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Starting from the assumption that there is no absolute morality and that good and bad are stories we tell ourselves, how can I logically convince a racist person that he's wrong?

There is no right or wrong to begin with! Trying to appeal to "general principles" like "everyone should be equal " and such is of no great help, because a) those principles are arbitrary anyway, 2) it is often quite tricky to conclude anything definitive from them.

This is something I've been struggling with; I try to be as logical as possible with my arguments, but I always know in the back of my mind that I'm being dishonest: that what I say cannot be completely logical because there is nothing to start with. How are my arguments different than a screaming contest then?

Of course the racist thing is just an example, in general this occurs every time we come close to morality and ethics; this includes murder, theft, and so on.

Given that realizing that good and bad exists only in the human mind does not seem to me as a particularly bold position to take, I guess someone already wrote about this? About how to resolve this situation? Maybe you could provide some references?

I admit that my question sounds like "Assume that there are no moral truths. How can we discern right from wrong?" but in my mind someone has surely realized the fact that there are no truths before me; how did they justify their moral positions then? (Without taking crazy unjustified assumptions like many philosophers do)

  • @jobermark Because what we feel and what we can rationally prove are wildly different things. So I feel that racism is wrong but I am conscious I cannot logically justify it. But in general, I'm in the position of thinking "Yeah, this is wrong (mental note: wrong does not exist in the first place)". I mean we could try to work our way up from some general principles but this construction should be carried on with great care. I don't think that realizing that right or wrong do not exist in the universe is a particularly bold position to take, so I guess someone already wrote about this? – Ant May 20 '16 at 22:55
  • @jobermark Yeah racism was just an example, of course, it happens with literally every topic associated with morality. I cannot (or maybe I don't want ) suspend judgement on every topic, including murder, theft, and so on and so forth. – Ant May 20 '16 at 22:57
  • Instead of an insulting comment, I changed that to an answer -- sorry that puts your answering comments out of context. – jobermark May 20 '16 at 23:50
  • Well, according to Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, "Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong". So if you're talking to a racist to begin with, Hitler's probably not a bad place to start:). And then the answer hinges on the word "success" -- success doing what? In that context, racism (or anything) would be right or wrong depending on whether it advances or hinders whatever goal you're trying to accomplish. And you can obviously construct some goals that would be advanced. Can you prove or argue that any goal advanced by racism is ab initio wrong/evil? Good luck with that. – John Forkosh May 21 '16 at 9:37
  • @JohnForkosh well this falls under the umbrella of utilitarianism, right? There is an answer below, and I commented on why that does not satisfy me :-) – Ant May 21 '16 at 9:53
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I can only say, you can't, in a way you want. All the other answers are good but they miss one important fact. You do not just want to convince a racist - you want to convince him and remain consistent with your belief that there is no absolute morality and that good and bad are stories we tell ourselves.

This is Moral Relativism. Now by your statment, it appears you want to preserve Normative Moral Relativism. You obviously believe in Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism, the problem is that you feel that you cannot impress upon someone your belief, by conditioning, by manipulation or probably by force, if you yourself believe that to be untrue, hence you are shfiting towards the normative one and that you do not want.

However there is one way out. Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism does not commit you to Normative Moral Relativism.

Secondly, If you believe that there is no "right" and no "wrong", then there is nothing wrong in being a hypocrite and you can convince him by showing that he is wrong according to any moral belief he might have or you can make him believe. Remember there will be nothing illogical with your argument because you will not be presenting false logic. You will use his belief 'x' or make him believe 'x' and then derive what you want, i.e., 'y' from it. It is not illogical because a logical syllogism is like -

  1. If P then Q
  2. P
  3. Hence, Q

If he believes in P it is logical that he believe in Q. Check that 2 is not wrong in your world view. You believe in Moral Relativism and hence already consider morals to have existence only in mind. Just replace P with P' and Q with Q', where P' is P."in your mind" and Q' is Q."in your mind". For example,

  1. If Deontic Ethics are right, then racism is wrong
  2. Deontic Ethics are right
  3. Hence racism is wrong

becomes

  1. If Deontic Ethics are right in your mind, then racism is wrong in your mind
  2. Deontic Ethics are right in your mind
  3. Hence racism is wrong in your mind

That is the best you can do (though a smart "racist" will get around it and a stupid won't agree with the methodology).

