Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (2 of 2)

In my last (recent) post on this topic, I argued that it seems absurd to blame people, or pass moral judgments of any kind on them, for what they experience in dreams. It follows that it’s absurd to blame, judge, or morally assess someone for having racist dreams, or generally, vicious dreams. But, I suggested, certain sorts of passing, stream-of-consciousness thoughts seem to bear a closer similarity to dream states than they do to conscious convictions. If so, thoughts of this variety are not a proper subject of moral assessment either, or at least less so, in proportion to their similarity to the relevant features of dreams.

One implication of this claim is that a person who encounters a lot of racist noise in his head, even racist noise voiced in the first person, is not necessarily a racist himself, and not to be judged a racist simply on that evidence–a claim that contradicts not just Hursthouse’s view, but one held by other moral philosophers. A second implication is that insofar as implicit bias/association tests function to detect a propensity to give voice to involuntary, osmotic mental noise, we have (yet another) plausible  explanation for their invalidity and unreliability, and should consider dramatically ratcheting back the use we make of them.

Let me double all the way back for a moment to the fundamental thought on which my argument is based–dreams’ apparent immunity from moral assessment. Not everyone agrees. For instance, Emerson suggests in passing that Swedenborg’s dream life was an indication of his insight and virtue.*  Aristotle makes a more general suggestion in a brief and rather cryptic remark in the Nicomachean Ethics, italicized below (NE I.13, 1102b5ff).

Hence the virtue of this capacity is apparently shared, not [specifically] human. For this part and this capacity more than others seem to be active in sleep, and here the good and the bad person are least distinct; hence happy people are said to be no better off than miserable people for half their lives. This lack of distinction is not surprising, since sleep is inactivity of the soul insofar as it is called excellent or base, unless to some small extent some movements penetrate [to our awareness], and in this way the decent person comes to have better images [in dreams], than just any random person has. Enough about this,  however, and let us leave aside the nutritive part [of the soul], since by nature it has no share in human virtue (emphasis added).

I’m going to call the italicized claim the “Dream-Virtue Thesis” (DVT). Aristotle’s version of it is, like Emerson’s, a merely passing claim, more dismissive than affirming, so there’s a certain risk to over-interpreting it. But I also think that there’s some philosophical mileage to be gotten out of thinking it through.

A naive interpretation of the DVT might assert that virtuous people have virtuous dreams, while vicious people have vicious ones. And surely if that’s true of dreams, it’s true a fortiori of waking thoughts, no matter how episodic or evanescent? Since virtue controls the non-rational parts of our psyche, virtue might be thought to control what we do even when we sleep. Hence, virtue might be thought to control, or at least shape or influence, the content of our dreams–and by implication, our waking streams of consciousness. There has to be some connection between our waking lives and our dream lives, after all:  the two things don’t literally operate in parallel universes. Why else would someone have recurring racist dreams unless they were themselves at least a bit racist?

But the naive interpretation can’t be right–at least in the sense of being true of the world, whatever the implications for the interpretation of Aristotle. The naive interpretation seems to assume that full virtue entails full control over our mental states, both waking and while asleep. That seems extravagant in both cases. We are, after all, animals with an animal nature–what Aristotle calls our shared nature–and virtue can’t plausibly be thought to exert full control over all of it. Consider some illustrations that may well belabor the obvious.

Example 1: Virtue may enable me to deal with a medical condition once I have it, or (in some cases) to prevent my coming to have it, but it’s not plausible to imagine that, for every such condition, my moral state explains whether I come to have it ab initio. Granted, virtue and vice may play a role in explaining the onset of some diseases or injuries. One can contract an infectious disease through carelessness, or suffer an accident through recklessness, etc. Certain behaviors may be known to probabilize certain diseases or injuries (e.g., eating the wrong foods, not wearing a seatbelt, driving under the influence), so that engaging in them might be thought culpable.

But moral explanations of this sort only go so far in medical contexts. No one could plausibly invoke moral predicates to explain the incidence of leukemia in a three-year-old child–even if one could plausibly invoke them to explain the child’s courage in undergoing treatment for it. And leukemia-in-the-innocent-child is just the most obvious sort of case that stands in for a multitude of less obvious ones. In general, the first-resort explanation for a specifically medical problem is specifically medical, not moral. The medical predicates are autonomous of moral ones, not reducible to them.

