During the last month turmoil around the nation has been dizzying. From Officer Derek Chauvin’s hideous killing of George Floyd to the wave of protests and riots which followed to BLM’s calls for defunding the police to the CHAZ/CHOP protest occupation of downtown Seattle to a rash of firings and public shaming of college professors and other professionals who have critiqued some of BLM’s tactics. More recently, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged in the murder of Rayshard Brooks, and protesters have begun to topple statues and monuments all around the country.
While these events seem to highlight a deepening rift in our nation, one thing about which nearly all Americans agree regarding all of this is that Officer Chauvin’s killing of Floyd was a horrific act which warrants severe punishment. And we should all agree that racism in this country has been and remains a serious problem. But there is disagreement over whether Chauvin’s act was racially motivated or a manifestation of systemic racism, whether Chauvin should be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder, whether this heinous act is symptomatic of widespread police corruption in the U.S., whether such corruption warrants a fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, whether there is any merit to the Black Lives Matter call for defunding the police, whether the Black Lives Matter protest tactics are morally legitimate, whether local law enforcement responses to the protests and riots have been appropriate, whether Officer Rolfe’s killing of Brooks was justified, and whether Rolfe should be charged with murder. It is tragic that despite the gravity of these questions, cool-headed, rational discussions have been rare over the last several weeks. Many insist that high-pitched emotions are understandable and appropriate, given the issues at stake. While this may be true, none of us should allow our emotions to cloud our judgment or prevent us from a rational appraisal of evidence and coming to logical conclusions about these issues. Allowing feelings to reign over reason can only lead toward more division and turmoil as many of the residents of cities impacted by the rioters can attest.
Oxford University ethicist Neil Levy has observed that “part of the reason that controversial moral and political questions are controversial is that there is something to be said on each side.” Levy says that a belief is controversial when “conflicting beliefs are held by a significant number of relevantly well-informed, intelligent, and rational people over an extended period of time” (from Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence, Public Affairs Quarterly, p. 56). It is interesting to note that while everyone will readily admit that the above noted issues are controversial, many people will refuse to admit that there is, as Levy says, “something to be said on each side”—and by this I suppose Levy means that there is something reasonable to be said on each side which should be acknowledged and respected by those who disagree. There are, after all, intelligent and well-informed people on all sides of the current debates over racism and law enforcement in the U.S. So why are we seeing so much hysteria and so little respect between people who disagree on these issues?
In recent years I have published several articles and book chapters on open-mindedness and am currently working on a book on the subject. Most people believe, as I do, that open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue. It is a trait which, as virtue epistemologist Jason Baehr would say, involves a willingness to transcend one’s default cognitive standpoint on an issue. This means that the open-minded person is willing to consider that her view on an issue might be false and to seriously entertain evidence which contradicts her perspective. Open-mindedness seems especially appropriate when it comes to controversial issues, for the reasons that Levy notes: whatever view you hold—on say, the nature of racism in America and how it should be addressed—there are well-informed, intelligent people who disagree with you. So, as difficult as it is, you have an intellectual duty to listen carefully, respond patiently, and proceed respectfully as you engage the debate. To do otherwise is uncivil and does little to advance dialogue and productive work toward solutions. If we are going to remain (or return to being) a rational and civil culture, we absolutely must conduct ourselves with at least a modicum of intellectual virtue, especially open-mindedness.
I have despaired at the level of dogmatism and foreclosure when it comes to many of the above noted issues. This is especially dismaying when I consider how many important moral and epistemic questions are being ignored or particular answers to them are being taken for granted (despite the fact that intelligent, well-informed people would demur at those assumptions). Here are just some of those questions. As you read each one, ask yourself: How would I answer that question? And what are my evidence-based reasons for my answer?
- What is the primary carrier of human sin? Is it systems and institutions or is it individual human hearts?
- What exactly is “systemic racism”? What are the criteria for ascertaining when a system or institutional structure is racist? Are these criteria statistical? If so, then what are they? If not, then what is the nature of these criteria? In any case, how are they established?
- Given one’s view on whether the sin of racism is fundamentally rooted in individual human hearts or institutional systems, how does this impact our approach to addressing this sin? In either case, what are the prospects for fully eradicating racist sin from society?
