Friday, December 05, 2003

Why you shouldn't be a racist

Answer: because (you have adequate evidence that) racism is empirically false. Yesterday before our Thomas Reid seminar, a couple other grad students partook in a Hume-bashing discussion. In general, this is very appropriate for a Reid seminar, but our particular focus wasn't an issue Reid took up. We'd read "Of Miracles", in which Hume says, among other things, that we shouldn't believe the testimony of miracles, because this testimony comes from "barbarous, savage nations." Hume does say a lot of racist stuff throughout his work. John said that this was ridiculous and unforgivable of Hume -- that no rational person could believe that some races were inferior to others. Ben and I disagreed -- we argued that there is no a priori reason to believe that, for example, black people are on average just as smart as white people (just as, for example, there is no reason at all to believe that Chinese people are on average just as tall as white people). To a person with no evidence to the contrary and surrounded by testimony that white people are superior, it would have been perfectly rational to believe that black people are genetically likely to be stupider. Racial equality of ability is all well and good, but it was an empirical discovery. (I don't know enough of Hume's biography to know whether he was in fact ignorant enough to be justified in his racial beliefs.)

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