Example 2: Virtue may bear on how I deal with and respond to physical pain, but it can’t literally control the physiology of pain to the point of dampening it to zero. A woman may well need enormous courage to undergo the pain of childbirth, as well as a certain degree of rational prudence in planning for it, but possession of those virtues won’t diminish the actual pains of childbirth to the same degree as, say, the application of an epidural catheter. And it’s worth noting that when efficacious, the epidural catheter will diminish the pains of childbirth without regard to the recipient’s moral status, virtuous or not. Assuming efficacy in a given case, application of an epidural catheter will reduce pain to more or less the same degree in the case of the virtuous as the non-virtuous person, and do so to a far greater degree than virtue by itself would.**

Cases like this can, I think, be generalized indefinitely. To the extent that the cultivation of virtue is in our control, it confers limited control over our nature, especially our biological or  “shared” nature. Our anatomy, physiology, and psychology to some extent function independently of moral control, beyond the reach of virtue, and of assessments of good and evil. Given this, to say that virtue fully controls our psyches when we’re asleep, i.e., when our animal nature (almost?) completely takes over, seems implausible to the point of silliness.

Of course, Aristotle neither asserts nor seems to intend the DVT above in a strong, literal, or naive way. He suggests instead that virtue might have some residual influence on our dreams, but leaves the matter there. The reasons for his doing so are clear enough: the DVT is, to put it mildly, too problematic to assert in a categorical way, and too implicated in complicated scientific issues to belong in a general treatise on ethics. One problem a defender of the DVT faces is quantitative: how much control does virtue have over sleeping states? But the bigger problem is qualitative: what would count as a virtuous dream in the first place, and why?

It’s tempting to think (a la the naive view) that if X is a vice, then S‘s having an X-dream indicates S‘s attenuated possession of X. But consider the reverse possibility. Imagine that dreams serve a cathartic function, of purging the “waste products” of the psyche. If so, X-dreams would be more like the moral equivalent of bodily elimination than the expression of the attitudes associated with X. If so, condemning such dreams as immoral would be like condemning the activities of bodily elimination for aesthetic unpleasantness, which seems pretty silly.  The elimination of waste is, in the nature of the case, bound to be aesthetically unpleasant, a physiological fact to accept, not a moral phenomenon to condemn. So if vicious dreams serve a cathartic function (or to the extent that they do), it seems similarly silly to condemn them, no matter how vicious they are, or how often they recur.

Granted, the claim that dreams serve a cathartic function is just a speculative possibility. But so is virtually everything we have to say about the content of dreams. Given the state of psychological knowledge on the subject, any plausible speculation is as good as any other.

So much for the DVT, then. Morally speaking, what happens in our dream life stays in our dream life, at a distant remove from moral assessment. But the real question here is the link between dream states and waking states. Yes, dreams may be exempt from moral assessment, but can waking states be regarded as exempt by analogy with them? Consider an abbreviated case for “yes” and for “no.”

(1) The case for yes. Someone might argue that a proper subset of waking states–passing streams of consciousness, involuntary inner monologue, reveries, osmotic mental noise, involuntary mental “obsessions” or fixations, aliefs– are more dream-like than they are like genuine beliefs. These thoughts (properly specified) would, like dream-states, be immune from moral assessment. Passing racist thoughts of this sort, even expressed in the first person, even in diachronically prolonged and counterfactually stable waves, don’t make you a racist any more than racist dreams do, even when the racism involved in the dream is expressed in the first person.

A person who has recurring first personal racist thoughts may well suffer from a psychological debility of some kind (more on this below), even one requiring professional attention, but is not necessarily a racist. A thoroughgoing denier of the reality of moral luck (like me) might go so far as to say that a person might suffer a mental disorder of this kind and still have full virtue. Such a person’s mental life might contain a chaos of first-personal racist thoughts, but if the mere presence of those thoughts in his head doesn’t make him a racist, there’s no reason to think that their sheer presence undercuts his claim to virtue. (Likewise for other vicious thoughts.)

(2) The case for no. A reverse possibility holds that all waking states, qua waking, are more similar to one another than any is to any dream state. On this interpretation, all waking states, qua waking, are subject to moral assessment, even if we agree that dream states are not. A racist dream doesn’t make you a racist, but a passing racist thought does. And surely, a consistent, diachronically prolonged, counterfactually stable succession of them does. In other words, on this view, the distinction between dreams and thoughts is moral bedrock: a person who has recurring racist thoughts is a racist simply because he’s awake and has them. Whether blameless or not, such a person cannot have full virtue. Indeed, we might argue that such a person lacks virtue altogether. Hursthouse intimates without quite asserting that such a person is in fact blameworthy.

How do we decide between interpretations (1) and (2)?