These are just some of the more foundational questions which are being widely overlooked, ignored, or only dogmatically addressed. There are many other questions that are not as foundational but still very important, such as these: Why is it no longer acceptable to question or critique some of the tactics and precepts of the Black Lives Matter organization, even if one emphatically affirms, as we all should, the understatement that black lives matter? Since many college professors and other professionals are being fired for critiquing BLM, how might this affect our national conversation about racial issues? Is the firing of people for raising critical points about BLM likely to make people more or less sympathetic with the BLM cause? Also, what criteria should be used to evaluate the continued display of historical statues and monuments? And how can we balance historical relevance with a desire to atone for past injustices?
Again, these are just some important questions. No doubt other questions come to your mind, perhaps even questions about why I list the questions that I do. That’s fine. The point is that we need to address these and other vital questions in a rational, evidence-based, and open-minded way. Such is essential to the maintenance of a civil society.
In closing, it is fitting to recall the standard set by Martin Luther King, Jr., who consistently demonstrated an evidence-based, rational, and civil approach. It is also noteworthy that he grounded his civil rights work methodology in the biblical themes of imago Dei, unconditional love, and non-violent resistance. (See my recent article on the subject here.) Why are these ideals not prevailing during our current unrest? What would it take for these values to take root (again) in our society? Without these values becoming preeminent today is there any real hope for pervasive racial justice and reconciliation in this country? These, too, are challenging and controversial questions, and they are more urgent than ever.
I agree with your line of reasoning and overall stance. Sorry, we are having difficulty finding objective news sources. We listen to The World and Everything in it pdcast from World Magazine, at times the PBS News Hour, and Newsy on cable.
We do not trust the intentions nor the direction of the leaders of the BLM movement. I have now heard 2 vid clips from one of the founding leaders, stating that they are very well versed in various idealogies and “highly trained Marxists”.
In Cincinnati 2 weeks ago, the news reporter on the scene commented that the Socialist Alternative, BLM, and The Mason’s met during their peaceful protest to discuss their common agenda and what they planned to present to our city council. I cannot think of a more anti-American mix of idealogical groups.
I can do no better than quote Kant here (“What is Enlightenment?”):
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature!”
It’s scary and hard to ask the tough questions, to be a “lover of truth.” Indeed, the story is as old as Socrates and Plato; consider Plato’s discussion of “enthusiasm” in Ion, among many other places, Locke’s “Of Enthusiasm,” and Hume’s “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm.” The difference today is that we are witnessing a new kind of enthusiasm, namely that from the left. None of this is to exonerate the right, which I would condemn just as strongly; it seems enthusiasm abounds.
Well said, both Kant and Bozzo. A “new kind of enthusiasm,” indeed.
Thanks Jim, good thoughts. I think the problem is very deep. Consider: you said, “The point is that we need to address these and other vital questions in a rational, evidence-based, and open-minded way.” This is true. However, as I’m sure you know, the philosophy undergirding third-wave antiracism, critical race theory, and intersectionality considers reason, evidence, and open-mindedness to be white, male, hegemonic, and Western imperialistic ways of knowing, thinking, and acting–let alone governing or civilization-building. Even logic is tossed out as “white.” They replace these standards with standpoint epistemology, double-consciousness, anecdote, privileging the oppressed, ‘epistemic justice’, and a slew of other ideas (see New Discourses for more: https://newdiscourses.com). Where can we even start in having a conversation? There is a fundamental worldview clash going on, at the very foundations of anthropology, epistemology, theology, ethics, and more. I am losing hope.
By the way, you should read Adam MacLeod’s book The Age of Selfies on learning how to disagree in public discourse. It’s quite good. https://www.amazon.com/Age-Selfies-Reasoning-Rights-Personal/dp/1475854250
Thanks, Ben. I agree that even the rules of rational engagement are no longer universally shared these days. To use the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, I think we’re looking at a culture-wide case of paradigm incommensurability, where the competing socio-political paradigms each offer different criteria for assessment. If that’s the case, then the prospects for rational, civil resolution of these cultural conflicts would appear dim. Thank you for the MacLeod book recommendation. It looks fascinating and helpful.
Great article. Many good replies. To me it’s just Marxism. You’re never going to get MLK, image of God idea out of people who hold to materialism. Without Jesus there is no civil rights movement. I believe you said something to that effect, I agree.
Since it’s come up twice thus far, let us not forget to be open-minded about Marxism too!
I’m definitely open to persuasion regarding socialism, but since Marxism is inherently atheistic, that’s a psychological impossibility for me at this point–both for philosophical and experiential reasons. As for the case for socialism, I would need to see arguments that defeat the overwhelming historical evidence against it, as well as the arguments of von Mises, Hayek, etc. That’s a tall order, but I’m open.
