected to cultivate and express full virtue. The form that virtue takes in a clinically depressed person will just differ radically from the form it takes in a psychologically healthy person. The depressed person cannot approximate Unity. The healthy person can. But neither fact, in my view, is relevant to a moral assessment of either agent, whether in terms of virtue concepts or any other set.

        I need to read your paper more carefully when I’m more up to doing philosophy, but those are my preliminary thoughts.


        • The Unity conception, for its part, attracts us through its alignment with our aspirations. Just as a body in pain is not a body in its healthiest state, so a soul riven by internal conflict seems not to be a soul in its healthiest state.

          (p. 4)

          I guess my response is that that aspiration–or the aspiration phrased that way–is problematically ambiguous. A soul riven by internal conflict is not in its healthiest state, but may still be in a fully virtuous state. Full health and full virtue are not the same thing, and are not as closely connected (in my view) as the preceding formulation suggests.

          This is why I think it helps to do virtue ethics while thinking more explicitly than virtue ethicists sometimes do, about psychopathology. As Freud argued, psychopathology is a ubiquitous human phenomenon, not something on the fringes of human life. But psychopathology entails internal conflict. Sometimes the agent is himself the source of the conflict (via acts of agency), but not always. In cases where the conflict arises from external sources–a bad upbringing, abuse, duress, etc.–the agent begins from circumstances of extreme disunity, at a great distance from the ideal of psychological health.

          But I would argue that distance from that psychological ideal does not map onto moral assessment in any straightforward way, any more than distance from the ideals of physical health or physical attractiveness does. Beautiful people are a pleasure to behold, but not necessarily virtuous for that reason. Health is a great thing to have, but not necessarily an indication of virtue. Same with Unity.

          The most extreme version of the conflation I’m rejecting here comes from the so-called positive psychology movement associated with Martin Seligman et al, which equates self-reports of happiness and success with objective assessments of moral virtue: I’m virtuous because I feel great and enjoy a fabulous lifestyle. That strikes me as obviously preposterous, but subtler versions of that view haunt a great deal of the Aristotelian literature on virtue. I just see no reason to think that the virtuous agent will be a Shiny Happy Person Holding Hands–not in this world.

          One last thought in favor of the Overcoming conception. I think virtue demands that we consistently put ourselves at risk, in harms’ way. Rand and Peikoff describe pride as “moral ambitiousness” (OPAR, p. 303). You’ve defended the imperative of becoming a warrior for social justice. These two commitments seem to me to provide support for the Overcoming conception of moral virtue. A virtuous person cultivates both pride and justice. But those virtues exert a huge cost on the agent, and it is arguable that the psychological cost is incompatible with a temptation-free internal life. (Same with courage, as you say.) But the stronger the imperative to throw oneself out in the world in the name of justice, the weaker the imperative to insist on a temptation-free life. There’s just a trade-off there between what justice demands and the aspiration to internal unity expressed by Unity. It’s not obvious to me that the trade-off is best resolved in favor of Unity.

          Contrary to Aristotle, I don’t think that courage is an exception to the rule that virtue is pleasant (p 4). I don’t think there is any such rule. The pursuit of justice is not pleasant. But without it, life is not worth living. Its pursuit leaves bruises and scars, but bruises and scars are just part of life. Virtue is only pleasant in the narrow sense that one takes a specifically moral contentment in acting on it in a consistent way. But I guess I disagree with Aristotle and Friends that virtue is naturally pleasant. Maybe it was for them. It isn’t for us.


  3. I agree that we “absorb” stuff in adulthood as well and that such “noise” is largely irrelevant to character. Making this relevant to character — or worse, centrally relevant — does seem to be an aspect of woke-culture overreach. I like this framing. With regard to (b), the etiology/determination feature, we need to distinguish a thought or feeling (or stable trait) (i) coming from or being part of one’s person or character and (ii) being under one’s volitional control (or arising form processes under one’s volitional control).

    I think (i) is more important for negative moral assessment and appropriate blame. That one cannot help it — (ii) — addresses a broader control condition of being able to do something about the item (however it arose). Typically one can do something about it if the item is under one’s control (and this is an important case), but often one can as well do something about it when the questionable item is not under one’s control. The crazy thing, on my more moral-luck-friendly view, is not blaming another person for something they cannot help doing, but rather blaming someone when there is just nothing they can realistically do about it.

    I think we disagree on this “control condition” on appropriate blame (and there is not time/space to hash this out here). But it seems right to me that much of the “morally questionable” noise in our heads is both peripheral to character and something that might well fail either a narrower (determined, agent could not help it) or broader (whether or not determined/could-not-help-it, nothing realistically to do about it) condition of volitional control — and hence not an appropriate object of blame. Like many dreams! (You recently starred in a dream of mine. Irfan as a detail-oriented, moralistic hero, virtuoso musician and abrasive jerk of a band-mate in an ethnic band. The ethnic band thing was only mildly racist.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well (for a change), there’s nothing there I can disagree with. I just had to chuckle that you see my argument as a contribution to the controversy over woke culture, lol. I hadn’t meant it that way. I first read Hursthouse and started thinking about her views around 2012 or 2013, but yes, I guess my argument can be taken as a criticism of (one degenerate aspect of) woke culture. And I suppose that if social justice warriors insisted on adopting Hursthouse’s view, I would oppose that feature of social justice warriorism.

      As in this case:


      I disagree with just about every sentence in that post. As I’ll suggest in my post (don’t want to give it away), Schwitzgebel’s argument only looks “progressive” because he cherry picks the examples he uses to make his case. Change the examples, and the appearance disappears. In that case, it just looks like he’s unfairly blaming people for things that, ex hypothesi, they can’t help or do anything about. You might as well blame a schizophrenic for thinking schizophrenic thoughts, or blame dreamers for the content of their dreams.

      I would like to be able to praise you for the content of the dream you just related, but doing so would contradict what I just finished saying.

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  4. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  5. Pingback: Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (Part 2 of 2) | Policy of Truth

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