The claim at the heart of (1) is that when it comes to belief-like entities, what matters to moral assessment is etiology: if some mental item x is in the agent’s head through a purely involuntary etiology, and remains there by a purely involuntary etiology that the agent cannot change, it cannot be relevant to moral assessment regardless of its centrality to the agent’s personality. What matters for moral assessment is the agent’s agency, not the events that involuntarily leave scars on his psyche. Psychological scars have no greater moral relevance than physical ones; Frankenstein’s monster was (one might argue) capable of full virtue despite having his share of both. Involuntary etiologies are, qua involuntary, immune from moral assessment, all the more obviously so when the etiology involves trauma to the agent in question. Coherence and accuracy demand that we speak of mental content produced by an involuntarily traumatic etiology in self-consciously non-moral terms (i.e., quasi-medical terms, those of psychopathology or psychiatric nosology). To speak of such content in moral terms is like trying to explain a three-year-old’s leukemia in moral terms. It’s just a category mistake.

The claim at the heart of (2) is that what matters to moral assessment is depth of ingression of a trait or belief into the agent’s personality: if some mental item x is clearly central to the agent’s personality, in the sense of being highly recurrent and taking up a fair bit of psychological space, it must be relevant to moral assessment, at least to assessments of moral character if not to blameworthiness. The psychological predicates we use to describe stable states of character are inherently moralized, and relevant to claims about the agent’s possession of virtue and vice. Since racism is clearly immoral, a person whose mental life is racist (or more neutrally, full of racist content) lacks virtue whether he can do anything about that fact or not.

It seems to me that most people regard (2) as more plausible than (1) on the intuitive grounds that it just seems hard to attribute virtue to a person whose head is full of racist rubbish. I get that, but bear with me.

One way of making (1) plausible is, as suggested earlier, to see mental noise as a sort of sub-clinical mental disorder. In the second Meditation, Descartes famously describes dreams as mental states that would be crazy if enacted or experienced in waking life. Perhaps certain passing thoughts can be interpreted as the craziness we actually enact or have in waking life–brief descents into madness, a variation on what Freud called the psychopathology of everyday life.

Intrusive unwanted thoughts feature prominently in at least four sets of mental disorders recognized by contemporary psychiatry–depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One way of making (1) plausible is to think of passing, obsessive racist thoughts as an atypical or sub-clinical form of one of these disorders.*** Since I lack the space to explain this for all four sets of disorders, I’ll focus here on just one set, PTSD.

It’s well known that people who suffer from PTSD suffer involuntarily from intrusive, unwelcome thoughts, often thoughts that appear somehow alien to the person having them. What if the etiology of the passing racist thoughts of Hursthouse’s repentant racist is the trauma of the agent’s upbringing itself? What if a racist upbringing is sufficiently traumatic to produce intrusive racist thoughts that are impossible fully to extinguish? We don’t blame (or shouldn’t blame) victims of full-fledged PTSD for exhibiting the symptoms of that disorder. So it seems to me that advocates of  Hursthouse’s view face a problem. Unless we can rule out the possibility of sub-clinical trauma as an explanation for the repentant racist’s racist mental noise, it seems premature to blame him or morally assess him for experiencing that noise. Passing thoughts, even counterfactually stable ones involuntarily produced by a post-traumatic etiology, seem a prime candidate for moral neutrality. The alternatives are either to insist that passing racist thoughts are never produced by sub-clinical trauma, or to insist that sub-clinical trauma is, despite the deliverances of common sense, a matter of moral assessment regardless of etiology.

Imagine a case in which a young child is not just inculcated into racist beliefs but severely beaten over the course of several years, including the formative years of her childhood, for failing to adopt them. Suppose that the child is given a very poor education with very little exposure to the wider world. In that case, the child would satisfy DSM-5’s criterion (A) for suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (DSM-5, p. 271): she would have suffered the relevant sort of trauma. Suppose that the child, as an adult, suffers “recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of” those beatings and associated phenomena. In that case, she would trivially satisfy criterion (B), which requires the presence of those memories over time. Now suppose, further, that the child had by some involuntary process internalized the racist beliefs associated with the beatings, without forming the beliefs in any explicit, voluntarist sense that might warrant ascriptions of culpability to her.

Suppose further that the child, into adulthood, makes an active attempt to heal her psychological damage and rid herself of racist “beliefs.” In this case, she would fail to satisfy criterion (C) of DSM-5’s definition of PTSD, which asserts that those with full-fledged PTSD engage in persistent strategies of avoidance. Our sub-clinical victim of PTSD is ex hypothesi doing the reverse: she is engaged in a persistent strategy of self-confrontation. Now suppose that the agent, into adulthood, suffers from a single “negative alteration in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic events”: despite her every effort, she hears the echoes of racist mental noise in her head. Once again, the agent would fall short of having a full-fledged version of PTSD; full-fledged PTSD involves several (rather than just one) negative alteration in cognition and mood. So the presence of this racist noise partly satisfies diagnostic criterion (D) for PTSD as defined by DSM-5, but the phenomenon is similar enough to full-fledged PTSD to be grouped with it in a rough, intuitive sense.

