Subscribe via RSS Feed

[ 0 ] July 29, 2005 |

Using Brad Delong’s frustration with the quality of Jared Diamond critics as a jumping off point, Henry at Crooked Timber considers the odd implications of the arguments of Savage Minds blogger Ozma–specifically, that Diamond’s thesis implies a “do-nothing” form of anti-racism:

it’s quite clear that if one wanted to, one could use a macro-level account of the kind that Diamond provides as the starting point for a meso-level account of the effects of racism, examining, for example, how different environmental endowments have privileged groups that have then used their superior level of physical resources to pursue overtly or covertly racist agendas. Ozma seems to be claiming that accounts of human society that stress macro-level non-cultural factors are inherently accommodationist, and that only meso-level accounts provide genuine “causal understanding.” This is not a helpful argument.

No, no it’s not. But let’s flesh this out a bit. First off, as any anthropologist should know, outcomes as complex as European colonialism, global inequality, and racism are almost certainly the product of a number of causes. I think a fairly plausible case can be made that Diamond is prone to overstating the causal impact of his portion of the argument. I’ve long been of the view that political theorists should read more cultural anthropology, but the inverse is apparently true as well.

What sorts of events and circumstances generate responsibility to remedy? The implication of Ozma’s criticism suggest that responsibility to remedy only activates if a) the harm done is caused by a specific moral agent, and b) their harm is really the principle causal factor. I doubt Ozma holds such views, but it’s rather odd that he would operate with implicit assumptions that assume both a particularly causal view of social science and a thin, libertarian-leaning conception of moral responsibility.

On the latter point, compelling alternatives are available. I’d recommend, for instance, the conception of egalitarian ethics developed by Anne Phillips (Which Equalities Matter?) and Elizabeth Anderson (“What is the point of Equality?” Ethics 1999). Both attempt to generate an egalitarian ethics based on what is required for equal respect, as a necessity for democracy. If something along these lines is seen as the generator for a political conception of responsibility, it can generate responsibilities to achieve such an end, even if no specific wrongs have generated the inequality. (Of course, we could also turn to various forms of virtue ethics and communitarianism to generate the necessary understanding of responsibility, but we certainly don’t have to). It’s not my point to suggest that theorists of democratic equality get moral responsibility right (although I am a fan), but simply to suggest that the implicit theory of moral responsibility Ozma seems to choose as a default is odd.

Perhaps the point isn’t that Diamond’s macro-analysis doesn’t actually authorize the “do-nothing” variety of anti-racism, but it might be misinterpreted as doing so. This is probably true. However, I think it’s probably more correct that “do-nothing” anti-racism is a stance in search of a justification, and if it’s proponents weren’t misreading Diamond to provide it, they’d be busy misreading someone else. Demonstrating that Diamond actually uniquely contributed to the popularity od “do nothing” anti-racism would be, I suspect, a difficult task.

I myself am neither a defender nor a critic of Diamond, but for thoughtful criticism I recommend the these posts by Timothy Burke and Stentor Danielson, plus follow ups.

…Later, Henry reaches a near DeLongian level of crankyness when the accusations turn from endorsing do-nothing anti-racism to actual racism.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site