“That’s a tall order, but I’m open.” Good! That’s all I meant to ask! I would be curious to hear your thoughts on Rawls, however, as I have found some of these persuasive.
I am bit confused about your close-mindedness — “psychological impossibility,” not “open to persuasion” — regarding atheism, however. Is it incorrect to label this “close-mindedness”? Couldn’t the “new enthusiasts” of the left make a similar claim, and thus undercut the force of your original post for open-mindedness? After all, they frequently shut down dialogue (are not always “open to persuasion”) on racial matters for theoretical and, in particular, experiential reasons?
For some of my thoughts on Rawls, see my MLK article linked in the last paragraph of this post.
As for my epistemic foreclosure (or “closed-mindedness”) regarding theism, this has to do with psychological impossibility, as I note, and I don’t think the “new enthusiasts” can claim that as grounds for their belief. So what warrants such an appeal to psychological impossibility in the case of theism? I compare it to other forms of personal knowledge where one is similarly warranted in being epistemically foreclosed. Consider your beliefs that your wife exists, that she is human, that she speaks English, etc. You are justifiably foreclosed regarding those beliefs. And part of the reason for your justified foreclosure is that it is psychologically impossible for you to be truly open-minded regarding claims that, say, she never existed or that she’s actually a Vulcan or that she can’t speak English. You could “hear” someone make such arguments (with some amusement), but you wouldn’t really be open to persuasion. So you’d be foreclosed (or closed-minded) about this, and appropriately so. This is because you have had many first-hand experiences of your wife which make true openness to the contrary views impossible. Similarly, I think a religious believer may appeal to personal knowledge of God, based on first-hand numinal experience, which may place her in a similar position of justifiable epistemic foreclosure. I discuss all of this at much greater depth in my article “Open-mindedness and Religious Devotion”: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11841-012-0305-5
I’ll be sure to check out your published work! I do find it most implausible on a first pass, however. I wouldn’t consider myself close-minded about my wife’s non-existence, for instance, although I think it highly unlikely. It seems to me (and I fully admit that I haven’t studied the topic of open-mindedness to the extent that you have) that there is an important distinction between one’s credence level in a belief (how likely one thinks the state of affairs expressed by it is), and the intellectual virtue of open-mindedness. It seems to me that the latter concerns counterfactuals in a way that the former doesn’t: I can be very confident that my wife exists, based on my personal experience, but *if* everyone I know and respect tell me that I have a psychological disorder, and that she really is and always has been a figment of my imagination, an open-minded person would consider this new evidence seriously. Thus our credence levels, that is, our certainty or lack thereof in a belief, is a synchronic matter on the evidence we currently have; whereas open-mindedness is more of a disposition, which in part can be spelled out in terms of counterfactual conditionals. The implication, then, is that one should never be close-minded about anything. One should always be searching and weighing the evidence. This at least is my premature take on it.
For similar reasons, I’m skeptical that putative personal experience of God could warrant close-mindedness. I accept Swinburne’s “principle of credulity,” and thus accept that religious belief can be properly basic (as can any belief in principle), but this is to fall far short of the claim that this warrants “epistemic foreclosure.” But, then again, I haven’t read Spiegel on the issue, so let us hope that I am not already foreclosed to the matter! 🙂
In response to your questions: Many are deeply theological in nature and in one of my favorite subjects systematic theology! wahoo thanks for asking.
(JS) What is the primary carrier of human sin? Is it systems and institutions or is it individual human hearts?
(GR) I believe you have given a binary choice when the answer is not. It is a both/and answer. The primary (I would not use word ‘carrier’) influence of SIN is pervasive in both the underlying structures. The totality of the relationship with humanity and indeed the entirety of the WORLD has been set off course as portrayed in the Christian story of the fall. It is not merely humankind that is set asunder but that the earth itself is crying out to be restored. SIN, as a concept given to us in scriptures is often a word understood as ‘missing the mark’ causes us to shoot arrows at targets that are not TRUE. The fundamentals of human interactions with each other forming it’s institutions, systems and indeed culture are also in need of redemption. The concept that it is merely or firstly an ‘individual’ problem is a western modern belief that I believe rightly must be challenged.
