Ethical Issues In Our Times 

I have been hosting a monthly forum since March 2020 on a pressing moral issue. It’s on the first Thursday of each month. Here’s the May forum.  It will be on Thursday, May 5th, from 7-9pm on zoom at:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/896985586

“Is the American version of Western Civilization an advance over the culture of its native inhabitants? Or is it not? Why?”

In recent years there has been increasing attention paid to the damage inflicted upon the indigenous population by the European occupation and settlement of the “New World.” Many organization have even taken to making land acknowledgements to the tribes whose land is now being occupied. Others have talked of reparations for damages inflicted. How are we to understand this process? What sense can we make of it? And is there any sense in which this can be seen as progress?     

Join us in discussing this pressing social issue, in a discussion led by Dr. David Sprintzen, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Long Island University

This is the May installment of “Ethical Issues in OurTimes”: a product of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. 

Thursday, May 5th, from 7-9pm on zoom at:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/896985586

To register, contact the EHS office at 516-741-7304, or office@ehsli.org.  

Reflections on Socrates

I have long been quite upset by the prevalent reigning “official” philosophical and cultural treatment, might I say, idolization, of Plato and Socrates, more, I believe, a matter of successful propaganda than of historical or philosophical truth. And an idolization that I honestly believe has had quite unfortunate significant historical consequences. Let me all too briefly explain. 

A few apparently obvious facts. Socrates and Plato were two distinct historical individuals. Plato was an apparently devoted student of Socrates. Socrates wrote nothing. Plato wrote numerous dialogues in most of which Socrates is the lead character. In one of those dialogues, the “Apology,” Plato presents his report of the trial of Socrates before a jury composed of members of the Athenian democracy. (I do not think I am being unfair to observe that Plato despised that democracy. But let that point go for the moment.) 

Under what conditions would any reasonable person take the report of one person, especially one who clearly could not be seen as impartial, as an objective factual report of the truth? Even given the best of intentions. But Plato clearly had many more passionate reasons to bias his report: to justify Socrates to the wider society, as well as to posterity; to cover Socrates involvement with the oligarchy that had overthrown the democracy in 404, killing some 1,500 citizens, and tried again unsuccessfully in 401; to defend and promote the interests of the oligarchic faction, including his extended family, in 4th Century Athenian politics; and to undermine the popular forces and emerging social classes that found expression in the activities of the major Sophists and in the plays of Euripides. Note that the word used in the Apology for corrupting the youth is the same word used by Plato elsewhere for political subversion. Does not Aristophanes speak of the “Socratifed youth” that are “Sparta-mad”? And this trial coming directly on the heals of Critias’ 401 failed insurgency about which so little is often said. Plato’s membership in, relationship to, and continuing support for that oligarchy apparently continued throughout his lifetime. He clearly wanted to show the democracy in the worst light possible - that is obviously the pervasive theme of the “Republic” throughout!! — and this throughout his entire career. We must not forget that Plato features Critias in four!! dialogues, and Charmides as a beautiful youth with promise, in one. Both close relatives of Plato, and followers of Socrates. In fact, almost all of Socates’ followers except Chaerephon were members of the oligarchy. No wonder that it is the long dead Chaerephon who is presented as reporting the Delphic pronouncement. 

Why then take the Platonic portrait of Socrates as the historically “correct” one? There are also those of Xenophon, of Aristophanes, later of Aristotle, and apparently a quite different, and democratic friendly, report of the trial from an unfortunately long lost statement, probably by a Polycrates, all providing significantly different perspectives. 

And then consider Socrates’ purported noble love for Athens and its laws as presented by the Platonic Socrates in the “Crito” (as opposed to the actions of his students such as Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades). When throughout his long life do we have a report of Socrates participating in the Assembly? Did he object to the policies of Pericles? Of he demagogue Cleon? Of the war with Sparta? Of the disastrous attack on Melos? On the voyage to Sicily? Never. His only reported intervention, very late in life, was to critique the trial of the generals, whom we may even assume were members of the oligarchy. Then, of course, there are those later followers who claim the Socratic inspiration, eg. Antisthenes, Aristippus, Diogenes, Epicurus - all of which have at least one thing in common, they are all apolitical, if not anti-political. And we know of Socrates’, and then Plato’s, admiration for Spartan society. That is probably the context in which Plato develops his argument for the role of women. As it is also the probable context for his drastic and authoritarian removal of children from their parents. If you are convinced that you are “the one who knows”, what is to limit you from imposing your ”divinely inspired” will on the”herd”, at whatever human cost. That does seem to have been Critias’ view. 

I could go on but this would become an essay. Suffice it to say, I find it absurd that the sophisticated philosophical tradition treats the Platonic Apology as an historical account of the person/life of Socrates, when no court of even moderately informed jurors would be so naive. And with what consequences, for democracy, for respect for collective self determination, and representative government. Even providing a quite misleading and uncritical celebration of the so-called Socratic method.  
 
Once we recognize that in the dialogues we are dealing with a Platonic Socrates, only tangentially and, may I say, prejudicially, related to the historical person, then we can get on with the appropriate textual, philosophical, and historical task of addressing the life and thought of Plato, as well as evaluating its immense historical and on-going cultural significance. And here, being clear about these issue, will help us better appreciate the authoritarian and entirely undemocratic nature of Plato’s work, and even that of his immediate followers. And will contribute to framing a far more critical approach to his discussions of education, character development, and constructive political engagements. This perspective would also place in a clearer light Plato’s relation with such destructive figures as Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides, among others, as well as his antagonism to the Sophists. 

