Bioethics Blogs

A Second Response to Professor Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures.

Written by Richard Ngo , an undergraduate student in Computer Science and Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures start from the admirable position of integrating psychological results and philosophical arguments, with the goal of answering two questions:

(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?

(2) when those implicit attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterised as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions?

Fergus Peace has already written an excellent essay evaluating the extent to which these questions are important. I won’t rehash his discussion of what Implicit Association Tests are, and what conclusions can be drawn from them, but I would like to extend the exchange which has taken place so far. I agree with him that the first question is to a large extent a matter of terminology. Professor Levy has argued in response that, given further research on what it means to be racist, we might be able to use the term to make reliable generalisations.

I have two objections to this. The first is that racism is a particularly difficult and loaded term to be working with in a philosophical sense, because of the way it is used throughout society, particularly in politically polarised contexts. It seems to be inviting an excess of intuitive disagreement, as well as popular misunderstanding, to try and co-opt the term ‘racist’ into philosophical discussions. Now, it might still be worth doing further research on what we should mean by ‘racist’, if we still thought that there was some distinct kind of person or behaviour which the term captured.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.