Ethics: October 2008 Archives

A rogue commenter reinvigorating the discussion at this post has led me to clarify something relevant to the abortion debate that I've been moving toward for a while now. There are a number of arguments on both sides of the abortion discussion that involve conceptual slips across important distinctions, and I think it's worth clarifying the assumptions that enable this process.

First, we need to separate out the following three-way distinction: biological humanity, what I'll call Warren-personhood, and moral status. Biological humanity is simply what biologists would classify as being human, as opposed to being a member of a different species or not being an organism at all. Warren-personhood is what most philosophers nowadays mean when they speak of personhood. I'm not convinced that this concept lines up with most people's notions of personhood, but it's become a technical term in philosophy for having certain capacities such as consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to plan for the future, and so on. I call it Warren-personhood because Mary Anne Warren's important pre-Roe article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" is the first instance I know of for this use of the term. Moral status is what it sounds like. Something has moral status if it would be wrong to treat it in certain ways for its own sake (and not just because it's someone's property or because it robs the world of beauty). Most people prefer to talk about moral status in terms of rights, but I prefer not to, because I think moral status is more expansive than rights, and I don't think rights are fundamental to begin with.

One more terminological matter is important before I say what I want to say. Here are two concepts: a three-sided planar figure and a three-angled planar figure. Those aren't the same concept. One concept has to do with how many sides the figure has, and the other has to do with how many angles it has. Philosophers will call these two concepts co-extensive. The extension of a term is the entirety of things that fall under it. The extension of 'tree' is simply all the trees. The extension of 'triangle' is all the triangles. The extension of each of these two concepts is the same as the extension of 'triangle'. The two concepts are co-extensive. Yet they aren't the same concept. Some concepts will be co-extensive but not necessarily so. It just happens that the concept "major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 named Geraldine and Sarah" is co-extensive with the concept " major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 who are women". But they might not have been if some other presidential candidate had selected a woman as V.P. or if McCain or Mondale had selected a different woman.

The pro-life position typically takes the first and last concepts in my list (biological humanity and moral status) to be coextensive, sometimes by means of taking the second (Warren-personhood) to be coextensive with each. But the pro-life argument doesn't need to rely on that. It can be done as long as moral status comes with being biologically human. One response to the pro-life position is simply to distinguish between these two concepts, as if that's the end of the discussion. But that response fails to consider the possibility that the concepts are distinguishable but co-extensive (or, more precisely, just that everything falling under the first concept falls under the third). All that would have to be true for that is that every biologically human organism has moral status. To assume otherwise is to beg the question against the pro-lifer by asserting without argument that human organisms might not all have moral status.

The only argument I've ever seen for such a position is to assume Warren-personhood is what matters for moral status, something the pro-lifer doesn't assume. Thus the argument assumes, in effect, what it's trying to establish, or at least part of what it's trying to establish, which is that Warren-personhood and moral status are co-extensive (or, more precisely, that nothing in the biologically human category has moral status unless it's a Warren-person). I'm really unsure that such a thing can be established without begging the question against the pro-life view. I'm actually pretty sure it can't, actually, or I probably would have seen such an argument, and I'm pretty familiar with the philosophical literature on abortion.

I'm not saying that this favors the pro-life argument very much. It;s more a recognition of why neither side is moved by the other. I've long seen the assumption behind this kind of pro-choice argument as question-begging, but I think this way of framing gets at my worry a lot more precisely. It's not really a matter of getting the concept of personhood wrong, as I've said in the past. It's a matter of two views on the relation between these different categories, with really little in the way of careful philosophical argument that either side can use to convince the other on its own terms of its stance on the foundational issue.

Latoya Peterson at Racialicious is, to my mind, one of the more insightful and fair-minded of commentators on race from a left-of-center perspective. I often find myself disagreeing with her on politics, and I don't think she always represents conservative views or Republican politicians as charitably as I'd like, but I usually find her discussions of race to be more nuanced than most left, center, or right commentators can achieve. I even recognize elements in her analysis that strike me as the sort of thing I'd expect out of moderate conservatives on race, which I regard as outstanding intellectual honesty on her part, because a lot of the people she associates with on such matters would be very resistant to such conclusions (and certainly would be if I were the one presenting them).

But sometimes I see something from her that I just can't accept, and I've just found one. She speaks favorably of Adriel Luis' diatribe on McCain's use of "that one" to refer to Obama as racist in what it "really means". I watcher the video of Luis, and I just don't see any argument there for why McCain must have meant it in a racist way, none at all. The "that one" comment reminded me more of John Kerry's continued use of "this president" when speaking directly at George W. Bush in their debates. It's insulting, but it's quite a reach to claim (without argument) that it's even racial, never mind racist. It may well be that McCain is a
racist. Some people have seen his use of 'gook' for his Vietnamese captors as a sign of racism, but see Katie Hong's better explanation of what's going on there (and her critique of why it's still bad to use the term in that way but isn't necessarily racist). But even if he's at least racially insensitive in some troubling ways, it's just crazy even to suggest that "that one" is racist without giving a shred of evidence that other interpretations are impossible or unlikely, including my own thought that it was just like Kerry's indirect way of referring to Bush as an intended slight without racial connotations.