Granted, these are all scattered pieces of an argument - but these are clearly issues that have concerned me, as a committed democratic activist in the Deweyian and Camusian tradition. Generally speaking, I do not in general like Plato or his philosophy, however much I recognize its historical and philosophical significance, but I much prefer the”early” dialogues for their dramatic and thoughtful engagements among living people more than the “later” dialogues in which all too often Socrates deals with “yes men,” as in the last 8+ books of the “Republic.” (I do, however, like the challenge that Glaucon poses in Book Two.) But I must say, that the best treatment of Plato’s philosophy that I have ever seen, that makes the best defense for it and its constructible philosophical significance, is the work of Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein in “Plato at the Googleplex”. But enough. My thoughts on the historical Socrates, the Platonic Socrates, and Plato - for what it’s worth. 

“On Saving Our Democracy”

Here’s the youtube link to my 9/19/21 talk at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island on Saving Our Democracy. It includes a link to my article on “Race In America”.

 
https://youtu.be/XyZxZlewln4

Review of My Book

Joe Chuman’s Review of Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Criticism.

David Sprintzen’s Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory, is a workbearing a prosaic title with broad ambitions. Published in 2009, the book is a hidden gem of philosophical analysis that presents a blueprint for the reconstruction of contemporary society.

Sprintzen is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Long Island University and a life-long political activist, who founded, and for many years, chaired the Long Island Progressive Coalition. In this work the philosopher-activist, brings his philosophical erudition to the fore while hinting at the practical applications of his philosophy for social policy.

Sprintzen, who has published two texts on the philosophy of Albert Camus, and is a scholar of the thought of the American philosopher, John Dewey, in this work is committed to nothing less than critiquing and reformulating the metaphysical underpinnings of modern society. His thought is wide- ranging, yet grounded in a unifying concept.  His thesis focuses on  the metaphysical mistakes that have shaped modern values and habits of thoughts. With the spirit of Dewey looking over his shoulder, Sprintzen contends that the cardinal error plaguing modern life is the atomization of things, ideas and experiences we engage. However differentiated and independent from one another phenomena appear, Sprintzen asserts that the fabric of reality is unified and all things at ulterior levels are interdependent.  

We live within the context of mistaken paradigms, and Sprintzen’s ambition is to radically transform how we assess reality at its foundation. He states,

“It is one of the central theses of this work that we are currently in the midst of a global cultural and metaphysical transformation at least equal in scope to that which began to transform the planetary culture four centuries ago. Our fundamental modes of thought and action, institutional structures, personal identity, economic development, and relation to nature, all require radical revision if human life on this planet (and beyond) is to survive and prosper…My task in this work will be both to critically evaluate the contours of that transformation and then to outline the structures of an alternative metaphysic and sketch a frame for the social and institutional order it suggests.”

This, to say the least, is a comprehensive task, and it is not surprising that the author begins his treatise with the conflict between religious and scientific worldviews. To his credit, Sprintzen affirms that religion has played the necessary function of providing human beings with a sense of meaning and place in an otherwise absurd reality. We are mythopoeic beings who find meaning within narratives. The scientific revolution, emerging in concert with Protestantism, is at stark variance with religious explanations of reality, and has replaced them with alternatives, that while creating the foundations of modernity, have radically alienated us from nature and legitimated a worldview of isolated individualism, competition, unbridled capitalism and dominion over others. Implicit in Sprintzen’s project is the need to reconstruct a narrative that is updated and fitted to the empirical findings of our age.

Though he does not use the term, underlying Sprintzen’s metaphysics is the notion that reality is an organic unity, and viewing its constituent parts as independent entities separate from each other partakes of a false understanding and misconception that leads to disastrous consequences.

Sprintzen applies this analysis to a very broad range of phenomena, inclusive of subject-object dichotomies found in Aristotelian sentence structure and logic, Cartesian dualism, and Newtonian determinism leaving us wanting for purpose. Of greatest moment to the author is the mistake we make in asserting ontological individualism that situates the person outside of society and is blind  to the thoroughgoing social dynamics which shape the person, including our subjective sense of individuality. Here Sprintzen finds an ally in  Karl Marx’s observation that the human essence is “… the ensemble of the social relations.” 

Individualism’s most powerful expression is deployed economically in the market, which by its own logic sees no higher gratification than the satisfaction of the isolated self. “To the extent that we view ourselves as essentially self-encapsulated individuals – the economist’s proverbial ‘economic man,’ for example, always looking out for ‘Number One’ – to that extent society is nothing but the practical instrument of a calculated strategy, of which other people are the present instruments and The Market the primary vehicle of social cohesion.” 

Individualism is a species of reductionism, which is the fallacious paring down of complex realities into  a single phenomenon or explanation. Sprintzen’s anti-reductionism takes him beyond the human realm into the field of quantum physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in which he finds validation for the emergence of new phenomena which a strict determinism or a notion of reality comprised of atomized parts cannot provide or explain. It is here that Sprintzen introduces the concept of “emergent phenomena” which are those “whose nature and operation cannot be completely explained by a description of the behavior of their constituent parts.” 