Take the preceding as a paradigm of sub-clinical PTSD. The similarities between full-fledged PTSD and dream states are acknowledged in the clinical literature: distressing dreams are among the clinical criteria for PTSD, and the amnesia, dissociation, and insomnia characteristic of full-fledged PTSD are on the same spectrum as dreams. Like dreams, amnesia, dissociation, and insomnia are involuntary, and like dreams, they are half-waking states that stand at a significant cognitive remove from ordinary waking states.

Even someone wanting to insist on the difference between sleeping and waking states would have to admit the distinction between cognition in a dissociative state versus ordinary doxastic activity under psychologically normal conditions. My present belief that I’m sitting here writing at a desk in front of a window that overlooks a foggy rural landscape is simply not on par with the rape victim’s “reliving” her trauma in the consultation room, or the war veteran’s momentarily “believing” himself back on the battlefield after being triggered by some trauma-inducing stimulus. Sub-clinical mental noise, I want to suggest, is closer on the spectrum to the trauma victim’s sub-doxastic cognitions than to ordinary beliefs.

The case for (1), then, is that racist mental noise is beyond moral assessment not only because it’s dream-like, but because its dream-like character lies on the same spectrum with the symptoms of sub-clinical PTSD, and to some significant degree, with full-fledged PTSD. If dreams are immune from moral assessment, as are (some of the) symptoms of full-fledged PTSD, then it’s plausible to think that in some cases, at least, the same may be said of sub-clinical PTSD. My objection to Hursthouse’s argument is that it fails to consider this possibility.

Mental noise is, despite its ubiquity in human life, an under-theorized issue in ethics.**** Most if not all people have bizarre, idiosyncratic, passing thoughts that pop in and out of consciousness, often through the power of external suggestion, without clear rhyme or reason. In the absence of “clear rhyme or reason,” we lack a good account of how to make inferences from such thoughts to claims about virtue. The more epiphenomenal the thought relative to desire or action, the less relevant to virtue, even if we bracket issues of voluntariness and blameworthiness.

Much mental noise is morally innocuous. Yes, you might judge me for waking up and finding a Taylor Swift or Shania Twain song going through my head (a pretty common occurrence, actually), but I doubt you’d be all that hard on me for it. It’s tempting to think that judgment is much easier when it comes to morally fraught mental noise: Taylor Swift is one thing, but racism (etc.) another. Both Hursthouse and Schwitzgebel adduce examples designed to elicit this reaction. Consider one of Schwitzgebel’s examples:

To help fix ideas, let’s consider a hypothetical. Hemlata, let’s say, lacks the kind of muscular control that most people have, so that she has a disvalued facial posture, uses a wheelchair to get around, and speaks in a way that people who don’t know her find difficult to understand. Let’s also suppose that Hemlata is a sweet, competent person and a good philosopher. If the psychological literature on implicit bias is any guide, it’s likely that it will be more difficult for Hemlata to get credit for intelligence and philosophical skill than it will be for otherwise similar people without her disabilities.

Now suppose that Hemlata meets Kyle – at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, say. Kyle’s first, uncontrolled reaction to Hemlata is disgust. But he thinks to himself that disgust is not an appropriate reaction, so he tries to suppress it. He is only partly successful: He keeps having negative emotional reactions looking at Hemlata. He doesn’t feel comfortable around her. He dislikes the sound of her voice. He feels that he should be nice to her; he tries to be nice. But it feels forced, and it’s a relief when a good excuse arises for him to leave and chat with someone else. When Hemlata makes a remark about the talk that they’ve both just seen, Kyle is less immediately disposed to see the value of the remark than he would be if he were chatting with someone non-disabled. But then Kyle thinks he should be try harder to appreciate the value of Hemlata’s comments, given Hemlata’s disability; so he makes an effort to do so. Kyle says to Hemlata that disabled philosophers are just as capable as non-disabled philosophers, and just as interesting to speak with – maybe more interesting! – and that they deserve fully equal treatment and respect. He says this quite sincerely. He even feels it passionately as he says it. But Kyle will not be seeking out Hemlata again. He thinks he will; he resolves to. But when the time comes to think about how he wants to spend the evening, he finds a good enough reason to justify hitting the pub with someone else instead.

There are two problems with this example.

One is that it abstracts entirely from etiology. How did Kyle come to have the reactions he has? Schwitzgebel ignores this issue as irrelevant, but as I’ve suggested above, it’s fundamentally relevant. If we know nothing about the etiology behind Kyle’s reactions, and stipulate ex hypothesi that he’s doing literally all he can to fight the problematic ones, I would say that we know nothing about Kyle but that he’s put enormous, laudable moral effort into virtuous action–far more than the average person during the average encounter with an otherwise unremarkable person. By contrast, if we know nothing about Kyle’s past, and bracket the effort he’s putting in to avoid ableist reactions (as Schwitzgebel seems to want to do), I would suggest that we lack the resources for a moral assessment altogether. What exactly is it that we’re assessing?

