A Common Non Sequitur

It seems that in political/philosophical discussions, no matter what you’re talking about, someone will attempt to argue against your view by injecting “nuance” into the debate. Or at least, they’ll explain how the difficulty of the questions we’re discussing means that we should hesitate to claim confidence in our beliefs. The tricky thing about this is that it is, indeed, important for us to recognize our epistemic limitations. But it doesn’t follow from this that we ought to suspend belief whenever questions are too complex for us to be certain of our answers to them.

People on both sides of the political spectrum do this. For example, I believe that the Civil War was about slavery, at least for the parties who had the power to make decisions relevant to the waging of the war. Some people I know who are right-of-center on the political spectrum argue that other factors (usually states’ rights or economics) were significant enough that it would be inaccurate to say that the Civil War was about slavery. Which is fine. That’s something we can discuss. The problem is when people say my view lacks nuance as if that in itself is evidence against the truth of my view. It’s not. If my view is wrong, it’s wrong because it’s wrong, not because it lacks nuance.

Likewise, those on the far-left are not so enthusiastic about attempts to define human nature. An attempt to say what it is to be human is likely to be met with claims that humanity is far too complex for us to understand its essential features. I’ll be the first to say that I want to be careful when it comes to making bold claims about the nature of human existence. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make such claims at all. In fact, to dogmatically cling to the formula that human nature is indefinable is to make a dogmatic claim about human nature, viz. that it is indefinable. The argument that humanity is too complex for us to know its nature not only fails to present a substantive challenge to my views, but also includes a dogmatic claim about human nature that seems to be defeated by the argument itself.

Some things are nuanced. Some things are not. The merit of a view does not depend on the view’s nuance or lack thereof. It depends on whether the view is true. Just because a question is hard doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an answer, nor does it mean that my answer is wrong.

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Reparations

Last night, I watched the documentary film Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America. I recommend seeing it. The film discusses how some American communities in the early 20th century purged themselves of black families. The land that had been owned by those driven away was stolen by white families, and some of these communities remain all-white to this day.

What’s particularly interesting about the events described in the documentary is that they occurred fairly recently. The descendants of those who had their property taken from them are able to quite easily trace their ancestry back to the original victims. And there is legal documentation that shows that title to the land never legitimately passed from the victims to their victimizers, but somehow ended up being owned by the victimizers anyway. The injustices that were done are concrete, and we can put a name and a face to those who were wronged. We can even, with some degree of accuracy, put a price on what was taken from them, i.e., the value of the land.

Reminders of such concrete injustices are helpful in an era when much of the discussion about racism revolves around abstract concepts like “privilege” and “implicit bias.” When the discussion is too abstract, it’s unclear to me what there is to be done about anything, or even that anything needs to be done. I’m not convinced that the difference in wealth between the average black family and the average white family in America is primarily a result of a persistent and widespread implicit bias against blacks. It is far more convincing to me to say that the differences in wealth persist because many black families were forced off their land, preventing them from passing it down to future generations.

In other words, I think that concrete instances of racism in the past are more to blame for current inequities than is privilege. One implication of this view is that the way to make things right is not by attempting to correct for privilege by giving people a boost based on the color of their skin. After all, not all dark-skinned populations are having trouble in America. Black immigrants, for instance, are generally doing very well. Rather, justice requires that we make amends for the specific  wrongs that were done in the past. We must return what has been stolen from these communities.