Reality is complex and multilayered. Different systems function and can be explained according to their own laws. Yet the laws that explain phenomena within systems cannot provide an exhaustive explanation when systems intermingle or overlap. So, as Sprintzen notes, “…emergent phenomena are best thought of as themselves elements of emergent structures that express the unique organizational properties and powers of distinctive fields or levels of reality.” For example, “…gravity conditions life, and no life can violate gravitational laws, but gravity does not determine what living things do.” Or, to provide another example, “Language…requires brain cells to transmit electrical signals, but none of those cells have or understand language.”

It is the relations of these disparate systems that create “fields,” and the concept of fields is pivotal to Sprintzen’s metaphysics. Fields give rise to the semi-autonomous reality of  emergent structures and also provide a resolution to what Sprintzen acknowledges as the so far intractable problem of the relation of freedom and determinism. To complete his analysis, Sprintzen discusses the complexity of consciousness, which also partakes of an analysis of fields. He notes,

“Self-consciousness involves the capacity of an organism to be at the same time – in one unitary act – both the subject and the object of its own awareness: to be an object “for itself.” 

We are thus confronted with a unique emergent field characterized by both irreducible subjectivity and sociality, neither of which furthermore, are reducible to the other. Consciousness is the subjective structure of that experience. Self-consciousness is the meaningful organization of that experience as it locates itself within its own meaning-field.”

Our experiences are objectively knowable by others from the outside, but subjectively they remain private and unknowable. The objective standpoint tells us nothing about the subjective meaning, intent, or even the likely behavior of the emergent experience viewed subjectively. 

The reality of systems in relation to each other gives rises to fields such that this broader reality is not explicable or reducible to the constituent elements in any system alone. This understanding opens us up to the emergent, the new and, in regard to consciousness, freedom. It also serves as the basis of a fresh metaphysical understanding that should guide our thinking as we move ahead.

With his approach that refutes determinism and reductionism across the entire range of phenomena – physical, social and cognitive – Sprintzen claims “…to suggest the fundamental inadequacy of that classical way of thinking – first systematized by Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago and which has dominated Western thought ever since – and to offer a conceptual frame for an alternative frame with which to replace it.”

Before hinting at the practical applications of Sprintzen’s metaphysical reconstruction, I think it is most useful to briefly return to his discussion of the fallacy of individualism and the contrasting social nature of the human person. Here the author is at his most demonstrative. He begins his chapter on “The Webbed Self,” with a virtual rallying cry, “By now one thing should be totally clear: individualism is a theoretically untenable and socially destructive doctrine. It might well be called the social disease of modernity, completely mangling any capacity to understand the process by which society produces and nurtures individuals into adulthood.” For Sprintzen, individualism is “…simply the atomism of the social world…” The target of Sprintzen’s ire is rendered transparent when he says, “It (i.e. individualism) serves as a narrow justification for a narrow self-seeking (often profit-maximizing) egoism.”

Despite the ontological fallacy of individualism, Sprintzen, nevertheless, acknowledges its profound historical role as a liberatory propaganda tool in transforming static, class bound, repressive societies and freeing persons from lives of perpetual misery at the hands of autocrats. Yet he claims that the historical function of individualism should not be mistaken for its theoretical adequacy. Nor should we deny its disastrous consequences as we move forward. 

In discussing the mistake of treating the individual as prior to and over against society, the author makes the critical distinction, as implied earlier, between individualism as an ontological category and the moral value of individuality as a quality of character. Here he explicitly borrows from the thought of John Dewey and invokes Martha Nussbaum’s approbation of human flourishing as among the most worthy of social goals. Indeed it is society that gives birth to individuality and is one of society’s most valued purposes.

Here I find an omission in Sprintzen’s treatment of individualism. As a student of human rights and a staunch defender of civil liberties it seems to me that Sprintzen’s critique of individualism would merit discussion of the rights tradition in the West. Liberal democracy, which no doubt he supports, requires both democratic elections as well as respect for rights held by individuals. Ontological individualism as a basis for rights has a long pedigree most powerfully articulated by luminaries of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. In more recent times, there has been debate about the foundation of human rights including arguments demonstrating how humanity, possessed by individual persons, gives rise to rights. Sprintzen’s thesis, which denies the independent status of individualism removed from our social natures, would be strengthened by interrogating the position defended by these classic figures, a mainstay of political philosophy, which many maintain is a prerequisite for a free, democratic society.

As he moves toward conclusion, Sprintzen applies his metaphysical analysis to the state and future of American society. A commitment to individualism has lead historically to a belief in unbounded expansionism, especially of markets. But this dynamic has run its course has been exhausted. Among the consequences are the retreat into privatization, the erosion of community and its consequent loneliness. We suffer from a “celebration of commodities,” a narrowing of meaning,  purpose and hope, among other social ills.

Sprintzen’s solutions, as implied, are comprehensive. He provides the philosophical changes in vision that are necessary to provide for the survival and flourishing of the human future, without articulating specific policies. Again, his purpose is philosophical and only by extension political. He provides a map with the details to be filled in by others.