It seems to me that Schwitzgebel describes Kyle’s reactions in such a way as to punt on Kyle’s agential contributions to the reactions he has to Hemlata. When Schwitzgebel describes Kyle’s failed efforts to overcome his aversive reactions to Hemlata, is he to be understood as summoning literally all of his moral powers in the effort, or is he  pretending to do so while holding back, and deceiving himself about what he’s actually doing? I find Schwitzgebel’s description of Kyle as opaque on this issue as Hursthouse’s, and in just the same way.

It’s worth noting that Kyle’s second-order reaction to his reactions of disgust consist of reflexive thought-suppression, generally regarded by psychologists as a counter-productive strategy with predictable effects of the sort described in Schwitzgebel’s post. What if Kyle simply allowed himself to feel the disgust, but continued the conversation anyway, acknowledging his disgust rather than suppressing it, and making a mental note to deal with it later? Would Schwitzgebel regard the adoption of this strategy as blameworthy simply because Kyle allowed himself to experience the disgust he was feeling–even if the strategy was more likely to succeed in the long run than reflexive thought-suppression?

A second problem is that the Kyle-Hemlata scenario is just one sort of case, not necessarily generalizable to other cases. Sorry to play “what about” here, but that about other sorts of case?

Suppose that Ahmad has spent his whole life in the Gaza Strip, being bombed and shot at by the IDF, not permitted to leave, indoctrinated by anti-Zionist militants, cut off from better ideological resources, and surrounded (in terms of media presence) by victims of what calls itself a “Jewish State.”  It seems to me that there will inevitably be anti-Semitic noise in Ahmad’s head. The people who call themselves “the Jews” (and arrogate to themselves the right to speak in the name of “the Jews”) have tried their best, for decades, to kill Ahmad, to kill his family, to kill his friends and comrades, to de-develop the economy on which his livelihood depends, to confine him to a population-dense human dump, and to present themselves to the world as victims of his Nazi-like propensities, aspirations, and ideology without taking the slightest bit of responsibility for their own depredations.

It seems fantastic to imagine that when Ahmad finds himself the involuntary victim of anti-Semitic mental noise, passing by osmosis into the fringes of his mind, we’re to ignore the context and etiology that produces the phenomenon, and simply fixate on the sheer presence of untoward thoughts in Ahmad’s head. But this is effectively what both Hursthouse’s and Schwitzgebel’s accounts do.

Examples of this sort could be multiplied indefinitely. If you’ve spent your whole life in a right-wing racist family or better yet, a right-wing racist family victimized by a black criminal (or series of them), there will likely be anti-black racist noise in your head. If you were raised by misogynists, there’ll likely be sexist noise in your head of an anti-female variety. If you’ve been raped by a man, and then mistreated by a long series of men, there’ll be sexist noise in your head of an anti-male variety.

And so on. None of this, to my mind, has the implications for moral virtue that Hursthouse et al take it to have. Moral virtue requires making inroads against such attitudes to whatever extent is psychologically possible and compatible with the general requirements of virtue and mental health. Pace Hursthouse, virtue doesn’t require the wholesale abolition of every passing wayward thought, or ascriptions of blame for the failure to achieve such abolition, especially thoughts produced by trauma or duress. An account of moral virtue that passes judgment by abstracting entirely from real-world conditions of duress is not one that answers to the features of the world that human beings actually live in. It’s a textbook mock-up that makes itself irrelevant to the world by design.

Our mental lives, and the connection between those lives and our moral characters, are more complicated than Hursthouse’s account of virtue implies. An account of virtue, like hers, that demands the abolition of all wayward thoughts, extending to the ascription of vice for thoughts that cannot be abolished, demands far too much in the name of a fundamentally unmotivated (and to my mind, quixotic) conception of moral purity. In fact, I would say, it demands a vice or a precursor of vice–repression bordering on self-deception. It demands that moral agents blame themselves and regard themselves as vicious for mental phenomena that are basically irrelevant to any rational assessment of their moral character. It demands that they exert themselves to rid themselves of thoughts and feelings that have very little moral import in the first place, or at least, not the import that Hursthouse seems to ascribe to them.

Obviously, I don’t mean to have defended every passing racist thought that anyone has ever had, and don’t mean to be giving sanctuary to evil simply because it happens to take an entirely private form. Some passing thoughts express the character of the person through whom they’re passing, and some private phenomena are as evil as many public ones. My aim here is to challenge the indiscriminateness of Hursthouse’s account, and accounts like it. The moral simplicity she demands is, in my view, purchased at a price she fails to calculate.

