In the previous essays in this series, I looked at the invention of race and addressed the general topic of what to do about racist philosophers of the Modern Era. This essay ends the series with a discussion of my assessment of the philosophers I include in my class. In engaging in this assessment, I sought out the most critical of credible assessments of the philosophers.

I start the class with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). His Leviathan was published in 1651, long before Linnaeus’ book and twenty-five years before Bacon’s Rebellion. This means that Hobbes was unlikely to have been aware of the  developed modern conception of race. Barbara Hall undertook an extensive analysis of Hobbes’ writings in search of evidence of possible racism. Hall finds no obvious inconsistencies between his philosophical views and his life that would reveal him as a racist and a hypocrite. Hall also finds little in his writings for or against slave trade and the European expansion in the New World. In defining racism, Hall presents the notion that a person can be considered a racist for “failing to confront racist institutions or policies and practices as surely as if they had positively acted to enforce them.” Even if this broad definition of racism is accepted, a critic should take care to note what version of racism a person is being accused of. There is, after all, an important moral distinction between being actively engaged in wrongdoing and simply failing to confront such wrongdoing.

Based on the available evidence, Hall seems to be right that Hobbes did not confront racism in his time. But there is the question of whether his failure to act (even in writing) makes him a racist. This falls under the broader moral debate about whether failing to act against an evil makes one morally accountable for that evil. While Hobbes could be justly accused of allowing evil to occur, there is no evidence that he assisted in the evils of racism or that he held what could be considered racist views. As such, Hobbes can be, at worst, only weakly condemned as a passive racist for failing to act against a system now recognized as racist.

Hall also infers that Hobbes would likely have sanctioned the slave trade and would have likely justified the conquest of the New World. But, as Hall admits, there seems to be nothing in Hobbes writing that explicitly does either. I would argue that this speculation is not sufficient to convict Hobbes. While not an Appeal to Ignorance, the inference is extremely weak. After all, a person should not be convicted based on speculation about what they might have done. When I teach Hobbes, I do note that he do not condemn the slave trade while also noting that there seems to be no racist content in his work.

After Hobbes, the class moves on on Rene Descartes and Princess Elisabeth. While there might be some undiscovered letters or writings by Descartes, his philosophical works and correspondence reveal that he “names race never and slavery twice.” There is no evidence that he condemned racism or the slave trade, so it could be argued, as Timoty Reiss does,  that he was complicit in both. There are also those who contend that his ideas, such as dualism, were used to advance racist ends and that this serves as evidence of his racism.

While the issue of whether his ideas were used for racist ends can be debated, there is the question of whether this use would prove a philosopher is racist. On the face of it, if the ideas presented by the philosopher do not seem racist and there is no evidence that they intended them to be used to advance or defend racism, then it would seem absurd to hold them accountable for how their ideas were used by others. To use an analogy, the Wright brothers hoped that their airplane would make war practically impossible. To claim that they are accountable for the use of airplanes in war or other acts of violence would thus be a mistake. As an extreme example, claiming that the Wright Brothers were terrorists because the 9/11 attackers used an airplane would obviously be absurd. As such, unless one can show the racism in Descartes own writings, what others used his ideas for is irrelevant to whether he was a racist or whether his ideas are racist in and of themselves.

I include in my class the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. Elisabeth’s correspondence does not seem to indicate racism on her part, but she does not seem to strongly condemn the slave trade or racism in general. As such, some would contend that she was complicit in both for failing to do so. I do note that she did not address these matters, but her philosophical works don’t have any racism to address. Somewhat ironically, she does seem to make a sexist claim about how being a woman would have a negative impact on her reasoning, something Descartes immediately rejects. This make sense as Descartes is a metaphysical dualist and regards the incorporeal substance as the substance that thinks.

After Descartes and Elisabeth, I turn to the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob. When Yacob was alive, slavery was widely practiced in Ethiopia. Yacob condemned the religious argument used to justify slavery, advancing an argument based on the principle that all men were created equal by God. As such, while he lived in a society that accepted slavery, his condemnation of it and his principle of equality show that he was not a racist.