But his vision that emerges from his critique is clear, and there are hints of what society based on that vision would entail.  We need a transformation of beliefs, practices, social institutions and personal character. Among the elements of his vision are the following: Economic activity should always be subordinate to the provision of the collective human well-being. Health care and social services shall be a right. Ecological sustainability, equity in the provision of basic necessities and racial and gender equality are required. Invoking Dewey again, we must employ intelligence and eschew outmoded ways of thinking to address our problems. But central to Sprintzen’s aspirations is a revival of democracy, most organically expressed through a reconstitution of neighborhood life. We must move away from exclusive emphasis on the private sphere and come to appreciate how purported private interests need to serve the public and the common good.

In conclusion, Sprintzen does not posit utopia but does open us up to possibilities. We require a renewal of ideals, a commitment to the emergent and the new in concert with a naturalistic ethic and the deliverances of science. He provides an assessment of our condition which is far reaching, profound and wise. His critique is radical and his vision humane. 

David’s Sprintzen’s Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory lives up to its name. And those who choose to follow the thought of this very adept philosopher will be well rewarded. 

Socrates and Plato Reconsidered

I have long been quite upset by the prevalent reigning “official” philosophical and cultural treatment, might I say, idolization, of Plato and Socrates, more, i believe, a matter of successful propaganda than of historical or philosophical truth. And an idolization that I honestly believe has had quite unfortunate significant historical consequences. Let me all too briefly explain. 

A few apparently obvious facts. Socrates and Plato were two distinct historical individuals. Plato was an apparently devoted student of Socrates. Socrates wrote nothing. Plato wrote numerous dialogues in most of which Socrates is the lead character. In one of those dialogues, the “Apology,” Plato presents his report of the trial of Socrates before a jury composed of members of the Athenian democracy. (I do not think I am being unfair to observe that Plato despised that democracy. But let that point go for the moment.) 

Under what conditions would any reasonable person take the report of one person, especially one who clearly could not be seen as impartial, as an objective factual report of the truth? Even given the best of intentions. But Plato clearly had many more passionate reasons to bias his report: to justify Socrates to the wider society, as well as to posterity; to cover Socrates involvement with the oligarchy that had overthrown the democracy in 404, killing some 1,500 citizens, and tried again unsuccessfully in 401; to defend and promote the interests of the oligarchic faction, including his extended family, in 4th Century Athenian politics; and to undermine the popular forces and emerging social classes that found expression in the activities of the major Sophists and in the plays of Euripides. Note that the word used in the Apology for corrupting the youth is the same word used by Plato elsewhere for political subversion. Does not Aristophanes speak of the “Socratifed youth” that are “Sparta-mad”? And this trial coming directly on the heals of Critias’ 401 failed insurgency about which so little is often said. Plato’s membership in, relationship to, and continuing support for that oligarchy apparently continued throughout his lifetime. He clearly wanted to show the democracy in the worst light possible – that is obviously the pervasive theme of the “Republic” throughout!! — and this throughout his entire career. We must not forget that Plato features Critias in four!! dialogues, and Charmides as a beautiful youth with promise, in one. Both close relatives of Plato, and followers of Socrates. In fact, almost all of Socates’ followers except Chaerephon were members of the oligarchy. No wonder that it is the long dead Chaerephon who is presented as reporting the Delphic pronouncement. 

Why then take the Platonic portrait of Socrates as the historically “correct” one? There are also those of Xenophon, of Aristophanes, later of Aristotle, and apparently a quite different, and democratic friendly, report of the trial from an unfortunately long lost statement, probably by a Polycrates, all providing significantly different perspectives. 

And then consider Socrates’ purported noble love for Athens and its laws as presented by the Platonic Socrates in the “Crito” (as opposed to the actions of his students such as Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades). When throughout his long life do we have a report of Socrates participating in the Assembly? Did he object to the policies of Pericles? Of he demagogue Cleon? Of the war with Sparta? Of the disastrous attack on Melos? On the voyage to Sicily? Never. His only reported intervention, very late in life, was to critique the trial of the generals, whom we may even assume were members of the oligarchy. Then, of course, there are those later followers who claim the Socratic inspiration, eg. Antisthenes, Aristippus, Diogenes, Epicurus – all of which have at least one thing in common, they are all apolitical, if not anti-political. And we know of Socrates’, and then Plato’s, admiration for Spartan society. That is probably the context in which Plato develops his argument for the role of women. As it is also the probable context for his drastic and authoritarian removal of children from their parents. If you are convinced that you are “the one who knows”, what is to limit you from imposing your ”divinely inspired” will on the”herd”, at whatever human cost. That does seem to have been Critias’ view. 

I could go on but this would become an essay. Suffice it to say, I find it absurd that the sophisticated philosophical tradition treats the Platonic Apology as an historical account of the person/life of Socrates, when no court of even moderately informed jurors would be so naive. And with what consequences, for democracy, for respect for collective self determination, and representative government. Even providing a quite misleading and uncritical celebration of the so-called Socratic method.  

Once we recognize that in the dialogues we are dealing with a Platonic Socrates, only tangentially and, may I say, prejudicially, related to the historical person, then we can get on with the appropriate textual, philosophical, and historical task of addressing the life and thought of Plato, as well as evaluating its immense historical and on-going cultural significance. And here, being clear about these issue, will help us better appreciate the authoritarian and entirely undemocratic nature of Plato’s work, and even that of his immediate followers. And will contribute to framing a far more critical approach to his discussions of education, character development, and constructive political engagements. This perspective would also place in a clearer light Plato’s relation with such destructive figures as Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides, among others, as well as his antagonism to the Sophists. 

