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.