The racist-motivated violence in Charlottesville, VA, gave us an example of a moral principle that people today simply know is true: racism is wrong. It’s not that all people in the west always have known and acted as though it is wrong; but, that’s a different matter than the truth of the principle itself. Yet, when I was a grad student at USC in 2000, racism’s wrongness was as clear to my first-year students as murder’s wrongness. That knowledge explains why people today rightly condemn racist acts.
But, this also is a good occasion to probe a bit deeper and learn a further lesson from that knowledge. Today, many don’t like the idea that there are any moral principles that are objectively valid – ones that would be intrinsically right or wrong. Instead, down through western history, lots of different suggestions have been offered about what kind of thing a moral principle, like racism is wrong, could be.
For instance, some have thought that a moral principle is just a matter of motions. Hobbes thought that a motion toward something was good; a motion away was bad. But, that won’t work for racism’s wrongness, for the racists moved violently toward and harmed their victims. Others, like Hume, said that when we make a claim like racism is wrong, what we really are doing is expressing our feelings, such as: “Ugh! Racism!” But, that won’t do, either; feelings express and describe what is the case, but they do not prescribe what ought or ought not to be done.
Some, like utilitarians, think that what makes something right or wrong is just how the good or bad consequences add up. But, who gets to decide what counts as good or bad in the first place, and why? Plus, if the good results of The racist actions outweighed the bad ones, then racist actions would be justified, and even obligatory – which hardly is true!
Others have thought that morals can be explained as biological adaptations from evolutionary developments. But, if so, racism’s being wrong could have turned out otherwise – it’s possible we could have evolved differently so that racism actually would be right (!). But, that seems clearly impossible, for we know racism simply is wrong.
Some have suggested that racism’s being wrong would be relative to the choices of a culture (or an individual). Their accepting racism as wrong would make it wrong. But, of course, that means racism could turn out to be right. If so, there wouldn’t be a moral basis for condemning the actions in Charlottesville.
Or, some might say racism’s wrongness is just a matter of how we interpret behaviors according to our community’s framing story. But, if so, then suppose we find a culture that sees things differently, on its narrative. In the Charlottesville case, there would be no moral basis why the racists should listen to and heed the moral claims of others outside their community. Yet, we know that they should because racism simply is wrong, just due to what it is.
Still, maybe racism’s wrongness is just what we will to be true for all, like Kant said. He thought of moral as absolute commands. But, if morals are just due to how we conceive of them, why is he right, and not others?
Instead, I think the best explanation for what kind of thing racism’s wrongness includes its being real – that principle exists objectively. And, it is not a physical thing; if it were, we could exhaustively describe it physically. But, that wouldn’t touch its normative quality – why it is wrong. Finally, it seems to be one thing (the moral principle), yet there can be many instances of racist actions (all of which are wrong) at the same time. It seems, that is, to be a universal truth.
So, racism is wrong could just happen to be an immaterial moral truth that exist. But, why would it happen to exist? And, why would it have any connection to us? Instead, the best explanation seems to be that racism is wrong is grounded in God, for it violates God’s very nature and ours as image bearers.
R Scott Smith, PhD, is author of In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP, 2014).