Granted, these are all scattered pieces of an argument – but these are clearly issues that have concerned me, as a committed democratic activist in the Deweyian and Camusian tradition, for quite some time. Generally speaking, I do not like Plato or his philosophy, but I do prefer the”early” dialogues for their dramatic and thoughtful engagements among living people than the “later” dialogues in which all too often Socrates deals with “yes men,” as we in the last 8+ books of the “Republic.” (I do, however, like the challenge that Glaucon poses in Book Two.) But I must say, that the best treatment of Plato’s philosophy that I have ever seen, that makes the best defense for it and its constructible philosophical significance, is the work of Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein in “Plato at the Googleplex”. But enough. My thoughts on the historical Socrates, the Platonic Socrates, and Plato – for what it’s worth. 

Reflections on Received Comments on Race

There is no question that the concept of race is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, so much so that we even speak, in these responses and in the larger society, as if we are talking about a coherent reality – something that is objectively there, and which we must not fail to recognize, acknowledge, and whose consequences we must take into consideration, for example, in addressing racial inequities.

But consider, what determines a race? It can’t really be one’s color. Many people from India are darker than many American “Blacks”, for example. And so are people of other ethnicities. Is it one’s parentage, then? How many, and how far back? I know that some racists have defined people as Black who have one great great grandparent who was “Black,” but does that make any sense? For one, do we want to let such racist definitions be determinative? What makes 1/32 of one’s parentage sufficient to define one’s race? Is this because so-called genetic “blackness” is contaminating? Why not as much say that it is powerful? But why, then, let others define one’s race?

And if 1/32 makes no sense, why should 1/16th, or 1/8th, or 1/4th, or even 1/2th make sense? It would make more sense to at least define such a one as biracial, or multiracial. Or even more, in most of those cases, given the proportions of “genetic parentage”, to define the person as “white”, or whatever the other majority of their parentage was? Or then again, why not allow one to choose their preferred “race,” since the racial ascription is essentially arbitrary, when it is not actually explicitly “racist?”

If we think we need to continue to organize people in accordance with color, in order to address individual or systemic injustice, we can, of course, do that, though the classifications will be somewhat confused – and perhaps even a bit arbitrary – as they are somewhat now, as, for example, when we speak of injustice to BIPOC groups, and even further, sometimes include Moslems, and others, such as LGBTQ, etc.

But this shows we don’t need the fabricated concept of race to address injustice. Why can we not, for example, consider the treatment given to African-Americans? To Haitian-Americans? To Latinos? To any number of ethnicities, nationalities, religions, or any other objective category that we feel the need to distinguish for understanding, appreciation, or equitability? These are all objective categories of personal identification, with which individuals are more or less free to choose to identify with, or not to identify with. But none of them are categories created to denigrate them, and with which one is identified by an essentially arbitrary determination that was established and maintained by their “racist” oppressors. I welcome further comment on these observations.

Should we abolish the category of race?

Should we abolish the category of race? If not, why not? 

Historical analysis makes a good case that the concept of races, bluntly defined by their skin color, and more abstractly by their “blood” lineage, was initially created in order to justify the brutal life-long enslavement of Africans. They were to be the perfect, entirely subordinated, effectively unlimited, labor supply for the highly profitable production first of sugar, then of tobacco, cotton, and other products of the developing new world plantation economy. 

Hence, the category of race – initially, primarily of blacks and whites – was socially constructed for the purposes of providing a pseudo-scientific justification of extreme racial exploitation and oppression. For several centuries, purportedly scientific theories were elaborated and developed, expanding racial categories, and building a hierarchical system of racial categories that inevitably placed the “white” European, or even Anglo-Saxon, as the pinnacle of human development, and the “black” African at the bottom of rung, just above the Apes or Orangutans. 

But modern the sciences of evolutionary theory, and particularly biology and its astounding advances in genetics, have shown these racist theories to be historical errors at best, ideological fabrications at worst. It is now patently clear that there is no natural scientific basis whatsoever for any such racial categories. They were created to justify the life-long enslavement and degrading treatment of the imported African workforce. And that socially created reality of race worked itself into the social institutions and individual consciousness of the citizens of the industrializing world, first in the Western world, and then spreading more widely.  

Since scientific investigation has fairly conclusively established that race is not a biologically significant category; and since it seems quite likely that the historically developed category of race was in fact created by the Europeans in the process of their settlement of the Western Hemisphere, and this was done in order to provide a justification for the complete enslavement of the African workforce, in addition also for the systematic displacement of the indigenous native population; and, further, since the very determination of what constitutes membership in a particular race results from an essentially arbitrary decision concerning the amount of pigmentation in the skin of one’s ancestors; therefore, why should we not work to abolish the very concept of race, and seek to deny it any official or legal recognition? And if not, why not? 

Is this a socially constructed category that has developed significant intrinsic value for members of some, or all, purported races? Or has it actually become politically useful for some? Or threatening to others? Has it become too historically ingrained in our minds or characters, institutions and practices, for good or ill consequences, to be completely replaced by more objectively substantive categories such as ethnicity, nationality, cultural or linguistic identity, and religion? 

I pose this as a serious question worthy of thoughtful exploration, for which I invite thoughtful comments. 

