In an earlier blog post, I argued that racism’s wrongness is something we simply know to be wrong today. But, why it is wrong cannot be explained adequately as just (or even mainly) a matter of how we evolved; how we have socially constructed our societies; how the consequences happen to add up; and so on. Instead, racism’s wrongness seems to be intrinsically and universally wrong; and that seems to be why accusations of racism, such as in police behavior, strike us as so deeply immoral. It is essentially unjust.
But, like Alasdair MacIntyre has asked, whose justice are we talking about? In a previous post, I suggested that many disciplines, such as the humanities and social sciences, seem to have been deeply influenced by social constructivism, which focuses on how public bodies of knowledge are built. This was a defining trait of religious studies when I was at USC, and it also has influenced postmodern authors, including Christian ones.
Social constructivists emphasize the social, political, and historical factors that contribute to the formation of these bodies. This focus helps acknowledge that these factors do have shaping influences, which I will address more in a later post. For now, I think proponents vary in terms of the extent to which we are shaped by these influences. For example, D. C. Phillips has said that “social constructivists want to challenge the view that external nature [or, reality] plays a decisive role in shaping what we know about it.”¹ Also, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann rightly observe that things like government institutions, businesses, and means of exchange are socially constructed, to name but a few.²
But, some theorists (including some philosophers) go further and deny that we ever can access reality as it is. Everything we know is a social construct. Now, if they are right, there is a very ironic and disappointing result: justice’s goodness and racism’s wrongness are in trouble, for even they would be just our constructs. But if so, then their moral status would be up to us, and there would not be a moral basis anymore for speaking against injustice. There would only be power.
There is a deep irony here. The focus on particularity, and not universals, which has come in part from social constructivism, has helped bring needed attention to the injustices of particular peoples, often of marginalized positions. Yet, ironically, social constructivism, if taken in this stronger form, undermines any appeals to justice, except as just another power move. What we seem to need to preserve the goodness of justice and wrongness of racism is that these are universal moral qualities that not only apply to everyone, but that they exist independently of how we think about them. For Christians, the traditional explanation is that these morals are grounded in God’s character, and how He has made us.
Does this mean that we can easily just read the truth right off of events? Not necessarily. Some things we now see as clearly wrong, like the ways African Americans were discriminated against by white people in the southern states under the Jim Crow laws. Yet, then, it was not seen that way by many southern whites due to their interpretive grids. But, should they have seen these laws and the treatment of African Americans as wrong? I think so; otherwise, if examples of discrimination are just social constructs, we lose any moral basis for the civil rights protests. They were predicated upon the principle of justice, which is not just the way a social group happens to interpret things in their culture.
Now, does this mean that interpretation has little or no part in our academic disciplines, or life in general? Far from it. In my next blog, I will give attention to ways in which our “situatedness” does affect us. Yet, I don’t think it follows from that that everything is interpretation.
¹ D. C. Phillips, “How, why, what, when, and where: Perspectives on constructivism in psychology and education,” Issues in Education 3:2 (1997), accessed via Academic Search Premier, §2.
²Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).