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  • johntambornino


Updated: Jun 28, 2020

My recent post considered ways in which protesting racial injustice is inherently a form of philosophical criticism; in which philosophy can contribute to the pursuit of racial justice; and in which urgent political protest, if it is indeed laden with philosophy, suggests that philosophy is not simply a luxury but often a practical necessity.

A friend who read this post concurred that philosophy is indispensable – and seemingly unavoidable – in confronting racial injustice, while gently noting the embarrassing irony that many revered philosophers have failed to question slavery and racial inequality, and often have endorsed it. It’s an inconvenient truth. None other than the extraordinary Aristotle extended his conceptual hierarchy of soul and body, reason and emotion, and humanity and animality, to an argument for slavery. As he states in the Politics, “the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master” (note that his claim involved no notion of race – which is perhaps the best that can be said of it).

Alternatively, the brilliant 18C German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, did oppose slavery, in principle even if not in practice. He viewed it as in conflict with his “Categorical Imperative,” which recognizes the dignity and humanity of every person. Yet despite Kant’s abstract commitment to moral equality and respect for the individual, he developed far-fetched theories about racial superiority that now seem not brilliant but bizarre. Others could be added to the list of philosophers who were indisputably brilliant, and yet were unfathomably blind when it came to seeing the moral costs of slavery and racism.

What to make of this? The intellects of such philosophers is not in doubt. Perhaps they lacked integrity, indicating something not only about them in particular, but about how easily highly intelligent persons – including those whose principal concern is ethics – can be ethically compromised. I do not discount this possibility. But I want to offer a more charitable and hopeful explanation, one offered by another philosopher.

Adam Smith, the 18C Scottish philosopher, is widely – and wrongly – regarded as a proponent of heartless capitalism. He was not. Smith was a moral philosopher – and an exceptionally sensitive and sympathetic one at that – who only later studied the market economy emerging around him (and whose views on economics have none of the hardness of heart of more recent advocates of laissez-faire economics who claim him as their father). Smith regarded slavery as the “vilest of states,” offering stinging criticism of the institution as an abomination. He also believed that slavery - characterized by coercion - was inherently inefficient economically, and thus also unacceptable on economic grounds. For Smith, slavery was the antithesis of the freedom of labor and commerce that were superior to coercive economies - superior both morally and economically. He got it.

My interest here is not to applaud Smith for seeing slavery for what it is, in contrast to other thinkers of his stature. Rather, I am interested in a deeper insight in Smith, which is integral to his moral philosophy, and which helps us see how an Aristotle or a Kant – or you or I – naturally view the world wearing blinders. When we see the world through blinders, our moral vision is narrowed and dulled, and we can be oblivious to important moral concerns that are obvious to others.

Smith’s foundational work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), includes a discussion of the ways in which entrenched custom can “pervert” moral sentiments and conduct, even amongst the most reflective. He offers the example of infanticide, and remarks with incredulity:

Can there be greater barbarity than to hurt an infant? …Yet the murder of new-born infants was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece, even among the polite and civilized Athenians; and whenever the circumstances of the parent rendered it inconvenient to bring up the child, to abandon it to hunger, or to wild beasts, was regarded without blame or censure. This practice had probably begun in times of savage barbarity. The imaginations of men had been first made familiar with it in that earliest period of society, and the uniform continuance of the custom had hindered them afterwards from perceiving its enormity.

Even the polite and civilized Athenians, who were regarded as the epitome of enlightenment. The point is that everyone takes certain practices for granted – practices that others, and later generations, view as abhorrent. Smith continues, “even the doctrine of philosophers, which ought to have been more just and accurate, was led away by the established custom…and supported the horrible abuse.” Even the philosophers. “The humane Plato…with all that love of mankind which seems to animate all his writings, nowhere marks the practice with disapprobation.” Smith is stressing that even the likes of Plato and Aristotle, who displayed extraordinary intelligence and integrity, can be morally blind, simply not seeing glaring injustice and suffering. Their vision was narrow and cramped with regard to certain matters, as is ours.

A remedy Smith offers is to imagine how our sentiments and conduct might be viewed by someone else, someone from afar, who does not share our self-centeredness, biases, and provincialism. We are to imagine an “impartial spectator” who would view our sentiments and conduct without these limitations, who could place these in a larger context, to overcome our limitations and biases. Imagining such an impartial spectator is an attempt to pull back our blinders, to see suffering and injustice in our midst that we simply did not see.

Smith’s notion of the “impartial spectator” is emphasized by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate in economics who is also a philosopher (and who is equally deserving of a Nobel Prize in philosophy, had Alfred Nobel seen the value of the discipline of philosophy, the oldest form of disciplined inquiry. A perfect example of blinders). In The Idea of Justice (2009), Sen develops the idea further, suggesting that it offers a crucial intellectual exercise, in imagining how our beliefs and conduct might be viewed from afar, to help free us from provincialism. He suggests that critical reflection - and the “objectivity” we seek - consists not in a single individual somehow being entirely free of provincialism. Rather, we may strive for objectivity by combining a variety of (limited) viewpoints, and facilitating “reasoned scrutiny from diverse perspectives.”

Sen suggests that this practice – seeking encounters with persons representing different customs and traditions, assumptions and experiences, prejudices and convictions – is essential not only for critical reflection, but also for democracy. He views democracy as centering on discussion and deliberation that includes diverse identities and perspectives. Democracy thus requires and enables critical reflection.

What to do with these insights? For now, and in short, I wish to emphasize that decent people (including brilliant philosophers) can have – unavoidably do have – blinders. They - and we - fail to see instances of suffering and injustice. Overcoming this requires hearing from others, including those most likely to be ignored or misunderstood. Thus addressing the present racial injustices requires that we listen – especially to persons who have endured these injustices – but to listen to others too (including police officers, for example), as we pursue fuller understanding, and more adequate and inclusive solutions. None of us sees the full picture, none of us can fully understand or address these injustices on our own.

That should be enough to chew on. As I have said, this blog is not about conversion, but rather conversation. I welcome disagreement, and hearing different voices. Partly because that is the nature of philosophy. And partly because I know that I have blinders.

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