[By Jeremy Pierce]
Some people think the immoral origins of the development of racial terms should count as a reason to abandon racial terms altogether. I don't want to get into the issue of whether racial terms refer to anything, which is one of the major subjects of my dissertation, but I thought it might be nice to run through some thoughts on this secondary issue. I'll begin by asserting that I think this is an extremely poor argument for abandoning racial terms, and it's partly because I think some similar ethical arguments with very different subject matter also fail. These might take different forms, however, so I want to consider three different cases before bringing it back to race.
First, after World War II, scientists among the Allies rejected the use of the results of Nazi war crime experimentation on the grounds that the information had its origins in immoral acts. I think this argument is unfounded, relying on a confusion between two things: actions and the information that those actions happen to provide. The actions were surely wrong. But what can make the information itself bad? There is no plausible notion of moral pollution that can infect mere information without positing some spooky property Moral Pollution that somehow transfers from actions to information. I don't accept any such property. Thus this argument fails.
I want to note that it's a very different argument to say that retaining the information encourages others to do such experimentation. That doesn't rely on the magical property in question. However, it seems implausible that people will think they can get away with such awful experimentation just because information like this doesn't get burned. The scientists themselves were convicted of war crimes.
Second, archeologists have recently begun to raise questions about scientific research based on artifacts recovered from looters. Since the practice encourages looting and black market sales of artifacts, some universities and researchers are raising questions about allowing such materials to form the basis of research. If this argument is a merely pragmatic, utilitarian argument that we shouldn’t encourage such practices, I have no problem with it, but I'm not sure that it makes it immoral to study artifacts gained from looters. It might just make it immoral to procure them from looters illegally by paying them for them rather than having the government confiscate them and donate them to science.
I'm not aware of anyone giving the analogous argument to the Nazi research in this case, which I think is telling. It suggests that in the Nazi case people think the existence of the research itself is evil because it came into existence due to evil, whereas these artifacts were simply stolen after already having existed. There must be some notion of moral infection going on here, one that is completely implausible (even to people who think the first argument is plausible) in the artifact case. The only difference I can think of is the origin, but how can something's origin make it evil without some notion of moral pollution, and what could such a property consist of?
The third issue results from a pro-life conception of embryos as persons. On such a view, stem-cell research on embryos that have already been killed is often viewed as immoral, because it capitalizes on the death of a person. It’s possible to get an argument going relying on not encouraging the practice if the killing of embryos is indeed immoral (as pro-lifers think), but the argument cannot rely on some kind of moral stain on the embryo from having been murdered even if the action of killing embryos can correctly be classified as murder. The issue would more analogously relate to those who have donated their children’s bodies to science upon their death and then murdered them. The fact that a child was so murdered does not invalidate the donation to science of the body as if the action brings some moral infection. So why should stem-cell research on already-killed (or inevitably-killed) embryos count as immoral, even on the pro-life view?
Now the racial analogue takes a similar form. The origins of racial terms are indeed morally suspect. Practices of slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and so on did indeed serve to create the racial categorizations that we now have. They did lead to some of how racial classifications are thought of. But that doesn’t necessarily infect the categories with a stain of evil, as if the origins mean the categories are themselves immoral. One might think that there’s a necessary evil to the categories, that widespread wrongs cannot be addressed without thinking in terms of races but that we would be better off not having the categories. But that sort of view is not the stronger view I mentioned at the outset of this post. The original conclusion of the argument is that we simply ought to stop using race-related terms. At best, we can get merely the more moderate conclusion that we ought to hope for a time when the stronger view will be correct. Whether that is true depends on several factors that I don't want to get into in this post, but my point is that you don't get the stronger view from the fact that the origins of racial terms involve something immoral.
I'm curious to see if anyone can make any better sense of this moral pollution view than I can, because it seems like a complete non-starter to me. Also, I'm interested in any thoughts on the different kinds of parallel arguments and whether what you say about any one of them must be true about the others. I did point out one difference already, but I'm curious what other differences there might be (or what other parallel arguments there might be, whether exactly analogous or not).
[cross-posted at Parableman]