*”Instead of a religion which visited him diplomatically three or four times–when he was born, when he married, when he fell sick and when he died, and for the rest, never interfered with him–here was a teaching which accompanied him all day, accompanied him even into sleep and dreams…” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Swedenborg; or the Mystic,” in Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 144).

**See Ronald Melzack, “The Myth of Painless Childbirth,” Pain 19:4 (1984), pp. 321-337; Melzack et al, “Severity of Labour Pain: Influence of Physical as well as Psychologic Variables,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, 130:5 (1984), 579-584. Melzack et al argue in the second article that psychological preparation for childbirth on the Lamaze model diminishes pain to some (very) modest degree. Hence my claim in the post (echoing Melzack) that possession of the virtues does not diminish the pains of labor “to the same degree” as the administration of an epidural catheter.

That said, I am more skeptical than Melzack et al of the role of psychological variables (e.g., expectations) in literally diminishing the intensity of the pain response. It seems to me that Melzack et al conflate expectation of/preparation for the pain of childbirth diminishes the felt intensity of the pain experienced in childbirth with expectation of/preparation for pain increases the sense of efficacy in dealing with the pain experienced in childbirth without changing its felt intensity. In other words, it seems to me that Melzack et al overstate the influence of psychological variables, and thereby understate pain’s autonomy from virtues like prudence.

***I’m using the phrase “sub-clinical trauma” more to stress atypicality relative to the DSM-5 taxonomy than to stress diminished severity relative to that taxonomy. The example of sub-clinical PTSD that I use in the post happens to be less severe than full-fledged PTSD, but that’s not the thing to focus on. My point is that since DSM-5 is not an exhaustive catalogue of every possible mental disorder that human beings can suffer, we need a concept to denote mental disorders that resemble DSM-5 disorders without literally exemplifying them, i.e., without satisfying every diagnostic criterion listed in the manual, exactly as listed. So what I describe in the post is a sort of PTSD-ish disorder that resembles actual PTSD without actually satisfying every criterion of PTSD in DSM-5.

****By contrast, I would regard it as a badly theorized topic in contemporary psychology, led astray by overly casual reliance on the term “mental noise” to the misinference that all involuntary inner monologue consists of intrusive thoughts incompatible with mental health. A person wanting to learn something significant about inner monologue would be better advised reading works of literature (Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, the Bronte sisters, Czeslaw Milosz, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Oliver, Patricia Carlin, Iris Murdoch, etc.) than virtually anything in contemporary moral philosophy or psychology.

Thanks to Roderick Long and Michael Young for helpful discussion on the last installment of this series. Thanks to Lindsay Elliker Jabush for (unwittingly) supplying the example at the heart of Example 1. Thanks to Jessica Franklin and Nicole Morley for enduring my annoying questions about childbirth relevant to Example 2.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (2 of 2)

  1. If I have a morally bad thought, as passing noise in my brain but something that clearly comes into conscious awareness, I should disapprove of this (and I’m blameworthy if I don’t). And I have at least some reason not to have such bad thoughts. That is consistent with my not being blameworthy for the horrible thought popping into my head (even repeatedly, due to trauma fixation, conditioning from upbringing, clinical compulsion). However, whether I consistently appropriately disapprove or not over time can, and typically does, make a difference as to whether a type of passing thought reflects something bad about my character. Suppose that I consistently fail to disapprove of some particular sort of racist thought that pops into my head from time-to-time. Over time, this at least adds to my dispositional mindset such that the thought expresses (to some extent) who I am and my moral character. This is partly an issue of rational causation (the inculcated mindset of indifference at least pushes toward doing some work in a reason-y rational-y way). But I think the salience to character would be present even if there was causal over-determination, with the pop-up mechanism or compulsion being sufficient to produce the thought. If this picture is right, then an important enabling agential or control condition for being blameworthy for having a passing morally horrible thought is the effects of consistent lack of disapproval upon having it (or similarly morally bad thoughts). This condition can make one is blameworthy (to some extent) for the passing thought because it is (to some extent) an expression of who one is. Though I think we ultimately disagree about the nature and locus of control/agential conditions for blameworthiness, we need not disagree about this enabling control/agential condition. I think what I say here is consistent with what you say. It is also consistent with faulting Hursthouse (and Schwitzgebel) for, in some cases, deeming passing thoughts that are merely morally bad as also reflecting the bad character of the people who have them.

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    • Totally agree with that, with two provisos (which qualify rather than deny anything you say). What’s unclear about both Hursthouse’s and Schwitzgebel’s pictures is how much good faith effort of the preceding kind the agent has made, and if he’s made it, why neither of them seem to give him any credit for making it. They just proceed as though all that effort is to be taken for granted, and the moral philosopher enters the scene when it happens to fail, with the self-appointed task of pronouncing the agent a moral failure.