It is not illogical or immoral/unethical in your worldview to do that. Unless you do subscribe to Normative Moral Relativism, where it would become a lot more difficult.

  • this is great! Thank you, you finally understood what I was trying to say :D I will read the links you provided and get back to you :-) If in the meantime you know of a good book about Meta-ethical moral relativism (and the consequences for normative moral relativism) I would be grateful! :) – Ant May 21 '16 at 16:38
  • "There is nothing wrong with hypocrisy" except that humans generally react badly to it. How do you get your interlocutor not to just walk away in disgust at the fact you are trying to manipulate him, and have no basis from which to request his attention? This approach is fine, if no one minds having their priciples devalued completely and turned into a game. – jobermark May 21 '16 at 17:03
  • I should add though that I don't agree with the second part. The goal is not to convince a racist not to be racist, the goal is to justify to myself why I am not racist (and then use the same argument to convince someone else). Maybe I should have phrased the question better – Ant May 21 '16 at 17:25
  • I cannot actually grasp the meaning of your second comment. If you are Moral Relativist, you yourself agree that different people have different ideas of morailty. So even if you find a rational basis to be against racism, you would know that would not apply on them, if your view correct. If your justification should have applied on them, then it in some ways undermine your own relativism, which you do not want. So I don't think you can covince any other to not be a racist based on the arguments that you have convinced yourself, in any "good" way. – IsThatTrue May 22 '16 at 13:54
  • @IsThatTrue for me rational is something that applies to everyone, it can't be rational if it works only for me. I am a "reluctant" moral relativist; meaning that to me it' clear that right or wrong do not exist, but I still feel that rapists or murderers are doing something wrong. So I am looking for a logical framework under which the things I feel are wrong can be proven wrong. To make this happen we should clearly agree on a common ground, to some extent; so, did someone make some effert in this direction? Like laying out "15 principles", for example, and going down from there? – Ant May 23 '16 at 13:32
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Assuming you can engage in any form of logical debate with a racist at all, you will have 2 possible approaches:

  1. Argue that race is only a social construct, not a scientifically objective concept, and so there is no such thing as a biological race. How can one be racist if there is no such thing as race? The idea that race is not a biologically real concept, only a social construct is disputed, but there are compelling arguments for it. See the SEP article on Race - Section 2.
  2. Find some common moral ground, and then show them that from those agreed upon moral principles, it is logically entailed that racism is wrong. They will then have to either admit that they are wrong in being racist, or recant their original agreement on the moral principles that they had previously agreed upon (which would make them look stupid - even if you don't succeed in actually convincing them).

2.a: You can argue from a Deontic (i.e. rule based ethics) point of view: If they subscribe to a certain religion or if they agree to certain universal humanistic principles, you can show them that racism contradicts those religious or universal principles.

2.b: You can argue from a Consequentialist (Consequence based ethics - for example the utilitarianism that @user14840 mentions) point of view that the consequences of a society without racism are better than those of a society with racism (less chances of conflict, uprisings and genocides, etc...). You would first have to establish what the greater good of society is, before you can argue from that point of view. If you don't agree on what consequences are good and what consequences are bad, then you won't have anyway of convincing them of the wrongness of their views.

