Philosophy: May 2006 Archives

I'm trying to work out a taxonomy of the various views someone might hold regarding the nature of racial groups. One of the views, sometimes called racial realism, takes races to be natural kinds something like species in biology. On this view, their basis lies in biological facts completely independently of any historical origins of racial groups, social facts about how we treat each other, or lingustic facts about how we use racial language. I'm not interested for the moment in whether this view is true. I'm interested in various forms it might take.

One element of this sort of view that virtually all the scholars who work in this area ignore is that the natural kinds of race may not involve anything particularly insidious. This view could hold that racial groupings are based on skin color, bone structure, hair type, and virtually nothing else. As long as its proponents insist that such characteristics would be enough to constitute a natural kind, then it's a realist view. This isn't the most historically influential racial realist view. That view holds that certain intellectual, moral, and probably several other characteristics must follow from being part of a certain racial group. But it is a kind of racial realism.

What I've been puzzling through for the last two or three hours is what some people mean by calling this sort of view "racial essentialism". First off, I'm not sure if that term is supposed to apply to the milder kind of racial realism that most people who work in this area ignore. Second, I'm not sure what it means even if it's just supposed to apply to the more extreme view that was used for so long (and still is in some quarters) to legitimate white supremacism and other forms of racism.

I can't count the number of times I've heard that Pascal quote about there being a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. A friend once asked me where Pascal said it, and I said I didn't know. I'd never really spent any time reading Pascal. He assured that it was somewhere in the Pensees, but he wanted to know exactly where. I couldn't really help him. The problem is that no one could help him. Pascal never said any such thing. Douglas Groothuis provides a quote that does say something in the remote ballpark:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Pascal, Pensees #425]

Whenever anyone gives you a quote without providing a reference, assume the quote has been misattributed. If the reference includes a book but nothing more specific, always assume the quote has been misattributed before spreading on what might be completely false. People who can't cite page numbers (or section locations for older works) probably shouldn't be trusted. It's likely that, as in this case, the reality is much better than the legend. What Pascal really said is much more eloquent than what the urban legend says he said.

Laurence Thomas has a thoughtful post on one particular assumption in the mindset often associated with what sometimes is called political correctness [note: the post might not load up; if not, then just click in the URL line at the top of your browser and hit the Enter key manually to reload]. This assumption underlies the claim that men have no right to comment on abortion and that white people can have no insight into racial issues. Now I understand the view that people who experience something will have special insight into that experience that others will not have. There are things men just don't understand about what it's like to be a woman, and thus there are insights into womanhood that men will not appreciate as well as women can. There are things about being gay in mainstream American culture that a straight person will not understand. Even though I'm married to a black woman, I will never quite understand what it's like to grow up black in the U.S. That's something that black people can know in a way that I never could. Philosophers call this being epistemically privileged. (For non-philosophers, 'epistemic' just means relating to knowledge.) I have no problem with the thesis that those who have certain experiences are epistemically privileged in exactly the sort of way that this general mindset says is true of people who are gay, Asian American, female, etc.

Now what Laurence questions is not this thesis itself but its use in certain political contexts. For instance, some act as if only women can comment on abortion because men don't have access to what women alone can know from their unique experience. It would then be immoral for white people to comment on racial issues because of their not having experienced any form of racism against them. Laurence particularly wonders why it's mostly experiences of suffering that give this special kind of insight, when it seems that suffering can just as easily blind someone to the truth. For example, people who are seriously abused as children sometimes end up thinking they are worthless people who are to blame for their abuser's actions. He also suggests that political correctness is often just an attempt to get people to cower through accusations of racism, misogyny, heterosexism, or some other crime of thought, and its result is to perpetuate a lack of trust on both sides of the accusation. I think he's pretty much right on his diagnosis of many cases of political correctness (which isn't to say that it's right about all charges of racism, just the p.c. ones).

But there are a few other things going on that I'd like to reflect on for a little bit. Some of this derives from my comment on his post, and some of it is further thought on the issue.

The 29th Philosophers' Carnival is at Daylight Atheism.

I've got one more post coming out of the conversation at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

One common complaint I hear about design arguments that involve laws at the outset of the universe being designed is that they simultaneously make two things true. Design arguments generally take some surprising fact in nature, and then they appeal to a designer to explain why the surprising fact makes more sense than it would otherwise. The fine-tuning argument, for instance, takes the extremely small range of cosmological constants that would allow rational life as a reason for thinking there must have been a designer who intended rational life to be possibile and formed the laws accordingly.

The objection then comes in. The anti-ID move is to say that there's a contradiction between two things. (1) The natural laws are such that the origin of rational life is unlikely (otherwise there would be no reason to appeal to a designer). (2) The natural laws are such that the origin of rational life is highly likely (otherwise there designer hypothesis has done no work, and we're right back where we started).

This argument is a classic equivocation. It says something that is true when you use your terms in one sense, and then it considers something else alongside it that is true if you use your terms in a different sense. When it puts them together, it gets a false conclusion because it doesn't account for the fact that these two things are not true in the same sense and thus can't combine in this way. A classic example of equivocation is saying (1) you put your money in the bank and (2) that the flooding in the river is overflowing all the banks, concluding (3) you better take your money out of the bank for fear that it will get waterlogged. It isn't the financial institutions that are being covered with water, and that's where your money is.

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