(JS) What exactly is “systemic racism”? What are the criteria for ascertaining when a system or institutional structure is racist? Are these criteria statistical? If so, then what are they? If not, then what is the nature of these criteria? In any case, how are they established?
Systemic racism is the underlying functioning and framework of society that is often invisible until it is bumped into. As a member of the white race, I do not bump into these frameworks at the same frequency of speed or severity because it’s framework has been created for my benefit. Just as I provide booster seats for my toddlers who are disadvantaged in height and I am careful when sitting on their child sized seats (please excuse the paternalistic nature of this example- I do not suppose one race is more ‘mature’ than the other, only that there are often substantial differences of consideration of appropriateness and accommodations acquired. ) Just as people are not ‘special needs’ they are ‘differently-abled’ they have the same needs of as others, they just have different abilities in acquiring those needs to be met. Those who have a life partner or close friend or even business partner have encountered that each person comes with their own standards of living and unwritten rules of governance of life that are mostly subconscious and reflexive in nature but that are indeed a true framework in which the person lives and that violating one of those unwritten ‘rules’ creates pain and frustration. We understand that ‘fairness’ is not a completely intellectual endeavor but must account for the sociology of the situation, the history of that person, the emotional empathy required, the framework in which they live and the graciousness for error. Therefore in the complexities of human nature and interaction we must continue to treat people as WHOLE PERSONS, one that are not merely intellectual in nature, but emotional, spiritual and social creatures. We cannot lump sum how some respond to this movement as the definition of the movement. The fact that there has been rioting and looting (an angry outpouring by some) does not mean that the whole of the movement or in fact the principles in the movement are wrong. We must remember that in times of great social change there is a force for change but various voices on how to accomplish it.
Unfortunately, I am not as well versed on the complete criteria for what constitutes as ascertaining when a person or system is racist, but to me it is clearly that one particular race is held to a standard and treated unfairly than another. The data on this is very clear in regards to public housing laws, access to education, arrests, fatal altercations with police, sentencing that black people again and again are treated with a completely different standard. Black people are not asking to be better than white people, but to be treated like they matter JUST as White people do. VeggieTales creator Phil Viscer has made a very concentrated but informative history lesson for many of us who have not been forced or taught these realities before. you https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGUwcs9qJXY
(JS) Given one’s view on whether the sin of racism is fundamentally rooted in individual human hearts or institutional systems, how does this impact our approach to addressing this sin? In either case, what are the prospects for fully eradicating racist sin from society?
(GR) Because of my strong theological understanding that our (humanities) sin (which includes our bent towards rascism, just as we are naturally bent towards pride and selfishness among other vices) is not an either OR question but a strong BOTH/AND statement, we must address both of these head on. We cannot expect that the mere changing of individuals thinking and hearts will change structures in which they live and survive. I could fully change my intellectual awareness that the earth is round by sailing it’s seven seas without falling off an edge, I could be encouraged in my emotions that I could make the journey from the well wishes of others, but I cannot prevent my drowning if I am put aboard a ship with holes in it and not given a life vest. I might sail the seven seas, but die anyway because of the situation I am placed. We cannot continue to watch our brothers and sisters be purposely or ‘accidentally’ used as our flotation devices of survival of white privilege. The competitive understanding that if one rises another falls is so intrinsically worldly in understanding. Instead, the kingdom truth is that when another rises, we all rise. When we lift others up, we are exalted. May we have ears to hear from those who know more than us, humble hearts to learn truths we do not yet know, and a willingness to change and act and stand against injustice even when it comes at a cost to our gain.
What are the prospects for change? Criminal Justice Reform, Reparations for slavery, Affordable and assisted house ownership for those who have long been discriminated, education reforms, history told not merely from the white’s point of view. We might also look to the work of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Noting that forgiveness for past sins, does not always equal reconciliation to the relationship as the way it was in the past and that the first step in forgiveness is an admission of guilt. May we (as white Americans) be so bold to look deeply in the mirror of truth of our nations history and the ways we have benefited from it’s racist policies. May we confess of our unfair treatment and wrongdoings. May we listen to the prophetic voices that tell of a nations dealings with its peoples and the unfair wages and idolatry of power it posses and may the Lord have great Mercy on us.
I believe I accidentally failed to add in my last post a view of informative thoughtful discourse on the disparity of treatment against black people in these videos. Sherrilyn Iffil certainly understands the discourse and legality changes that must occur more than I do! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RGt3SX55Go on black codes on our social narratives (framework that we live in) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es3NOhq_npM