Response to Fergus Peace

Author: Neil Levy, Leverhulme Visiting Professor

Podcasts of Prof Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures can be found here:


Fergus Peace’s responses to my lecturers are interesting and challenging. As he notes, in my lectures I focused on two questions:

(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?

(2) When those attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterized as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions (more precisely, for the fact that they can be classified in these morally laden terms)?

He suggests that these questions simply are not important ones to ask. Getting clear on how we ought to respond to implicit biases (what steps we ought to take to mitigate their effects or to eliminate them) matters, but asking whether a certain label attaches to us does not. Nor does it matter whether we are morally responsible for the actions these attitudes cause.

The first challenge seems to me to be a good one. I will discuss that challenge after I have discussed the question concerning our moral responsibility. This challenge seems very much weaker.

How could this question not matter? The question whether we are morally responsible for actions that we perform (and can be expected to perform, repeatedly and often, in the future) is obviously important. It has direct implications for how we ought to respond to ourselves and to others. In the lecture on this topic, I set aside consequentialist considerations: the question whether we are morally responsible, in the sense at issue, is the question whether we deserve to be treated in certain ways, quite apart from whether so treating us would have good effects on our behaviour or on the behaviour of others. If we are morally responsible, then we deserve (at minimum) censure and to feel ashamed. Perhaps we deserve to be punished. If we are not morally responsible, then we do not. Obviously, the question has direct implications for how we may justifiably treat one another.

Fergus notes that the question whether we have certain obligations is independent of the question whether we are morally responsible. I agree. Morality is complex: it has many dissociable elements. That there are things that matter (maybe more) other than moral responsibility doesn’t entail that moral responsibility doesn’t matter too.

Let me turn now to the question whether it matters whether we are racist. I am much more sympathetic to the claim that answering this question doesn’t matter than to the second claim. One reason to think it doesn’t matter is that it might simply be a terminological issue. Once we get clear about the processes and mechanisms that cause behaviour, there is no further question to be asked about these questions. Whether this is merely a terminological issue depends on what work the term ‘racist’ can be expected to do. Sometimes, words do further work: by labelling something in a particular way, we thereby commit ourselves to saying it has certain features and in virtue of those features it can be expected to play certain roles. A label like ‘irrational’ might do further work: if that label attaches to someone, then we are entitled to certain presumptions about when they are competent, and this despite the myriad ways in which someone is irrational. ‘Racist’ does further work only if there are a sufficient number of reliable (enough) generalizations that follow from it. Right now, it may be the case that there are not a sufficient number of such generalizations which are sufficiently widely accepted to make the question important. But that might be a product of the relatively undeveloped state of work on racism, and thereby should be a spur to further work, rather than a reason to halt discussion.

One other point: Fergus asks whether it is “worth the effort” to get further empirical data about implicit attitudes that would enable us to answer the question whether we are racists. I don’t share the worry. Getting further data to answer the questions he (rightly) thinks are important – how to avoid triggering implicit biases or preventing them from being expressed – just is getting very much the kind of data that bears on my question. We don’t need to choose: answering these very practical questions requires probing the nature of implicit attitudes and the ways they interact with the mental states recognized by folk psychology and with the environment. Science often works like that: since questions relate to one another so closely, allied projects illuminate one another. Even on his terms, I doubt that psychological work aimed at my question will be wasted.

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