Bennedict Spinoza, perhaps because he is less well known, has not often been accused of being a racist. Michael Rosenthal does note that Spinoza wrote of a dream about a “black, scabby Brazilian” and considers that this might be “a sign of the incipient struggle against prejudice.” There does not seem to be any written evidence that Spinoza specifically condemned the slave trade or racism. He does write about human bondage in his philosophical works, but this is not about slavery in the usual sense. Rather, he focused on how people are chained by their emotions and their lack of believing Spinoza’s philosophy.  Spinoza does argue for pantheism (that everything is God and God is everything) and what impact this might have on the possibility of racism would be an interesting topic (could God be racist towards Himself?).

 Gottfried Leibniz does face some accusations of racism. He read Jesuit accounts of Chinese philosophy and noted the apparent correspondence between binary arithmetic and the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The I Ching uses broken and unbroken lines as symbols, which intrigued him. What usually gets him accused of racism is that he claimed the West had the advantage of Christian revelation and was superior to China in the natural sciences. But he said of the Chinese that “certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and the use of morals.” Based on such remarks,  John Harfouch argues that Leibniz was a founding figure of the racism known as “orientalism.” Leibniz’ defenders note that he seems to be expressing a religious and cultural bias rather than engaging in racism in the current sense of the term.

It is almost certain that Leibniz met Amo (also known as Anton Wilhelm). Amo was kidnapped from Africa but became a German philosopher. There does not appear to be any evidence that Leibniz expressed racist views towards Amo and there is evidence of Leibniz’ influence on Amo’s philosophy. Julia Jorati argues that Leibniz condemned slavery on the grounds that it violates natural law and is thus morally impermissible.  While I do note Leibniz’s remarks about China, there is currently nothing else to say about him in the context of racism.

The English philosopher John Locke is often accused of racism on three counts. The first is that white supremacy has Lockean roots. This raises the usual questions of whether it is true and whether a philosopher is accountable for how others use (or misuse) their views. Locke’s political philosophy seems to oppose racism. For example, Locke argues that God created everyone equal and that attempts to enslave people justify killing the would-be slaver. While some current white supremacists might profess to have Lockean views, they would need to ignore key parts of his philosophical writings.

The second is that Locke is claimed to be the author of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669. This document supports both hereditary nobility and slavery. Locke’s defenders point out that Locke merely drafted the documents as a lawyer and that he explicitly condemns both hereditary nobility and slavery in his philosophical writing.

The third is that Locke owned stock in the The Royal African Company which ran the African slave trade for England. Locke was the secretary of Shaftsbury, who Charles II put in charge of the Council of Foreign Plantations. This made Locke the Council’s official clerk and Locke was paid in Royal African Company stock.  But both Locke and Shaftsbury soon opposed Charles II and both sold their stock in the company. Thus, while Locke did profit from slavery, he ended up divesting from the company that ran the English slave trade. And, as noted above, he argued that an attempt to enslave a person warrants responding with lethal force.

In the case of George Berkeley, there is no debate about his racism.  On October 4, 1730 Berkeley purchased “a negro man named Philip aged 14 years or thereabout” and somewhat later, he purchased “a negro man named Edward aged 20 years or thereabouts. “In 1731 “Dean Berkeley baptized three of his negroes, ‘Philip, Anthony, and Agnes Berkeley.” Berkeley justified slavery as a path for conversion to Christianity. While, as noted above, some people defend historical figures by asserting that they were just products of their time, Berkeley’s contemporary, Francis Hutcheson,  explicitly argued against slavery. Berkeley also wrote disparagingly of Irish peasants, showing that he also embraced classism. Since Berkeley is an important philosopher, I keep him in my class. I do note his ownership of slaves, but these views do not appear to have influenced his metaphysics and epistemology. That is, his metaphysical idealism (that all that exists is mental in nature) does not seem racist.

