THE POLITICS OF RACE AND AGE

I’m told there are several species of mice. I probably could learn the difference between them, but I won’t. I won’t because the only thing about mice that I care about – and this applies to all mice regardless of their persuasion – is that I don’t want any to be found living in my basement. As to why I don’t want them living in my basement – just like why I don’t want to have sex with another man – is none of your goddamn business!

Now let’s contrast my lack of drawing distinctions between mice with my noting that that’s a stalk of corn whereas that’s a Peace Lily. It’s important to know the difference because one’s edible and the other is not. How do I know which is edible and which is not? By a process called induction, without which no organism would survive longer than a minute. 

How so? Well, the core axiom driving induction is that things that look alike – and/or smell or taste or sound or feel alike – behave alike. We carve the things constituent of our world into kinds of things, and kinds are distinguished from one another by the uses we might want to make of them. And then, to keep track of things, we assign names to these kinds of things. If but only if for all our intents and purposes two things behave identically do we regard them as the same kind of thing. But in that case we probably didn’t assign them different names in the first place.

Many of the ways we carve up the world we do all on our own. But many of these carvings, perhaps even most, we inherit from others. For example, I think it would occur to me that there are clusters of people who have enough features in common that I could come up with the concept of race all on my own. But I don’t think it would’ve occurred to me that Meghan Markle is black. That had to be pointed out to me. Likewise that Scarlett Johannson is Jewish. Or that hispanics and Arabs are to be counted as brown, whereas I’m not. And so on. 

Why is it important to sort people by race? Because phenotype is an indicator of all kinds of behaviourally important information about a person – her history, her culture, her medical vulnerabilities … Not a particularly reliable indicator perhaps, but a better  indicator than no indicator at all.

We’re told that race is a social construct. Well duh! Can you point to a construct that isn’t? But how does that banality undermine the inferential utility of the concept of race? Constructs are constructed because they offer inferential utility. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have been constructed in the first place. Or if they’ve lost their utility they’d have withered away. Or will when they do. 

But for now it’s important to know that only blacks need be tested for the haploid for sickle cell anaemia, and only Ashkenazi Jews for the haploid for Tay Sacks. To be sure there are non-blacks and non-Jews who carry these haploids, and so we could test the entire human population. But if we could afford to do that, we wouldn’t need induction in the first place, now would we?

To the best of my knowledge, no one opposes confining this kind of presumptive genetic prescreening to black or Jewish would-be parents. But most people think – or at least they claim to think – that it’s somehow wrong to make isomorphic presumptions about history or culture (or what have you) on mere phenotypical, i.e. racial, grounds. Is this because they think these inductions are less reliable? Or is it because they think that, reliable or not, inductive inferences about someone’s history or culture is unjust?

The latter view is patently stupid. Five year olds are incapable of driving. One might even say they’re stereotypically incapable of driving. Or shall we say that by ‘stereotyping’ as distinct from just categorising we mean wrongful categrising, just as by ‘discrimination’ we mean ascertaining a difference and then wrongfully acting accordingly. Fine. But we’re still left to wonder what’s wrongful about some generalisations – indigenous employees are not renown for punctuality – but not others – five year olds are incapable of driving. Both claims have strong inductive support. Acting on the first  – not hiring an indigenous applicant – will be a harm to him. Acting on the second will be a harm to some five year old. But will either harm be unjust?

Some people argue that the difference lies in the severity of the harm inflicted. Depriving someone of being able to make a living is far more injurious than not letting him drive. And where this is not the case? What then?

So the distinction, however it might be drawn, between wrongfully acting on a generalisation, and doing so acceptably, cannot be drawn without relying on this much-maligned generalising, and so not on anything that could count as a principle. In fact these are purely political determinations. Indigenous would-be workers have very little political clout, but they have some. Five year olds have none.

Would it be helpful to forego these fatuous appeals to principle and just tell it like it is? It would certainly put a lot of analytic philosophers out of a job. But since universities and colleges aren’t hiring these days anyhow …



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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