If we have a society where one of the basic beliefs is systematic racism, would that be a moral belief, or a factual one? It seems to me like more of a factual one, since its a way of viewing the world where one race is not as good as another, but intuitively when discussing racism one would think its a moral belief...

  • Neither. In this case it is a matter of ethics - a set of rules or protocols that are accepted as true or just by a group of people. Morals are judgments of right and wrong made by an individual. And it cannot be factual because it has no basis in fact or natural law. – wildBillMunson Dec 10 '14 at 4:22

"Systematic racism" is not a belief, it is a practice --one (potentially) founded on several different beliefs.

One such belief is that people can objectively and consistently be divided into racial categories such that members of each category objectively and consistently display certain sets of traits that are different from the traits of the members of other categories. This is a judgement of fact. It might be true, it might be false, but either way it counts in the category of factual claims.

Another belief is that one racial group is superior to another. This cannot be a matter of objective fact because the notion of what represents superiority in human life is not well-established or uncontroversial.

A third belief is that people should be treated differently based on their racial categorization. This is a judgement of morality. The claim is that basing your treatment of people on their race is the right thing to do. It's important to note that even in the case that you held the first two beliefs above, you might still reject the third. Conversely, you could hold the third belief and reject the other two (although that would be super-hard to justify).

  • A belief that is motivated by observation is basically different from one that is motivated by intended tactical deployment. Facts that support your already-established intentions are one kind of belief and facts that you discover that may or may not inform your unplanned future intentions are something completely different. Throwing them all in together as 'facts', 'claims', or 'beliefs' is a huge vocabulary dodge leading into a mass of formal errors. – jobermark Dec 10 '14 at 20:36
  • Actually, the third is easy to justify without the first two, and without moral judgements. For instance, some apparent "races" could be more susceptible to a particular disease than others (e.g. sickle cell), and so should be screened for it. Or statistically more likely to break the law in some area, which affects law enforcement there. Different treatment only becomes racism when it is not rationally motivated. – Conifold Dec 10 '14 at 23:49

Frequently, it's both. The bare judgment "race X has feature Y" is an assessment regarding the state of the world. For example put in a morally neutral term for Y like "has good fashion sense" or "gets fewer cavities". However, in many cases of race-generalization the feature has moral considerations; in those cases the racist is making a moral judgment about a set of people; this is a moral judgment in the same way as an individualized moral judgment, albeit generalized too far.

A sense that I get from your question is that it also relates to the idea that a 2nd party can make a moral judgment about a 1st party's racism, and that this judgment of the racist's beliefs/behaviour is moral in nature. Under various moral theories you can see how this is the case even if the racial judgment is not overtly moral in nature -- basically it boils down to the idea that overgeneralizing in this way is indicative of a failure of judgment and thus poor decision making. Which in turn reflects on the racist's virtue (virtue ethics), or likely "goodness" of decisions (utilitarianism)...


In what definition is 'not as good as' only functional or aesthetic and not a moral judgement? I don't think we can negotiate that boundary, not because it is complex, but because it is imaginary.

Even if I find one kind of jam not as good as another, I am expressing the opinion that the canner might have done better, or that her employer (or God) might have provided her better materials. And many such people would feel morally wounded by such accusations, as though it were not an objective evaluation, but a commentary on their level of dedication, whether they deserve their place in the world, or some other marker they would accord moral value.

Even if that is a very light judgment and rendered relative with a little thought, it is at base moral -- ask any three-year old: in such a case the world has wronged them by not having better jam. And ask someone who actually makes jam whether or not that feels like a moral accusation. They may not be offended if you do not find it as sweet, or as thick, but 'as good' has moral content.

We learn to accommodate a world of moral relativism, but we are still making judgments about taste, the value of our work, our family loyalty and tribal preferences in a moral sense. We work to pull the fabric of society into agreement with our emotional reactions, rather than the other way around, and the result is moral action.

At a more adult level, watch musicians or writers compose together some time, and try to imagine they are not defending moral ground. The reactions are the same, the responses are the same, the tactics are the same. The results often affect the audience in the same way as a moral argument: creating empathy or evoking rage.

I would suggest that racism is that kind of aesthetic moral sense that has not allowed itself to be muted by a wider morality of fairness or logical comparison.

Onto that basic skeleton of reactions, we hang exceptions and other texture to make it possible to compromise with fairness or objective observations on a superficial level -- we make up stories about black athletics and escape from ravening beasts, or centuries of Jewish domination of arithmetic in the Middle Ages, to escape the notion "ours" are not in fact better in some core capacity unaffected by "their" historical advantages.

If I am a middle-class Japanese girl trying playing funk for a living, that kind of story is not just misleading, it is immoral (especially if I am this one https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4juvf_hiromi-uehara-time-difference_music)

  • "He is a good golfer" doesn't necessarily mean anything more than he can get low scores on the links. "He is a good mobster" has (at least) two interpretations, which indicates that there is a difference between functional and moral judgments (even if a precise boundary between them cannot be identified). – Dave Dec 9 '14 at 19:22
  • @Dave But there is moral weight to 'he is a good golfer' if it is truly meant. Admiration is something that will make us consider his other weaknesses, even mild moral ones, perhaps a bad temper, more forgivable. I would continue to contend that we can create an artificial distinction between aesthetics and ethics, but we cannot find a natural one. So we cannot really answer this kind of question 'no' without imposing some sort of arbitrary framework for our own comfort... Beauty is Truth... – jobermark Dec 9 '14 at 20:09
  • @Dave And the second example can be taken categorically, or it can be seen as the kind of problem aesthetics (and just ethics) just has: perspective is complex. From a mobster's point of view he is admirable, but I do not adopt a mobster's point of view easily. Pretty much like "Sublime is good for ska, but I just don't 'get' white reggae". He may also be a good man in a more general sense, yet still a mobster. That is just a different deployment -- Would I dance to Sublime in a group, yeah. Would I ever listen to it alone, no. – jobermark Dec 9 '14 at 20:33
  • My take is that you are promoting a particular cognitive bias of people (to conflate skill with virtue) and promoting it to be a definitional truth. I am not convinced that this cognitive bias applies in all cases, and even to the extent that it does, there is philosophical value in considering how a given judgement relates to the limits of a "purely functional" and "purely moral" judgements. – Dave Dec 9 '14 at 21:14
  • I am not saying the skill itself is a virtue. Virtue, without application does not generate anything, and skill does. They have different effects on the world. But all admiration is cut from the same cloth. And we judge skills the same way we judge everything else. – jobermark Dec 9 '14 at 22:20

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