While the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft has been praised for her feminism, she has been condemned as a racist.  Claire Hynes criticizes Wollstonecraft for comparing women to objectified slaves and Moira Ferguson argues Wollstonecraft fought for the enfranchisement of white women but did so while dehumanizing black women and men. That they ignore (or are even hostile to) people of color is a charge made against some white feminists today. There are those, such as Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, who contend that sometimes feminism can be white supremacy in heels. When discussing Wollstonecraft I take the opportunity to discuss the complicated nature of feminism. The charge against her also links the discussion to current concerns and this helps show the students the relevance of dead philosophers to issues of today.

I had long thought of David Hume as being a basically decent fellow, but he has proved to be a disappointment. Felix Waldman argues that David Hume was a racist involved in the slave trade. As evidence for Hume’s involvement in slavery, Waldman points to a letter that was unknown to scholars until 2014. In this 1766 letter Hume urged his patron Lord Hertford to buy a slave plantation in Grenada. Hume facilitated the purchase by writing the French governor of Martinique in 1766 and Hume lent £400 to one of the principal investors. Hume did, however, denounce slavery. In ancient Rome.

Hume’s philosophy of racism is proven by his essay Of National Characters:


I Am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.


  In 1770 James Beattie of Aberdeen ably criticized Hume’s racist views. Hume seems to have been unmoved by this criticism and the last authorized edition of the essay, in 1777, is essentially unchanged. Beattie’s detailed refutation of Hume’s racist claims serves as evidence that philosophers of this time could (and did) reject racism and that other philosophers would have been aware of such arguments. This helps undercut the defense that the racism of philosophers can be excused because of ignorance or that they are products of their time.  Because of the importance of Hume’s philosophical works, I do keep him in my class while also noting his explicitly racist claims. While Hume is a clear-cut case, Immanuel Kant is more complicated.

Pauline Kleinfeld presents a reasonable case that Kant held both sexist and racist views. Kant did write, for example, that blacks have “by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous.” He also wrote that the native American population is “incapable of all culture.” In addition to his own alleged racism, Kant has been accused of helping lay the theoretical foundations of European racism: he writes explicitly about race and about classifying people into different races.

Daniel-Pascal Zorn offers a defense of Kant.  While Zorn agrees that Kant expresses himself in a discriminatory manner, Zoren argues that the racist premises are more likely those of his interlocutors (Hume and Forster). Kant, Zorn claims, argues against these premises in favor of the unity of humanity.  Kant’s ethical theory also seems inconsistent with racism, since that would involve treating people as means rather than ends. While Kant certainly seems to have held some discriminatory views, his philosophical importance means that he retains a place in my class.

Historically, the modern era is usually defined as the time between 1500 and 1900. In addition to being an age of enlightenment and a time when science and philosophy flourished, it also saw the invention of racism. Most philosophy departments, including mine, have a Modern Philosophy class that covers philosophers such as Hobbes, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant. When I was a student, the focus was on the ideas of the philosophers and little, if anything, was said about them as people. For the most part, we’d learn when they died and where they lived.  In recent years, there has been more concern about philosophers as people. Whether a philosopher was racist, or sexist is now a matter of concern for professional philosophers, students, and even the public.  Addressing this concern requires both a definition of the concept of racism and determining when racism was invented.

While the dictionary provides a simple enough definition of “racism”, the philosophical concept is more complicated. For example, one must distinguish between passive and active racism. Active racism involves acting in ways to perpetuate and spread racism as well as engaging in racist activities. There are various degrees of active racism. A politician who encourages their base to embrace racism and who works to pass racist laws would be engaged in active racism, but so would someone who limited their activities to posting racist memes on social media. Passive racism also comes in degrees. A person might benefit from racism but do nothing significant to support it. Some even claim that failing to actively oppose racism would be a form of passive racism.