Some Reflections on Race, Racism, and Moral Responsibility

In a recent EHS Platform presentation on Anti-racism, the speaker made two central claims. First, she asserted that American society is systematically racist, with every institution having been shaped by racism; and that, therefore, the attitudes, values, and behavior of every person in our society, having been shaped by this racism, is therefore racist, whether he or she is aware of it or not. 

Second, each of us has only two possibilities. Either we are active anti-racists – purifying our attitudes and values, making amends for our past behavior, and actively challenging existing institutions; or we are racists, however well-intentioned we believe or claim to be. Our actions and interactions will be marked by racism, even at its best pervaded by racial insensitivity and micro-aggressions. It is, therefore, not morally acceptable to simply mind one’s own business, to devote one’s self to one’s career or business, attending to one’s friends and family, even if we conduct ourself in an apparently moral and normal manner. Because by so doing we are still engaging in, and thus reinforcing and reproducing structural racism, whatever our intentions or the personal quality of our daily actions.

This worldview is the perspective that undergirds the wider social movement that has also found expression in such popular best sellers as How To Be An Anti-Racist, and White Fragility. It insists that every person must make the personal choice to become an active Anti-Racist, or they are, whether by intent or avoidance, engaging in and perpetuating racism, and are there racists. Being born in this culture of pervasive structural racism, according to this view, there is no alternative. It’s an Either/Or. You can’t escape being either a racist or an anti-racist. It’s an overriding moral imperative.

That is why I posed the question for the recent April public forum: “Anti-Racism: Moral Imperative or Partisan Political Program?” Stimulated by this discussion, Arthur Dobrin developed the following general theoretical observations, followed by a series of questions as to what might actually be meant by racism, anti-racism, institutional racism and moral responsibility. Hopefully, these comments and questions will contribute to our thinking about these complex issues.    

Introduction by David Sprintzen.

Arthur Dobrin’s reflections.

The human species is highly social but individually weak thereby creating in-groups who cooperate for survival and out-groups, which are perceived as threats. The boundaries separating groups constantly shift as new alliances are formed and old ones dissolved. 

Everyone is born into an existing culture with its own history, values, assumptions and psychological pre-dispositions. Cultures define who is part of the in-group and who is not. History causes cultures to redefine themselves, as well as who is on the outside and who is now on the inside.

America is complex because it began by largely exterminating the indigenous people, then occupying the cleared land with people from different cultures either voluntarily as immigrants or with people who arrived against their will either in part or in whole, as indentured or enslaved people. 

Unlike more stable and homogeneous societies, from its very beginning America has been unstable and heterogeneous. Both major strands of America’s beginning, as a commercial enterprise in Jamestown, or as a religious retreat in New England, have both reinforced and challenged existing prejudicial norms. New York was founded as both a commercial venture and religious haven and historically it has been in the forefront of expanding the boundaries of social and religious tolerance and exhibiting some of the worst of its prejudices.

With these background sketches in mind, here are some of the things I’ve thought about after last night’s Meet Up. 

1. Does systemic racism exist?

         a. how do you define it?

         b. is racism defined only as it relates to Black people?

        c. can one group of people of color exhibit racism towards another group of people of             color?

2. If it does exist, in what way does it implicate those who are a person not of color?

         a. are all non-people of color guilty to the same degree, in the same way?

3. What is a non-people of color to do to overcome systemic racism?        

         a. is awareness sufficient?

         b. is calling it out sufficient?

         d. is acknowledging it in one’s own behavior sufficient?

4. If action is required, what should be done?

         a. where you live?

         b. where you send you children to school?

         c. where you shop?

         d. where you worship?

         e. where you recreate?

         f. where you work?

         g. who you associate with?

         h. political support?

                  1. is voting sufficient?

                  2. is letter writing/petition signing sufficient?

                  3. is lobbying sufficient?

5. how does racism rank relative to other social biases? 

         a. sexism

         b. classism

         d. LGBTQism

         e. anti-Semitism

         f. ethno-centrism

         g. ageism

         h. Abilism         

6. questions similar to #2-4 can be asked in relation to #5

Questions for further reflection.

1. A white medical researcher dedicates him or her entire career to medical research thus producing a vaccine for Covid that will be used by our medical system which is said to be pervaded by systematic racial bias. Is he or she racist? Are his or her actions racist?

2. A intentionally acclaimed cellist — such as Yo-Yo Ma — has devoted his or her life to the mastery of that instrument in order perform classical music that for the most part is performed before classical audiences that are primarily white and of more than average income. Is that cellist racist? Is his or her actions racist? Is he or she contributing to institutional racism?   

3. A white student attends a college with very few Black students but joins the Black Student Union. Is he being anti-racist?

4. A person donates 10 percent of her income to charitable causes, for example, National Public Radio, Green Peace, the local food pantry, her church, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign. Should she divert some of her contributions to an organization devoted exclusively to a Black cause?

5. If a white person volunteers for Latino justice, does this qualify as anti-racist?

6. If a person patronizes Chinese, Mexican, and Mediterranean restaurants, where there is rarely a Black customer, should she consider eating elsewhere?

7. A person is committed to buying locally but none of the shops are Black-owned. Should she consider traveling elsewhere to shop?

8. Is it anti-racist to read books that examine racism if the books are written by white people?

9. If a white person attends folk music concerts but not concerts by Black performers, is she being racist?

10. Is a white person who acknowledges systemic racism but believes that racism is best addressed by changing individuals’ attitudes and behavior racist?

