“[T]he male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject” – Aristotle
“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men…to be naturally inferior to the whites” –David Hume
“In the hot countries the human being matures earlier in all ways but does not reach the perfection of the temperate zones. Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples” – Immanuel Kant
Uh oh. These guys were brilliant philosophers. They were also racist and misogynistic. How should we handle this? Is it possible to separate those beliefs from the rest of their work? If so, how? There are a few possible options, right? 1) Accept 2) Reject 3) Excuse and excise 4) Admonish and amend. Is it possible to admire individuals who hold reprehensible beliefs? I want to explore this a little bit in response to a recent Aeon piece by philosopher Julian Baggini.
Baggini characterizes the exploration of these questions as presenting a dilemma: “We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left.” Acceptance of the views is not a real option. Outright rejection leads to the undesirable situation Baggini articulates. So the essay argues that we can still admire “great thinkers” with the understanding that they were/are socially conditioned beings. We often accept this kind of reasoning when it comes to justifying our admiration of people who are close to or especially important to us. Sure, Grandpa had some misguided homophobic ideas, but he was just a product of his time. The suffragettes might have been eugenicists, but that we can’t judge the past by the standards of the present.
Baggini suggests that rejecting great thinkers because they held sexist or racist beliefs is a reflection of arrogance. We like to think of ourselves as free, unencumbered intellects who come to our beliefs on purpose, independent from the social environment. As Baggini puts it, “The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves.” This fantasy is what makes it so impossible to believe that individuals who would question the nature of reality so thoroughly would simultaneously fail to see and question their own prejudices. But, “our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.” The failure to acknowledge that this is true for Kant and true for us is deeply arrogant. Baggini doesn’t mention this, but I kept thinking about the kinds status quo prejudices that future generations will be appalled that we failed to interrogate. The way we think about and treat nonhuman animals is an obvious one. While overt sexism and racism may not be the status quo — I’m being ridiculously optimistic here. I know that. Keep reading. – our systems are still set up to favor the few, and white supremacist patriarchy is still the air we breathe. One fear is that excusing the past entails excusing the living. If these illustrious men, the greatest of critical thinkers, can be excused for maintaining the status quo, what about today’s thinkers?
Baggini is optimistic too, in suggesting that our admiration of great thinkers, plus our acknowledgment of the wrongness of some of their beliefs, is a kind of humility. Baggini suggests that this humility should prompt further questioning regarding whether the thinkers’ prejudices go deeper. In fact, this has been the life work of a great many feminist philosophers and philosophers of race, work that Baggini does not adequately acknowledge in their piece. But it’s hard for me to imagine answering
“no” to the question “does this explicit prejudice reflect some deeper bias?” Baggini seems to imply that most of the philosophers we regard as “great thinkers” would not hold these explicit prejudices should they not have been embedded in their particular social environments; that we can regard the articulation of the prejudices as evidence of socialization and isolate them from their other philosophical insights. In the end, then, all the author can reasonably expect from an acceptance of their conclusion is position (3): Excuse and excise. We are to continue to admire great thinkers, acknowledge their racism and sexism as evidence of social conditioning, excise the most problematic of their statements from the text, and work with the rest.
But we have good models of what we can produce when we REALLY begin from humility and take the work of this further questioning seriously. Philosopher Charles Mills explores the depth of Kant’s racism, and the way his racist views can be understood to infuse his most fundamental conceptual categories (See the essay “Kant’s Untermenschen,” 2005). The pinnacle of Kant’s moral philosophy is the articulation of a universal moral principle that essentially boils down to: treat all persons with respect, not merely as means to an end. Most students of an intro to philosophy or intro to ethics course will be familiar with this principle. Most will not be introduced to the full blown theory of race that Kant articulates, because the instructor has excised that from the text and teaches the principle as if it didn’t exist in Kant’s thinking. But, as Mills convincingly argues, if Kant has in mind a particular limited understanding of who counts as a “person” this is going to seriously impact his moral vision. The very notion of autonomy, so critical to Kant’s moral framework, is bound to an ideal of whiteness. So, Mills argues that racist ideas were not localized and separable in Kant’s work, but central to his thought. If we are to salvage anything here, it cannot be without radical rethinking, rearticulation, and amendment.
That was a lot of discipline-specific reflection, but we can connect this line of thinking to other familiar contentious debates. For example, how do we regard the art of individuals who do morally questionable things or hold beliefs that we condemn? Which of the beliefs are extricable from their aesthetic visions, from the narratives they tell through their art, and which become infused in a such a way that we cannot just accept the work? So many examples to choose from here; Mel Gibson? Woody Allen? How do we watch a “great film” like American Beauty in the wake of #MeToo? And way back in 2016, (doesn’t that feel like ages ago?!) I had multiple conversations in which I argued that white supremacy was inextricable from Trump’s populism. On my view, you cannot understand Trump’s vision of a great America without attending to the way it is racialized, and it is impossible to cleanly separate the racist ideals from the economic platforms, as many “reluctant” Trump supporters attempted to do.
Let me know what you think about these ideas. I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments. And if you have suggestions for topics for future posts, leave a comment below! I have a feeling that 2019 will have lots of fodder for philosophical reflection!