It’s nearly unanimous. Everyone in the civilized world knows that racism is bad. But nobody has a clear account of why.
Is racism bad per se? Or is it bad because it has bad consequences? My impression is that most people, if pressed for an explanation, would tell a story about how racism led to all sorts of historical atrocities. They are being consequentialists; they think that racism is bad because it leads to bad outcomes for lots of people.
But hold on. My other impression is that most people react viscerally to even the mildest expression of racism. People react negatively to racism even when the potential for harm is small to nonexistent. The owner of a basketball team, who has clearly overcome his internal feelings of racism enough to shell out million-dollar salaries for his players, is reviled by the entire world for making (admittedly venomous) racist comments. So I suspect that people are really deontologists about racism. Racism is a *sin*, not a *harm*. If we worried primarily about tangible harm, we would shrug off these instances of racism and react more viscerally to racists who are actually hurting people.
In a sense, it’s good that we internalize consequentialist ethics into moral rules. If racism is generally pretty harmful, we shouldn’t have to pause to consider each instance of racism individually. Rules save us time and mental effort. “Racism leads to bad outcomes” becomes “Racism is bad” becomes “Racism is evil” becomes “Don’t utter speech that can be misconstrued as racist” becomes “Don’t think racist thoughts” becomes “Don’t even entertain racist ideas, even for the sake of argument.”
We can definitely take this too far, and it becomes worthwhile to open these moral rules up to moral inquiry. It may be worth confronting someone who is racist and needs to be convinced he shouldn’t be. “It’s just wrong!” doesn’t really get you very far in this kind of argument. You have to articulate *why* something is wrong. Otherwise the other person is on perfectly solid ground saying, “No it isn’t!” and continuing on with his life. Also, we risk *overpenalizing* someone for a trivial infraction. A flippant, insensitive comment may deserve a minor slap on the wrist or a scornful look by one’s colleagues, but some individual have brought the full vengeance of the internet upon themselves for some pretty mild indiscretions. In my opinion, this has been taken *way* too far. We’d see a healthier and freer exchange of ideas if we eased up on the throttle a little, as some concepts are bound to be *mis*labeled as racist when they aren’t. Finally, if we take the strict deontologist’s approach to racism, we might fail to analogize to *other things* that are harmful for exactly the same reason that racism is harmful. If it’s a bad idea to mistreat someone because of their race, maybe it’s a bad idea to mistreat someone because of their national origin or religion, too. I actually think this insight is very important and is missing in discussions of the treatment of immigrants.
If we are too strict about treating something as a sin, when it really ought to be treated as a harm, we risk shutting off this kind of healthy moral inquiry. And without that, you slow or stop the discovery of important moral truths. Without this kind of discovery, your society may fail to realize (for example) that things like racism, rape, and child abuse are wrong in the first place. We understand these behaviors are wrong *not* because of some kind of universal human instinct; we understand them as wrong because enlightenment thinkers engaged in the kind of moral inquiry I’m describing above. It took a great deal of courage, work, and patience to convince a society to rethink the moral status of these behaviors and attitudes. Rape was thought of as a tort against the husband or unmarried woman’s father, not as an offense against the girl. And child abuse used to be called “discipline,” by the standards of most parents anyway. Surely it’s for the best that some forward-thinking individuals saw this state of affairs and said, “Let’s take a closer look at our moral assumptions.”