Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Moral Pollution

[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]


  1. I think you are right in what you say, but I believe the moral situations are generally a bit more complicated. I would certainly agree that there is nothing wrong about using knowledge acquired through wrong methods (minus the encouragement possibility). On the other hand, I would say that benefitting from wrong can morally oblige you.

    As knowledge is here primarily used in the sense of a benefit, I would say that there is a strong parallel to money (the big difference being money's limited nature). Say that I needed money and so a friend stole some and gave it to me without me knowing the source. Later I learn the source. Would I not be morally obliged to give the money to the original owner?

    This is the argument of racial reparations. Because some of today's wealth is due to ancient inequities perpetrated on minorities, we are obliged to use some of it for the benefit of those minorities. Specifically, we could say that heirs benefitting massively from the profits of slavery have a duty to use at least some of those profits to alleviate the lasting harm of suffering.

    So I would say thos who benefit from the wrongdoing (even if innocently) have a duty to help those wronged. Going back to information, I would say that societies which benefitted from Nazi research have a special duty to the victims of Nazism.

    None of this seems highly controversial. And indeed it does not challenge your final conclusion, since I am not sure that racial terms are particularly a benefit. Still, the idea of 'moral pollution' is not so ridiculous - what we should in fact be concerned with is moral obligation due to benefit.

  2. I don't think it's all that hard to see how white people have benefited from the use of racial terminology over the centuries, so I do think this will have important consequences. I don't think it affects my argument, however. It's an important issue for the reparations discussion, and I'm glad you brought that up, because I do think that's an important issue, and I hadn't connected it with some of the issues you raised. I don't know if it changes anything I said, though, because I don't think this is an obvious way to read most people's talk of moral pollution in these kinds of cases.

  3. Errr....
    one might say from an indirect utilitarian perspective in a world full of utilitarians that one might establish a rule not to use research of nazi's because that is what hte utilitarian nazis produced the research for. Ie you must thwart them to prevent them doing it again.

  4. I'm not sure what I would recommend in such a world, but establishing rules of thumb in counterfactual scenarios does not establish moral rules in the actual world.

  5. "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."

    Perhaps tangentially, it's worth noting that the UK government got some stick recently for accepting evidence in court that had been obtained by torture - because, of course, it's likely to give the message out that torture is acceptable. More broadly, perhaps the worry isn't "moral pollution", as you call it, but that using said information counts as a kind of symbolic acceptance of the practice in question.

    "the argument cannot rely on some kind of moral stain on the embryo from having been murdered [...] The issue would more analogously relate to those who have donated their children’s bodies to science upon their death"

    Might the relevant worry by that the person-embryos (i.e. assuming that the embryos are people) in question have not consented for such use of their bodies? So you might well be right that the argument you suggest is a bad one, but perhaps it's not the one pro-lifers are using: Maybe they're objecting to use of embryo's at all in the same manner that they might object to compulsory organ donation after death.

  6. I don't think the compulsory organ donation issue would be a problem for embryos, at least if parents are allowed to donate their children's body parts in general, as I believe is the case. Parents are allowed to consent for their children, and not being as fully developed shouldn't make a difference. Full moral status for a fetus or embryo should make it just like older children, and thus considerations we regularly apply to older children would apply. You're right that people do give this argument sometimes, but it doesn't seem consistent with our practice with those who are indisputably persons but still children.

    The evidence in court issue is another good parallel. I think the argument here is more about legal procedure than about symbolic acceptance. I don't know UK laws, but in the US it's illegal to use evidence in court that was obtained illegally. That's not because using it in court is viewed as symbolically accepting the methods of attaining it. It's because not using it in court means there's no point in obtaining it with such methods. It effectively reduces such methods of collecting evidence, at least when the police officers in question would be doing so intentionally and thinking through the consequences of their actions.

  7. This has to be the most outrageous argument I've heard in a long time. The statement that, "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" leaves us with the conclusion that once the immoral act has been committed the residual effects of that act can then be transferred to good ends. Does this not obviate the original, immoral act?

    I am here referring to the logic of Jankelevitch, who, in arguing against imposing a statue of limitations on war crimes in France, makes clear that we ought not consider the lasting effects of an evil deed, but the deed itself, when determining our attitude towards the perpetrators, methods employed, and ends. Therefore, one can argue, that the residual effects of an act we have consistently determined immoral--from death camps, to slavery and apartheid, to torture--cannot be viewed separate from their causes.

    I suggest you read Jankelevitch's "Forgiveness"; it's been just recently translated to English.