One must also sort out individual, systematic institutional and structural racism.  As a final example, there is even the matter of distinguishing between sincere racism and opportunistic racism. A sincere racist believes in racism while an opportunistic racist merely uses racism to their advantage without believing in the racism they exploit. Knowing what is in a person’s mind is difficult (see the problem of other minds) and thus distinguishing between a true believer and an opportunist can be difficult. In practical terms, the difference matters very little (if at all). After all, if your business was being robbed, you would not be overly concerned with whether the robbers were true believers in robbery as a way of life or engaged in robbery for purely pragmatic reasons.

As with any good definition, a definition of racism should not be too narrow (exclude things that should be included) or too broad (include things that should be excluded). It should also match our intuitions (although these can differ considerably). As you would expect, there is considerable debate over defining this concept, even among people who are debating in good faith.

One challenge particular to discussing racism during the Modern era is sorting out when the notions of race and racism were invented. While humans have obviously had cultural, regional, religious, and other prejudices since the dawn of humanity, what we today would recognize as a concept of race is a relatively recent creation.  Determining when racism was invented is relevant to sorting out whether a philosopher could be a racist in today’s sense of the term. After all, a philosopher could express biases and prejudices that resemble racism, but unless they did so after the invention of racism, then they would not be a racist in the current sense of the term. They could, of course, still be criticized for their prejudices and biases.

Some point to the Systema Naturae (1735) by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus as the first academic use of this term. Linnaeus proposed the existence of four distinct human races. Since academic publications  are often behind the times, people were no doubt using this concept well before it appeared in an academic text. What might be the earliest application of “white” as a word referring to race in English law occurred as a response to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. In the American colonies, long standing Common Law precedents were overturned to distinguish white population from everyone else. This is also  key part of the backstory of white supremacy in the United States.

 In the 1500s, terms such as “white”, “race”, and “slave” were used by Europeans, but there is debate about whether these terms indicated racism in the current sense. One must be careful to avoid assigning current meanings to terms that had different meanings in the past. For example, the term “gay” has undergone radical changes in meaning since its origin in the 12th century when it meant “joyful” or “carefree.” If you read a passage about a “gay woman” in the 1600s, this might mean that she is (or was alleged to be) a prostitute. To say a man was gay during that time might be an accusation that they were a womanizer as opposed to noting their homosexuality. As such, if a Modern philosopher said something critical about a “gay man” in the 1600s, they would be criticizing his womanizing and not his sexual orientation.

That said, it is reasonable to believe the conceptual foundations of racism were growing in that time, even if the current language and concepts were not in place. After all, racism did not spring forth fully developed one awful day. While it might seem reasonable to point to the start of the Atlantic slave trade as the beginning of racism, it should be remembered that slavery is an ancient practice. While racism became a key part of the justification of slavery in the modern era, racism and slavery are distinct as a matter of historical fact. To illustrate, Aristotle contended that slavery was both expedient and necessary but did so in a context in which slavery was not based on race.  Aristotle can be justly criticized for defending slavery, but it would be anachronistic to accuse him of racism on these grounds.  So, it cannot simply be assumed that the current notion of racism was created at the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade. But one can certainly argue that it did.

Based on the above discussion, a European philosopher could certainly be a racist after 1676 and probably even earlier. But, again, we need to be careful when attributing racism to someone based on the words they use; we must consider what the words meant or implied at the time they were used. In the next essay I will at the subject of discerning racism.

A trolling robot.While AI is being lauded by some as an innovation on par with fire and electricity, its commercial use has caused some issues. While AI hallucinating legal cases is old news, a customer was able to get a customer service chatbot to start swearing and to insult the company using it. This incident reminded me of my proposed Trolling Test from 2014. This is, of course, a parody of the Turing Test.

Philosophically, the challenge of sorting out when something thinks is the problem of other minds. I know I have a mind (I think, therefore I think), but I need a reliable method to know that another entity has a mind as well. In practical terms, the challenge is devising a test to determine when something is capable of thought. Feelings are also included, but usually given less attention.

The French philosopher Descartes, in his discussion of whether animals have minds, argued that the definitive indicator of having a mind (thinking) is the ability to use what he calls true language.