  • Thanks for your answer! I don't like the 2a and 2b points (I am not just trying to "win" the debate but rather to establish some form of "truth"). Your 1--2 point instead I agree with, and it is what I have been doing; that is trying to find contradictions in their arguments based on whatever moral base they have. On the other hand this does not address the bigger question of how to find a common moral base to begin with. – Ant May 21 '16 at 9:50
  • I admit that my question sounds like "Assume that there are no truths. How can we find the truth?" but in my mind someone has surely realized the fact that there are no truths before me; how did they justify their moral positions then? (Without taking crazy unjustified assumptions like many philosophers do) – Ant May 21 '16 at 9:51
  • The racist counterpoint against 1: I'll punch you. The racist counterpoint against 2: I'll punch you. The racist counterpoint against 2a and 2b: I'll punch you. – gnasher729 May 21 '16 at 18:41
  • The strongest argument for race being only a social construct is that the word is now so emotionally laden it's impossible to understand what it means in a scientific context any more. Are there heritable alleles with detectable phenotypes that are prevalent in substantially higher frequency in one historical lineage of humans than others? Absolutely. Do these heritable shared phenotypes explain the majority of variability observed among humans? Absolutely not. That the idea of race is confused (paraphyletic, etc.) is easy to support; that there's no trace whatsoever is unsupportable. – Rex Kerr May 26 '16 at 21:34
  • So unless one wants to exhaustingly trawl through the (somewhat sparse and confounded) literature on each phenotype the racist insists is, unlike the average, strongly correlated with their favored group, taking the "there isn't such a thing" approach isn't very efficient. Of course if you do you might discover that there is a (small but detectable mean) difference and it's the opposite of the way the racist hoped (which might be kind of gratifying!), but it's really a ton of work and the racist can always jump around to some other quality that hasn't been studied. So: approach #2 FTW. – Rex Kerr May 26 '16 at 21:37
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Starting from the assumption that there is no absolute morality and that good and bad are stories we tell ourselves, how can I logically convince a racist person that he's wrong?

You can't. So don't start from that assumption.

There is no right or wrong to begin with! Trying to appeal to "general principles" like "everyone should be equal " and such is of no great help, because a) those principles are arbitrary anyway, 2) it is often quite tricky to conclude anything definitive from them.

"All general principles are arbitrary" is a general principle, so that position is inconsistent.

There are many kinds of decisions not commonly regarded as moral that are considered methodological. For example, the question of what experiment to do next in a scientific investigation is methodoligical. A decision about whether you should wash your hands before preparing food is methodological.

Moral principles can't be separated from methodological principles since real decisions about methodology often involve decisions commonly regarded as moral. For example, suppose a scientist is in a laboratory and he thinks that he should do one more experiment before going home, where his girlfriend is waiting for a romantic dinner. The decision about whether to do the experiment is methodological and the decision about whether to go home is moral. So if there is no rational way to make a decision about the moral issue, then there is no way to make a decision about whether to do the experiment and so there is no objectively better or worse methodological decision.

So the racist must be willing to throw out logic and all methodological knowledge to deny objective morality.

You say that good and bad only exist in the human mind, but you've offered no argument criticising the contrary position. It is true that morality is about how to make decisions and so doesn't arise until there are beings that can make decisions, but this is not the same as morality being in the mind.

There is one final issue to consider, which is a methodological matter on which you are mistaken. You write about making "crazy unjustified assumptions". All knowledge consists of unjustified guesses about solutions to problems that are controlled by criticism. Justification is impossible and unnecessary. Moral knowledge is created by trying to take existing moral ideas seriously. You try to solve problems with moral ideas and reject those that fail to solve problems.

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According to Eysenck, various kinds of -ists are perfectly capable of believing multiple contradictory things simultaneously. For example, a prejudiced person might believe that members of a certain group are all work-shy and avoid any work. A prejudiced person might also believe that members of the same group want to take all our jobs away. The merely prejudiced person cannot logically believe both things at the same time. The racist can. Easily.

You cannot argue logically or ethically with a racist. You might, over a very, very long period, slowly wear them down, but even that is very difficult, since anything that seems to support their views will be received very strongly, while anything that is against their views will be viewed extremely critical.

  • Thank you for your answer, but this does not answer by question ;-) it is more about finding a logical framework to work with rather than convincing (somehow) a person to change his mind – Ant May 21 '16 at 19:17
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    The "you can't use ethics here, you need something else" answer is an answer, whether it is the sort you wanted or not. Reality is only so flexible. – jobermark May 23 '16 at 15:31
  • When the question is "How can I... " then "you can't" answers the question. – gnasher729 May 24 '16 at 11:58
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In the spirit of Nietzsche, if your scepticism is preventing you from functioning, you need to take it farther. If you cannot accept that truth exists, you should not rely upon it for making decisions. You need to find a motivation for action that matters.

