In the previous essay I discussed the invention of the concept of race in the context of Modern era philosophers. In this essay, I’ll take a brief look at defending Modern era philosophers against the charge of racism. While some might assume all Modern era white European philosophers were racists simply because they were white, this would be a mistake. To assume that a white person must be racist simply because they are white would be both unreasonable and prejudiced. This holds true during our time as well as the Modern era.

 If a philosopher is to be justly accused of racism, there must be evidence to back this claim up. To infer a philosopher (or anyone) must be racist because there is no evidence they were not racist would be to fall victim to the fallacy of Appeal to Ignorance (a variant of the Burden of Proof fallacy). This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that the absence of evidence against a claim serves as evidence that the claim is true. One example of this is when someone infers that psychic powers exist because no one has been able to conclusively prove that no one has such powers. While someone might have psychic powers and a philosopher might be a racist, without positive evidence for these qualities there would be no justification for accepting such claims. As with settling guilt or innocence in the context of crime, what is needed is evidence of that crime and not evidence of innocence. As an accusation of racism can bring negative consequences, it is reasonable to accept that a person is innocent of racism until proven guilty. But even if a philosopher is shown to be racist, there are those who would defend them.

A common defense used when an historical figure is accused of racism is to argue that while they were racist, they are to be excused because racism was seen as morally and socially acceptable (perhaps even laudable) at that time. This is usually presented in terms of how the racist was shaped by their time and that it would unreasonable to expect them to have questioned the values of their time.

But, while people are influenced by their time and it can be difficult to question the values of one’s time, this is a especially weak defense for philosophers who seem to have been racists. Philosophical arguments against slavery and prejudice existed long before the Modern era, philosophers routinely question the dominant values of their time, and there was moral opposition to racism and slavery during the Modern era. As such, this is not much of an excuse or defense for philosophers, especially those who were concerned with ethics. That said, if we think about how we might be condemned and criticized by future generations, we might feel some sympathy towards historical figures who were not too terrible.

While this is anecdotal evidence from my own experience, I have seen the dominant values change significantly over the course of my life. Behavior and language that was acceptable in my youth are condemned today. I recall, with embarrassment, some of what I did and said in my youth. These were well within the social norms of the time and usually things that I had been taught as being correct behavior.  Fortunately, I did not do anything that would be considered awful even by today’s standards, but they would certainly be justly criticized today. As such, I do understand how people can be shaped by their times and how challenging it is to question the values one is raised and enmeshed in. I also now understand how values can change over time so that what was once acceptable becomes condemned. Living and reflecting provides an excellent lesson in how social values shift. This experience has also made it clear to me that we are likely to be criticized and condemned by future generations for behavior we now consider acceptable.

For example, imagine that future humans broadly embrace the ethics of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and reject the exploitation of animals. They look back on the 21st century with disgust, condemning the widely accepted practices of eating meat, wearing leather, testing products and drugs on animals, and other misdeeds against animals. Arguments against exploiting animals are well known today and anyone reading this cannot claim ignorance of the existence of such arguments. If you are now a meat eater, you probably think this is morally acceptable. But, in this hypothetical future, most people would see this behavior as monstrous and wicked.

We can also imagine future generations who look at our treatment of the environment, our economic systems, and our opolitical systems as wicked and worthy only of condemnation. Even those who were not actively involved in these activities could, of course, be condemned as complicit. For example, (unless you are Jeff Bezos) you did not create the working conditions under which Amazon employees had to urinate in bottles. But if you have not been fighting against this abusive situation, then you might be considered complicit. Also, there are a vast number of evils in the world that you and I do not actively fight because we cannot: we do not have enough time or resources to fight or condemn every evil or wrong. The same was certainly true of people in the past.

Among the many people who might be condemned by future generations would be philosophers, including myself. As such, a future professor might need to research me and assess whether I should be condemned as a meat-eater, an owner of leather shoes and belts, and someone who not only purchased on Amazon but sold books through the company. This leads to the question of what should be done about Modern era philosophers who prove to have been racists (or otherwise morally defective, such as being sexists). This should, perhaps, be tempered by thoughts about what future generations should do about us should they find us morally problematic. In my next essay, I will endeavor to address this challenge

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