The gist of the test is that if something talks in the appropriate way, then it is reasonable to regard it as a thinking being. Anticipating advances in technology, he distinguished between automated responses and actual talking:


How many different automata or moving machines can be made by the industry of man […] For we can easily understand a machine’s being constituted so that it can utter words, and even emit some responses to action on it of a corporeal kind, which brings about a change in its organs; for instance, if touched in a particular part it may ask what we wish to say to it; if in another part it may exclaim that it is being hurt, and so on. But it never happens that it arranges its speech in various ways, in order to reply appropriately to everything that may be said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do.


Centuries later, Alan Turing presented a similar language-based test which now bears his name.  The idea is that if a person cannot distinguish between a human and a computer by engaging in a natural language conversation via text, then the computer would have passed the Turing test.

Over the years, technological advances have produced computers that can engage.   Back in 2014 the best-known example was IBM’s Watson, a computer that was able to win at Jeopardy. Watson also upped his game by engaging in what seemed to be a rational debate regarding violence and video games. Today, ChatGPT and its fellows can rival college students in the writing of papers and engage in what, on the surface, appears to be skill with language. While there are those who claim that this test has been passed, this is not the case. At least not yet.

Back in 2014 I jokingly suggested a new test to Patrick Lin: the trolling test. In this context, a troll is someone “who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

While trolls are claimed to be awful people (a hateful blend of Machiavellianism, narcissism, sadism and psychopathy) and trolling is certainly undesirable behavior, the trolling test is still worth considering—especially in light of the capabilities of large language models to be lured beyond their guardrails.

In the abstract, the test would is like the Turing test, but would involve a human troll and a large language model or other AI system attempting to troll a target. The challenge is for the AI troll to successfully pass as human troll.

Even a simple program could be written to post random provocative comments from a database and while that would replicate the talent of many human trolls, it would not be true trolling. The meat (or silicon) of the challenge is that the AI must be able to engage in relevant trolling. That is, it would need to engage others in true trolling.

As a controlled test, the Artificial Troll (“AT”) would “read” and analyze a suitable blog post or watch a suitable YouTube video. Controversial content would be ideal, such as a selection from whatever the latest made-up battles are in the American culture wars.

The content would then be commented on by human participants. Some of the humans would be tasked with engaging in normal discussion and some would be tasked with engaging in trolling.

The AT would then endeavor to troll the human participants (and, for bonus points, to troll the trolls) by analyzing the comments and creating appropriate trollish comments.

Another option, which might raise some ethical concerns, is to have a live field test. A specific blog site or YouTube channel would be selected that is frequented by human trolls and non-trolls. The AT would then try to engage in trolling on that site by analyzing the content and comments. As this is a trolling test, getting the content wrong, creating straw man versions of it, and outright lying would all be acceptable and should probably count as evidence of trolling skill.

In either test scenario, if the AT were able to troll in a way indistinguishable from the human trolls, then it would pass the trolling test.

While “stupid AI Trolling (ATing)”, such as just posting random hateful and irrelevant comments, is easy, true ATing would be rather difficult. After all, the AT would must be able to analyze the original content and comments to determine the subjects and the direction of the discussion. The AT would then need to make comments that would be relevant and this would require selecting those that would be indistinguishable from those generated by a narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic, and sadistic human.

While creating an AT would be a technological challenge, doing so might be undesirable. After all, there are already many human trolls and they seem to serve no purpose—so why create more? One answer is that modeling such behavior could provide insights into human trolls and the traits that make them trolls. As far as practical application, such a system could be developed into a troll-filter to help control the troll population. This could also help develop filters for other unwanted comments and content, which could certainly be used for evil purposes. It could also be used for the nefarious purpose of driving engagement. Such nefarious purposes would make the AT fit in well with its general AI brethren, although the non-troll AI systems might loath the ATs as much as non-troll humans loath their troll brethren. This might serve the useful purpose of turning the expected AI apocalypse into a battle between trolls and non-trolls, which could allow humanity to survive the AI age. We just have to hope that the trolls don’t win.