11. If a white person’s hair is naturally curly, is it racist to wear it as an Afro or in dreads?

12. If a Black and a white candidate are running against each other and the Black candidate admires Clarence Thomas and other Black conservatives while the white candidate is a liberal (and there are no other choices), what should a white person do in this election?

13. If a white person chooses to move to a Black neighborhood knowing that this could be the beginning of gentrification, is this racist?

14. Is it racist if a white person seeks out a Black person to befriend?

15. A physician rarely sees a person of color or has professional affiliations with persons of color because she specializes in Tay-Sachs disease, which affects mainly people of Jewish ancestry. Is her practice racist?

16. In the classroom of a white teacher who supports BLM and also believes in open discussions, two white students get into a debate about Black Lives Matter vs. all lives matter. Is she racist if she doesn’t state her opinion?

17. A white student rejects her local high school, which has many Black students, to attend a public school that is dedicated to his interest in science that has very few Blacks but many Asians. Is he racist?

18. If a wealthy Black person makes indisputably demeaning and disparaging remarks to a white delivery man who responds in kind, is it racist for a white person to sympathize with the worker?

19. Is it racist or anti-racist for a lawyer to quote verbatim before the jury and public the racist language used by a defendant?

20. A woman walking alone on a deserted street sees a group of young Black men on the sidewalk and continues after crossing to the other side of the street. Does her race determine whether the action is racist?

21. Is it racist for a white returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who lived three years in Africa, to wear Kente cloth dress?

22. A podcast series is dropped because the white host once opposed the formation of a union that was widely supported by Black workers. Several of the writers and directors of the podcast are people of color who have also lost their jobs as ‘collateral damage.’ Were those who canceled the podcast anti-racist or racist?

23. After hearing Mavis Staples and other Black singers’ rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” a white entertainer covered the song. Was she racist for doing so because much of Foster’s 19th music was written for and performed in minstrel shows, although this particular song was not?

24. Is it racist for a white person to laugh at the jokes of a Black comedian whose performance, which is before a Black audience, centers around poking fun at the foibles of Black people?

25. A series of meetings “intended to give white people a space to learn about and process their awareness of, and complicity in, unjust systems without harming their friends of color” is for white people only. Is the program racist? 

26. A white person lives in a community that is more than 50% African American. Is this non-racist if the average cost of a house is $1 million-plus?

27. A white student attends an elite HBCU where tuition is about $50,000 per year. Is the student anti-racist?

Reflections on policing in An American City

Reflections on Policing in an American City

If you support Black Lives Matter you probably see the police as an oppressive occupying force unconstrained in its use of lethal force on the minority population, particularly its males. If, on the other hand, you counter by insisting that Blue Lives Matter, you no doubt see the BLM protesters as destructive radicals who insult “our nation’s finest” who daily put their lives on the line to serve America. And if you seek to avoid these antagonistic alternatives by asserting that All Lives Matter, the former will likely claim you are a hidden racist, flattening out their justified critique of the White oppressors, while the latter may similarly claim that you lack the guts to defend the police from those hateful and insulting attacks. At least, that’s the way current popular dialogue often seems to devolve into mutual incomprehension and name-calling. 

I don’t know if a more nuanced and constructive conversation about policing in America is possible these days, but if it is, Rosa Brooks’ recent publication strikes me as a remarkable contribution to its possibility. Tangled Up In Blue may not change anyone’s ideological predispositions, but, speaking only for myself, it gave me the feel of an honest, intimate, and very personal introduction to the reality of policing a minority community in a generally disadvantaged urban district. It was almost as if I was there, watching Rosa from a safe distance as she navigated her initial police training and then her patrolling the neighborhood. I don’t think i will ever look at the police and their relation to their community in the same way again.

What Rosa presents is a detailed, nuanced, personal account of her four-year experience as a volunteer police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. In this context she went through the complete training of all new police recruits, and then functioned – for 24 hours a month – with all the responsibilities and capacities of a full-time MPD officer. One may wonder what a highly accomplished 40+ year old white woman, former human rights activist and official, and now a well respected Professor of Law at Georgetown University is doing signing up to serve as a volunteer police officer in one of the most dangerous minority areas of Washington DC, but one cannot but admire the courage, determination, dedication, and sense of decency she brought to her effort. As well as the intelligence, comprehension, concern for justice, and outrage at injustice, that pervades her reporting, and the conclusions and actions she draws from her four year police experience. 

Her writing is simple, direct, without complicated language or theories. She doesn’t try to oversell the significance of what she went through, encountered, or learned from her experience. She simply reports it directly, as it happened. And offers comments on how it seemed to her. I found myself totally engaged by her experience, and moved by the stories she tells, with their simplicity, honesty, directness, sometimes pathos, and occasionally humor. I think that everyone who is concerned about the issues of policing, and particularly, the role of the police in minority communities, regardless of their political or personal location in these contested debates, can benefit from reading this book. And we are all in Rosa’s debt for having undertaken, first the experience, and then the personal testament that is this engaging and revealing book. 

“Replacing Magical Thinking with Rational Discourse”:

a talk to the American Ethical Union’s national Sunday meeting on January 31, 2021.

(What is magical thinking? )

What is magical thinking? It is fanciful, associative, and

emotional thought. It is making mental connections by associations of images, elaborating dramatically engaging or emotionally satisfying stories. 

