The wrongs of racist beliefs

Philosophical Studies 176 (9):2497-2515 (2019)
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Abstract
We care not only about how people treat us, but also what they believe of us. If I believe that you’re a bad tipper given your race, I’ve wronged you. But, what if you are a bad tipper? It is commonly argued that the way racist beliefs wrong is that the racist believer either misrepresents reality, organizes facts in a misleading way that distorts the truth, or engages in fallacious reasoning. In this paper, I present a case that challenges this orthodoxy: the case of the supposedly rational racist. We live in a world that has been, and continues to be, structured by racist attitudes and institutions. As a result, the evidence might be stacked in favour of racist beliefs. But, if there are racist beliefs that reflect reality and are rationally justified, what could be wrong with them? Moreover, how do I wrong you by believing what I epistemically ought believe given the evidence? To address this challenge, we must recognize that there are not only epistemic norms governing belief, but moral ones as well. This view, however, is at odds with the assumption that moral obligation requires a kind of voluntary control that we lack with regard to our beliefs. This background assumption motivates many philosophers to try to explain away the appearance that beliefs can wrong by locating the wrong elsewhere, e.g., in an agent’s actions. Further, even accounts that accept the thesis that racist beliefs can wrong restrict the class of beliefs that wrong to beliefs that are either false or the result of hot irrationality, e.g., the racist belief is a result of ill-will. In this paper I argue that although the these accounts will capture many of the wrongs associated with racist beliefs, they will be only partial explanations because they cannot explain the wrong committed by the supposedly rational racist. The challenge posed by the supposedly rational racist concerns our epistemic practices in a non-ideal world. The world is an unjust place, and there may be many morally objectionable beliefs it justifies. To address this challenge, we must seriously consider the thesis people wrong others in virtue of what they believe about them, and not just in virtue of what they do.
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First archival date: 2018-07-02
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