  8. Jared, I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at, but my initial sense of it from what you said strikes me as being irrelevant. I'm not talking about whether an action is wrong because of its initial effects or becasue of its ultimate effects. I'm talking about whether the wrongness of an action (assumed by all parties in the discussion) somehow makes any further action wrong simply because the further action couldn't happen without the initial wrong action.

    There's a piece of your argument that makes no sense to me. How is it that addressing racism by pointing it out and seeking remedies will make it the case that racism is ok? I just don't get that. Trying to lessen the negative effects of a bad action is good, and I would think that's true on pretty much any moral view. So why is it a problem with the Nazi experimentation any less than with racism?

  9. JP,
    Indeed my example was streching it, but that is probably because in general I agree with you.

    "I think the argument here is more about legal procedure than about symbolic acceptance."

    I think there is a mixture of both. Maybe there SHOULDN'T be, but the public is also concerned about keping their classifications reasonably pure where torture is bad and hugs and kisses are good. which is done by trying to prevent the pollution so to seak.

  10. Genius, have you seen anything like the moral pollution language coming in from legal scholars or anyone like that? I don't think I've ever seen it in any way that clearly means that even from any of the natural law thinkers in the U.S., including Justices Scalia and Thomas.

  11. Have I misread you? Have you misread me? Your first analogue is the Nazi experiments. You claim that the Allies confused the actions of the Nazis and the medical knowledge of the Nazis. I believe you are confused: such knowledge would not have come about had there been no such experiments. Have we forgotten causation, or is causation somehow irrelevant? Is this information not brought about through evil means?

    Let me repeat the basic principle of Jankelevitch's argument: to excuse an action is to forget an action; yet to forget an evil action is to recommit it. That's it; it's very simple, although Jankelevitch's book "Forgiveness" is far from simple. Let me add that this is NO irrelevant argument, this is the exact reasoning the Allies used in the first place, and I content that it is very sound reasoning.

    I'm disagreeing with your analogue on the Nazi experiment; your dismissal of the Allied decision with regards to medical information is beside the point when we consider racial terms.

    Briefly, the argument against using racial terms when talking about social welfare is that it forces us to consider poverty, low education in terms of race rather than in terms of the needy.

  12. I don't think I've misunderstood you. I just don't agree with you that acknowledging information amounts to recommitting the action or forgetting the action. Those are very different things. It's possible to learn the information while keeping in mind the evil that committed the atrocities.

    The "argument against using racial terms when talking about social welfare" is not this argument. There are some versions of that argument that I agree with. This argument claims that is wrong in principle even to name racial groups. Those arguments, rather, claim that racial categories aren't always the best ones to use in addressing social ills.

  13. I agree that we have an obligation to the victims that were used to get the information. This in no way means that we are forgiving the actions or condoning their future use. What's done is done, and we should not throw out the information just because it was got from "evil" means. We should carefully consider what we can learn from this info, and if we could have got it from other "non-evil" means. I'm not sure what information resulted from the Nazi's experiments, but if we could have got it through other ways, then we should discard it. If we separate the information from it's origins we must consider it on it's own merits. If it's useful, use it. If not, discard it. I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case. I am also not sure if each example you have given can be answered the same way. I think information gained from stem-cell research cannot compare to information gleaned from torture or murder. This applies to evidence in the courtroom. If the evidence could have been obtained through other means, the evidence obtained via torture is invalid. So, I'm wondering what value racial terms have for society?

  14. John, no one here was assuming any view on the moral status of embryos. The issue in question is what follows from the view that embryos have full moral status. Does someone who hold that view have to take the hard-line stance on using stem cells taken from embryos that have already been killed? Whatever you think of the view, my point is that such a view does not require forbidding the use of such stem cells.

    Your claim about embryonic personhood stemming merely from religious views is incorrect, but since it's irrelevant to this post I've posted my response as a new post rather than turning this comment thread into a discussion on abortion.

    The value of racial terms is fairly easy. Racism is bad. To identify racism, you have to call it racism. Calling something racism presumes that you can use language to identify the group that's being targeted. Therefore, you need racial terms to refer to the patterns of behavior in society that those who oppose racism want to resist. It's even more clear if you accept that there are structural, social, and institutional realities that tend to favor one racial group and tend to harm others. I think it's demonstrably true that there are such realities, and I think they're independent of the kind of racism that we might call intentional or attitudinal racism. If all attitudinal racism disappeared, there would still be social forces that make life more difficult in the U.S. for black people, for example. To address these problems, we need to identify the groups that are affected, and the terms used for referring to such groups have a history in the same racism that ultimately caused the unintentional social forces. But the fact that people are identified this way in a way that it will affect them negatively means that we need to use the same terms to identify the people who are so harmed if we are to have a hope of addressing such harm.


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