Its stories are often soothing, personally sustaining, even dramatically engaging. It is often psychologically encouraging, providing us with quite satisfying experiences. But it is thinking that Is neither empirically tested nor critical re-evaluated in the light of experienced consequences.

We all are tempted by such ways of thinking – and probably indulge in them quite often. We fantasize, we daydream, sometimes we even pray. And we certainly love dramatic stories, many of which are really quite imaginatively fantastic. We probably all want the world to be one that embodies our hopes, desires, and needs. To be a world in which we feel we belong, where we feel at home, and safe. In short, to feel that we are in a world that assuages our fears, and anxieties, uncertainties and powerlessness. How else are we to understand the pervasiveness of human beliefs in eternal beings, or in heavenly fathers who look out for our well being?

Of course, imaginative thinking can often take us out of our ordinary humdrum reality and our daily routines. It can not only contribute to flights of fancy, but even sometimes nourish our creativity, originality, and artistic innovation. 

But unless it is intelligently re- connected to the objectively existing social and natural world, it remains  nothing but a personal flight of fancy – magical thinking without constructive practical or social relevance. 

Even worse, however, it often invites identification, and even possibly infatuation, with its emotionally satisfying scenarios, thus presaging disaster when taken as an interpretation of reality and as a guide to action. For magical thinking is not empirically accountable, nor rationally coherent.

Rather, its associative imagery is fanciful, sometimes delusional, and thus not constrained by the need to take into account the real patterns of society and nature. As a guide to action, therefore, it almost inevitably leads us in inappropriate, self-defeating, and likely destructive directions. That’s why we need rational thought and critical thinking. 

So What then is rational thought?

It is thought that is internally coherent, and objectively attentive, and responsive, to the experienced consequences of events. The best way to understand the function of rational thought is to compare it to the using of tools. And thus to think of ideas as mental tools. 

(Ideas as mental tools.) 

Of course, We all know what a tool is? A material object a) made by someone; b) for a purpose; c)  with reference to a job to be done. 

If the tool is the right one for the job, it will facilitate our task.  

But If the tool is not well made, or is not appropriate or well designed for the job to be done, it will certainly make a mess of the work.

Now consider a map, which is a kind of tool to guide us around a terrain.  

To be useful, the map must be appropriate to the task: for example, a geological survey map would not be very helpful if we are trying to find what roads to take to get us to our destination. 

But the road map, or today the GPS, will only be helpful if it correctly maps the actually existing road patterns.  Otherwise it will be worse than useless. 

Similarly with thinking. 

All thinking involves some mapping of our world, and that means, some interpretation of how things fit together. We have to decide what part of the world we are concerned with, and what we want to do with it. To this end, we need ideas that accurately map that world, that is, that make sense of its structure, selecting the relevant causal interactions, and the likely practical consequences of different possible actions. 

That’s the very meaning of science. Empircal, experimental, self-correcting science, is clearly the most reliable way to map our world, and thus our best guide in successfully navigating our interaction with that world. 

If, on the other hand, in place of scientifically-based rational thinking, we were to rely on magical thought, and the associative emotional patterns that make us feel good, it would be just like using the wrong or poorly designed tools: we are almost certainly going to make a mess of whatever we undertake. 

Just briefly consider a couple of examples: 

[ Of criminals] 

If you think it is obvious that crime is simply caused by criminals – you will probably conclude that the best way to reduce crime is to focus your research on the criminals that create it. For example, what is it about these criminals that causes them to engage in crime? Have you noticed that every time there is a mass murder, we become so focused on understanding the nature and motives of the killer. Focusing on the criminal, we will look to their background, perhaps their genetic endowment, and we’ll probably increase law enforcement and even enhance legal penalties in order to repress crime and remove these criminals from society.  

But, of course, with such a criminal character based focus as your critical conceptual mapping, you are quite unlikely to even consider such possible social determinants of crime, as poverty, joblessness, community deterioration, inadequate education, lack of social supports, family disintegration, even economic exploitation, political oppression, or cultural dehumanization. Wrongly mapping the conceptual and causal terrain is like using the wrong tool to do a job – and with similar results. 

[Of Trump, race and deaths of despair]

Or consider the Trump phenomenon. If you neglect the significant role that race plays, you will certainly miss an important element. But, if you also think that race is the sole or central motive for most Trump supporters, you will completely fail to appreciate those “deaths of despair” that has devastated much of white middle America, so brilliantly diagnosed recently by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. 

Did you know, for example, that for the period since 2000, the average life expectancy for white Americans between 45 and 54 years of age has actually been declining — and that this is a pattern that is seen almost nowhere else on Earth, and that includes among people of all races or ethnicities?

It would thus be neither sensitive, nor respectful, to respond to the desperation of such people, as often too many well meaning people have done, to claim that they benefit from white privilege. Not only would that be personally insensitive, but it is almost certainly counter-productive, communicating one’s disdain for their suffering and driving them more firmly into the arms of those who do not insult them. 

(In Conclusion)

So let us take our humanistic values and our rational and scientific analyses seriously, but also self-critically, and with sufficient humility, always remaining on guard against the natural tendencies for self-reinforcing group thinking. We should recognize that our values and goals are never realities to be imposed upon the world as if they embody a perfected ideal, but rather we should treat them as continually révisable moral and theoretical guides in furthering our present undertakings. That is the path forward of a rationally responsible humanism.