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

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.