Now I said Luis gave no argument for why McCain must have meant this in a racist way. I didn't say he gave no argument for making such a claim. He does give a very interesting argument for why it's perfectly ok to throw around charges of racism with no shred of evidence. He says that as long as we brush off each potentially racist claim as not being clearly racist then people won't see any racism as being there. I suppose that might be true if we did that with absolutely every case, even ones where there's evidence (and there are plenty, including some that can't be interpreted charitably, such as Michael Richards' big fiasco with the N-word). But remember that we're talking about particular cases that we don't really know about. There's a reason we don't (at least we're not supposed to) find someone guilty unless guilt can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. We could use the argument that such a policy would mean that we'd never catch killers and that people would deny the reality of murders, thinking deaths were all accidental. But it doesn't have that effect, and the policy of giving the people of the benefit of the doubt with accusations of racism need not have such an effect.

For the same reason that we don't assume guilt with crimes, we should also not assume guilt with moral accusations that aren't crimes. It's basic human decency, and I find it sorely lacking among people who throw racism charges around without strong evidence. Being hesitant in particular cases when you don't know for sure is not the same thing as denying that racism is real. No, it's just being unsure about particular cases when you don't know for sure. I can't count how many times I've been accused of justifying racism when I've pointed out that a racism charge is unwarranted. Only if you don't know the distinction between being true and being proved to be true can you make such a charge. You don't need to deny that racism is real or even that it's widespread and so deep-seated that it's hard to spot in order to point out that a particular case is not clearly racist and thus unfair to call racist, and this will be true no matter how many such particular cases you find.

I've given a moral argument for my policy of giving people the benefit of the doubt in cases of potential but unestablished racism. I don't think it should have to bring any negative racial effects as long as those who question racist accusations in particular cases are willing to acknowledge it when it's clear and insist that there are probably plenty of cases of real racism where we unfortunately can't be sure and thus be able to call them on it. My sense is that conservatives on race are sorely lacking in that sort of thing, and that's why every attempt to follow a policy like mine gets seen as an attempt to justify actual racism. But I don't see how that mistake on the part of people who follow a policy like mine can justify the accusation of trying to justify racism, as has been said about me many times in the comments at Racialicious whenever I've said that a charge of racism is going beyond what we can be sure of. But people prone to leap to racism charges without enough evidence are also prone to leap to racism-justifying charges without reason.

I maintain that we do need to give particular people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to racism charges. Leaping to accusations of racism fuels the sense that every charge of racism is just a political ploy to get more power for a black hegemony that has taken great joy in gaining power by making racism charges. There's no way conservatives on race are going to back down from that narrative as long as a significant number of people follow a policy like Luis'. His strategy is therefore counterproductive, because he's just adding fuel to the fire among those who think racism charges are all or mostly false. Consistently repeating such charges without evidence isn't going to undermine such a narrative. It will further it. A more widespread recognition of the fact that racism is more widespread and deeply-seated among everyday white experiences will only come if those who seek to find racism under every rock and tree are a little more willing to express skepticism in particular cases when racism isn't all that well established.

Call a Spade a Niggard?

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There are some interesting moral issues related to the use of expressions that are perfectly ordinary and inoffensive in most situations but are used offensively within a small subset of the population, particularly when there are some among those on the receiving end of such expressions who don't know of the ordinary, inoffensive use of the term in question. It's usually good to show moral deference to the ignorant, if we haven't been in their position of ignorance, giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the ignorant in these cases include both (a) those who use the expression without knowing or the offensive connotation that it has in certain contexts and (b) those offended but its ordinary usage because they don't know about anything other than its offensive use. At the same time, there's always the questions of (c) whether those in (a) ought to have been more aware of what offends people and (d) whether those in (b) ought to have be willing to throw out such serious moral charges based on an ignorance that many might not easily excuse.

I've defended the use of such expressions in many contexts, emphasizing (a) and (d) above while perhaps too easily dismissing (b) and (c), or at least not explicitly laying out the reasoning for why I tend to favor (a) and (d) as more decisive in these kinds of cases. One example that came up in my post was the old expression "call a spade a spade". This one actually goes back to Plutarch in the second century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although he used a different metaphor that was later mistranslated by Erasmus in 1542. (It's not generally accessible online except with a password to get through a university firewall, or I'd link to it.)

When I was talking about these cases with my friend and colleague Chuck, who occasionally comments here, he decided to go check the OED to get the history of the expression. He noticed a particularly funny quote that the OED used to exemplify "call a spade a spade".

1647 TRAPP Marrow Gd. Authors in Comm. Ep. 641 Gods people shall not spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.

Those who have followed the recent history of offense over normally-inoffensive terms will remember that the black mayor of the District of Columbia fired one of his white aides for using the term 'niggardly', a word that only sounds like a racial epithet if you aren't listening very carefully. Even the NAACP chair, Julian Bond, thought it was crazy to criticize someone for using that word. But I suppose we've now got solid proof that 'niggard' does refer to black people, since Trapp in 1647 used it in parallel with "call a spade a spade". Or does this show that "call a spade a spade" is tied to offensive language because its connection with niggards goes back at least to 1647?


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