      1. When you encounter a passing problematic thought in your head, before you disapprove of it, you need to be clear what exactly it’s saying. There’s a tendency to treat problematic passing thoughts as though all of them were on par with temptations-to-be-suppressed. Yes, if you’re on a diet, and the advertising jingle for some tempting food suddenly enters your head unbidden, perhaps you need to make the mental effort to shut it down before it takes hold. But there’s also the reverse problem of encountering some problematic thought, and shutting it down before you know what’s going on in your own head, precisely so as not to know what’s going on in your own head.

      2. When you encounter a passing problematic thought in your head that demands approval, you need to be clear what it is you’re disapproving. Are you disapproving simply of the content of the thought, or are you also disapproving of yourself for its presence in you? Those are crucially different judgments, and they require introspective skill. Is the thought genuinely passing or “osmotic,” as I’ve said? Or is there something about you–about your susceptibility to the message of the thought, or approval, or covert approval, or…etc.–that explains how the thought can somehow be attributed to you?

      This becomes extremely difficult in cases like the one I mention in the text, childhood abuse. Abused children characteristically display lack of self-esteem in adulthood. How does that happen? It’s complicated. They somehow make an “inference” from “My abuser thinks me no good” to “I am no good.” That’s an obvious non-sequitur, and the person “making” it may well deny it if it’s posed to him as an explicit inference in the context of cognitive-behavioral therapy. And yet, he may still go on to act as though it’s true five minutes later. I doubt that Hursthouse or Schwitzgebel would say that abused children who lack self-esteem should, as adults, be castigated for failures of duties to self (at least in the way that they do it in the writing I’ve cited).

      Now change the example from defect of self-esteem to racism, sexism, or ableism. Mutatis mutandis, you can tell the same sort of story in these cases as in the lack-of-self-esteem case. All of a sudden, though, there seems some tendency on the part of moral philosophers to engage in moral criticism of a kind that no one would engage in when it came to self-esteem. Why, exactly? What if the mechanism involved is essentially the same? Shouldn’t the two cases be treated essentially the same? And if we cut the abused child “slack” in the first case (if one wants to call it that), why not in the second?

      I don’t mean to imply, of course, that all cases of racism (etc.) arise from abuse. I simply mean that if you’re going to defend a thesis of the sort that Hursthouse and Schwitzgebel are defending, you have to be able to deal with the abuse case. But they don’t, and I don’t think they have the resources to do so. They’re too concerned with being able to criticize any racist or ableist under any description than wondering how that’s supposed to cohere with our other judgments about like cases.

      That’s the import of my Ahmad case. I’ve encountered cases like this a lot during my time in Palestine (not Gazans, but West Bankers). You’re dealing with someone who’s been shot and incarcerated, whose family members have been killed, etc. etc. by people who do so in the explicit name of “The Jewish State,” arrogating to themselves the status of representatives of “The Jewish People.” Really a surprise that a person like that experiences (at a minimum) thoughts of the form “The Jews are X,” where X is something untoward and false? It’s telling that Schwitzgebel’s example is drawn from academic life–two people chatting at the APA. Great, but life is not two people chatting at the APA.

      Last thought. I think we should be able to tell a consistent story here about all problematic thoughts. But surely we all have passing thoughts of revenge, of sexual desire, fantasies of being a rock star, or living in a mansion, etc. I have no objection to Hursthouse’s or Schwitzgebel’s focusing on examples of sexist or ableist thoughts. But there’s a range of problematic thoughts out there, and an account of such thoughts has to be able to handle them all. The discussion seems so focused on racism, ableism and the like that it’s lost touch with the wider universe of problematic thoughts that ranges beyond them. They do exist, trust me.


  2. I happened to encounter this “Dear Abby” item that’s usefully relevant to this discussion, because it’s precisely what I don’t find excusable or forgivable, at least absent some missing piece of information that dramatically changes the case. It concerns homophobia rather than racism, but it’s the same essential issue.

    I agree with Abby on this one, and am inclined to think that what Hursthouse says about the repentant racist does in fact apply here. “Feels Like” may well mean what he says in a sincere way (I guess; I’m not really sure about this), but his account still remains a culpable rationalization for his behavior. To invoke being a “senior male” and having “old-fashioned” beliefs is just an irresponsible form of dogmatism. “I have always tried to ignore that side of [my brother’s] life and consequently, we have always had a good relationship” sounds like culpable self-deception. In this case, the word “disgusting” (or the sense of disgust) doesn’t just flit through his mind; he seems to identify with it. And “I merely meant to say that I…am totally heterosexual” sounds insincere. There is no plausible way of saying “I’m straight” that involves saying “You’re disgusting.”

    Maybe worst of all is the lack of empathy involved in seeming not to understand why the brother is refusing to answer his calls. Gee–I wonder how that happened?! I don’t know what’s worse–that he really doesn’t understand why the brother is refusing to respond, or that he does understand but is straining not to.