The two he puts forward, which to my mind are really the same, are Power and Art. Which of these does his racism offend? Does it undermine his effectiveness? Or is it just tacky?

Yes, that first question is framed the right way around. If you expect him to act in ways that are not playing to his strengths, you are being a hypocrite: You have some devotion to some morality based upon the religious history of truth and the 'slave morality' that it leads into. So you should expect him to do what is good for him.

Is racism good for him? If you think so, you need to just acknowledge that you are fighting with success, and nothing succeeds like success.

If not, you should be able to make the case based upon the odds of being on the losing side of history. Stereotypes do not predict outcomes very well, and racism is ultimately not really a moral position, it is bad science with a religious anchor.

If it is in his best interest, what in it offends you? How does it lack art? Are you adopting the prevailing modern taste for equality and peace? If so, again, you are being a hypocrite. Modern politics is stil Enlightenment thinking, highly over-constructed, not open to deep skepticism, and if you lack faith in "Truth", you need to discard it.

So aside from the trappings of cultural pressures, what in his racism offends you? What is the aesthetic you want to adopt toward politics, and what would be its standard of judgement?

For example, I can look at Donald Trump's racism and sexism, and hate it because he is presenting a false image of masculinity. (As a gay man, masculinity is something I value for its own sake, at least in other men.) His position is presented with bluster, but it is ultimately cowardly. It is not pride or tradition he is appealing to, it is simple fear.

If you believe a group belongs in a subordinate position, but you fear you cannot keep them there, then they don't belong there, and they won't stay. So accept history. Do what works, but don't whine about it. Letting yourself be afraid of them, and being dishonest or duplicitous about it debases you. It is tacky.

  • Thank you for your answer, but I have to say, I am not following your train of thought. Anyhow, I have issues with your very first statement; I don't care that Nietsche puts forward two "abstract concepts" like Power and Art (whatever they are!) If we are in the business of taking wild assumptions and running with them, I'd prefer assuming some common ground of decency and work with that, rather that this two abstract and arbitrary concepts (I have no idea what is meant by Power and Art, but maybe you could shed some light on it? ) – Ant May 21 '16 at 9:46
  • If you think that power and art are abstract concepts, you are going to have a hard time living. Generalizing shared concepts out of observations is very different from simply feeling what drives you and being honest with yourself. If you choose to the former, you need the whole apparatus of truth, and you cannot be a skeptic. – jobermark May 21 '16 at 16:35
  • I think you don't get the spirit of the question.. – Ant May 21 '16 at 16:37
  • I think you are evading the spirit of the answer. If you want to throw away cultural trappings, then they are gone, and you can't just keep longing after them endlessly. If you do not, then you have to make peace with the ultimate artificiality of everything built upon them. If they are gone, then only internal, visceral concepts should really enter your moral reasoning, even if they are refined and deeply explored. – jobermark May 21 '16 at 16:38
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    @AlexanderSKing That is like saying that my people are Hannoverian and Bohemian, so I can't claim linkage to Kant or Nietzsche. (These were not parts of Germany when my people left it. But I get the whole Holy Roman Empire, not just the Kingdom of Prussia, thank you very much. Though Neitzsche did try to claim he was Prussian, but Polish, just to be obnoxious.) – jobermark May 23 '16 at 16:17
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There is absolute morality. It's called (perhaps perfected?) utilitarianism. You do the action that causes the least unwanted feelings and the most wanted feelings. Why do you do such an action? Because it's the most wanted course of action. Why should you do the most wanted course of action? Because you want to! Or would if you were conscious of you wants when applied to the situation.

So first off don't assume that racism is wrong, don't assume anything, if you're going to defeat the best racist you're not going to do so by being afraid, you're going to do so by being more logical than he is. Since you don't know how logical he is, you must be 100% logical and ready to accept his position into your mind. Only then can you start to rationally dissect the issue and see which option, racism vs non-racism, is most utilitarian.

Or maybe not, I'm lazy, maybe if you pay me I'll answer your question?