    The thing about this case, however, is that the “repentance” is opportunistic and phony. Even if sincere, it’s belatedly inspired by the fear of losing the relationship. But I’m not sure it is sincere. It’s couched in too many delusional thoughts to come across as fully sincere.

    If this is what Hursthouse wanted to condemn in the repentant racist, I completely agree, but iif so, what we have is a straightforward case of blameworthy behavior. The “Feels Like” case requires no endorsement of moral luck (as Hursthouse’s analysis of the repentant racism case does). The most plausible explanation is a culpable, dogmatic failure to reflect on one’s bigoted beliefs, leading to the endorsement of bigotry, and finally, to the expression of bigotry. What Hursthouse needs is a “Feels Like” who was brought up in a homophobic manner, who thoroughly and sincerely rejects this homophobia, but who nonetheless feels free-floating aversion/disgust for gay sex while rejecting that aversion.

    I just re-read Hursthouse, and though she doesn’t regard the aversion/disgust in this sort of case as blameworthy, she’s not clear on the distinction between rejecting the disgust and castigating oneself for having the disgust. But if the disgust is not blameworthy, it makes no sense to castigate oneself for having it. And if feeling disgust is literally an ineliminable feature of one’s psychological make-up, I don’t think it makes sense to try to eradicate it, either. Whether it can be eradicated or not is an empirical question about which she makes large but unwarranted assumptions.


  3. In re-thinking the issue, I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that ordinary moral language is highly and problematically misleading. In ordinary speech, “S is a racist” seems like the ascription of a blameworthy trait to S. But I’m inclined to think that in ordinary language, S‘s having a passing stream of consciousness racist thought makes S somewhat racist. It follows that if S has such a thought, and being somewhat racist is sufficient for being racist, then S is (a?) racist. But if we assume that possession of the trait is itself blameworthy, then S must be blameworthy. In this case, we’ll find ourselves blaming people for things that aren’t obviously blameworthy. To achieve reflective equilibrium, there will be pressure to insist that S‘s having passing racist thoughts is blameworthy, and ascribable to S, whether or not we have an empirically bona fide account of the etiology of such thoughts.

    Given my rejection of moral luck, I reject almost all of that. I think we need to distinguish between two traits that a person could have, a trait expressing racism where the expression of the racism is in the agent’s control, and (for lack of a better term) a trait expressing racism where the expression of the racism is not in the agent’s control. Even if both are traits, and both are versions of the same trait, I would insist that possession of one trait is blameworthy and the other is not; hence one is a moral trait and the other is not (it may ultimately have moral significance, but it’s not itself a moral trait). I use “moral” here just as a way of marking a fundamental distinction between the two traits. If someone wants to insist that the latter sort of racism is still morally relevant (hence is a “moral trait’), I won’t make a big deal of it as long as the basic distinction is consistently observed.

    When we’re talking about individual moral agents, though, it is extremely misleading to blur the distinction between (what I call) moral and non-moral racism. It’s not just that there’s a conceptual distinction to be “observed” between the two things; it’s that observing the distinction requires translating the observation into attitude and action vis-a-vis the agent. When an agent expresses moral racism, blame is in order, but where the agent expresses (or really, has) non-moral racism, however reprehensible the thought behind it, blame is absolutely inappropriate. This thought is hard to convey in conventional speech or within the conventional climate of opinion, where the constant conjunction of agent and racist thought just seems automatically to entail blameworthiness. But my view holds out the possibility of what paradoxically might be called innocent racism, where “innocent” modifies the agent, not the racist thought. A person can be an innocent victim of a racist thought. We could call such a person a racist, I suppose, but nothing adverse follows about him from that characterization.*

    My example of Ahmad the Gazan in the original post is one example of an innocent racist, but here’s another. Imagine that you’re a therapist and a client comes to you confessing to having out-of-context racist thoughts that she rejects, but that persist anyway. And she wants your help with this. It would (in my view) be flatly immoral to regard this agent as an object of blame. It’s not just that one would, for therapeutic reasons, refrain from expressing blame (though that’s true); it’s that blame is absolutely out of order here. This person is (ex hypothesi) an innocent victim of racism. If we insist on calling her a racist, I would insist on calling her an innocent racist.

    A version of the preceding view is defended by Lawrence Blum in Friendship, Altruism, and Morality (1980), which Hursthouse goes out of her way to attack in a somewhat grandstanding spirit, as though Blum were some sort of reactionary excuse-maker for racism. My own view is a souped-up version of Blum’s.

    *Just to be clear: nothing adverse follows in the way of anything he can be said to have done wrongly; he may have a psychological debility, but that is what I would call a non-moral sense of “adverse.”


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