  • Utilitarianism is not absolute: The values which one uses to calculate utility with are still arbitrary. One person values family, the other money, the third freedom, etc.... – Alexander S King May 20 '16 at 23:07
  • In terms of doing the actions that are least unwanted and most wanted, it doesn't matter /which/ actions are least unwanted or most wanted, or if those actions are /different/ from what other people's least unwanted or most wanted actions are, all that matters is that /you/ are acting in /your/ /best-interest/. That /you/ are making the best decision for /yourself/. – user14840 May 20 '16 at 23:15
  • The ultimate problem with Utilitarianism is that I can't know how good it would feel to kill you until I have done it. These fantasy calculations can all be made only when the world ends. Until then Utilitarianism succeeds only by lying about being able to know what makes everybody happy. It is really just value ethics with a pretense toward mathematization. – jobermark May 20 '16 at 23:56
  • Thanks for your answer! The "problem" with this approach is that it does not answer the question. This is akin of saying "Do whatever you want to make you happy" which is something I can get behind, but it is by no means a way of discerning between right or wrong. So utilitarianism does not constitute a morality because it does not give any means of discerning right or wrong and it's essentially a free pass for all to do whatever they want. I'm not saying that this necessarily wrong, but it's not what I was looking for (that is, a way to justify rationally what I feel is right or wrong) – Ant May 21 '16 at 9:41
  • More hypocrisy, if wrong is relative, you can't discern it, you have to make it up. You can't have it both ways unless you keep pretending... – jobermark May 21 '16 at 16:43
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The word "racism" is typically defined like this :

a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race


Now, there are no objective, culturally independent standards for good and evil whatsoever. To some degree, all morality is arbitrary. So neither the racist position nor the anti-racist position are inherently (= objectively) evil or good. Neither Liberals nor Marxists nor Neo-Conservatives nor Zionists nor Nazis nor Jews nor Christians nor Muslims are inherently (= objectively) evil or good. All judgements on good or evil are inherently subjective. See eg. my article on Discordianism or this excerpt from Hogfather for some arguments for that.

So you can't argue that racism is objectively wrong from a moral point of view, since morality is fundamentally subjective. You CAN, however, argue that racism is factually wrong.

There are two ways to approach this :

  1. Explain how the notion of race superiority is essentially a form of of collective narcissism and in-group favoritism, which can be based on objective criteria but often is based on highly subjective, irrational preferences. The following image is a perfect illustration of this : enter image description here.

  2. Explain how each race has its own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, and that there is no objective way to determine superiority because - especially at the level of groups - the strengths always come with corresponding weaknesses, making the notion that one race is superior to the other impossible to determine objectively! enter image description here source : Thirty years of research on race differences in Cognitive Ability


Thus, my approach deals with objective facts, not subjective morality. IMO, this is the only meaningful approach, for the very reasons you pointed out yourself : you need objective standards for "right" and "wrong" to be meaningful concepts.

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    Thank you for your answer, but this does not answer by question ;-) it is more about finding a logical framework to work with rather than convincing a person to change his mind – Ant May 25 '16 at 14:35
  • @Ant : I'm not sure what you mean by "finding a logical framework". In what way does my answer fail to address your question? – John Slegers May 25 '16 at 14:48
  • Despite the title, I don't want to convince a racist; I want to prove that he is wrong. So while your answer is good, it relies on quite a number of assumptions (like "in group favoritism" is bad, or "if someone is intellectually and phisically "equal" than it should not be treated differently). I agree with those, but that's not the point, because someone could well disagree. I am looking for something at a more metaphysical level, let's say; it all stems from the realization that "wrong and bad are stories we tell ourselves", hence racism is not inherently bad. – Ant May 25 '16 at 14:54
  • Hence the need for some kind of framework / discussion on how to be "moral" if there is no right or wrong in the first place – Ant May 25 '16 at 14:54
  • @Ant : My answer takes an approach that doesn't involve moral arguments. Both arguments merely imply that there is no objective way to determine racial superiority, and that any such declaration of superiority is therefore subjective. From a rationalist perspective, that's sufficient to invalidate racism. – John Slegers May 25 '16 at 15:05

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