Turning the Metaphysics of Race upside down: Questions for Biological Race Realists

Posted on April 27, 2018 by

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Does race exist? This is the core question in the metaphysics of race debate. In this blog post, I raise some questions to challenge a prominent view on this debate, namely, biological race realism. These challenges reveal how biological race realism is still underdeveloped and susceptible to many criticisms. As we’ll see, we can turn the race debate upside down.

The metaphysics of the race debate has taken a particular direction in recent years (Spencer 2017). First, it includes mostly folk notions of race. The focus is on how lay persons characterize and use racial categories such as ‘Caucasian.’ Philosophers want to know whether the ordinary use of these categories refers to real groups. Second, the debate includes a certain understanding of ‘real.’ The focus is on biological realism: the idea that real groups are naturally grounded on shared biological properties. Hence, a biological realist might argue that the category ‘Caucasian’ refers to a real group, and is a matter of biology rather than (mere) social facts.

Biological racial realism is the thesis that at least some folk racial categories correspond to real biological groups (Hardimon 2017, Ludwig 2016, Spencer 2017). Defenses of biological racial realism are typically deflationary.  They claim that racial realism does not have much metaphysical, moral, or overall explanatory importance. Let me break down this claim. In contrast to debates about race in the 19th Century, to accept the existence of human races does not entail that humans differ in intelligence, moral capacities, or any other socially charged trait. It is not clear that humans have socially charged traits that substantially differ in the first place, and thus the reality of races does not necessarily support arguments for these substantial differences. Additionally, when we consider the biological and social differences that humans in fact have, racial divisions are also not very helpful. That is, human races do not track (or map) most human differences that natural scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers care about. So, the reality of races does not explain the existence of these differences. This point will be important later on when I raise questions against the biological race realism. However, first I have to mention another feature of this realist position.

Biological racial realism is typically pluralistic. A racial realist accepts that there is no one overall correct definition of the general category ‘race’ and thus no single correct way to divide humans into races. Biological race realists claim that different ways to group people into races are biologically grounded. For instance, pluralists see no problem in lay persons grouping Caucasians (or any other ordinary race) differently. Importantly, the category Caucasian has different but equally legitimate extensions depending on how we define the race category. This raises the following issue for biological race realism.

What distinguishes legitimate definitions of the race category from illegitimate ones? The worry is analogous to a widespread concern about species pluralism: if there are many legitimate species concepts, how should we distinguish good concepts from the bad ones? Both in the case of race and species, pluralism might run the risk of being overly permissible or an ‘anything goes’ sort of view. No pluralist wants an unprincipled pluralism, even those who defend a radical racial pluralism – the view that, among the many legitimate definitions of the race category, there is no dominant one (Spencer 2017). To avoid this risk, pluralists need a clear understanding of what makes certain definitions of race legitimate.

Pluralists might avoid the anything goes risk by arguing that legitimate definitions of race are based on certain types of shared biological properties. For example, appropriate definitions of the race category might define races as genetic clusters (one might use the K=5 test proposed by Rosenberg et al. 2002). Still, why is genetic cluster the relevant biological property to define race? Or, as Hardimon thinks, if genetic clusters are only evidence for common ancestry and geographical origin, why are ancestry and geographical origin relevant properties for defining the race category? (2017)

To answer these questions, biological race realists adopt a strategy commonly employed by pluralists: the appeal to epistemic considerations. Pluralists assume that certain types of properties (and thus definitions of the race category) are better than others because they better explain, yield generalizations, or accomplish certain epistemic goals (Ludwig 2015). However, the deflationary view of biological race realism raises difficulties for this strategy.

According to the deflationary view, the reality of races does not explain most biological or social differences among human beings. So, whatever the type of shared biological properties we use to define the race category, these properties are mostly inconsequential for our knowledge about how humans differ. As a consequence, it becomes hard to use epistemic considerations to distinguish between good and bad types of properties because even the good ones do not accomplish much anyway. Thus, it becomes hard to distinguish between the good and bad race definitions using solely for alleged epistemic gain.  Because of this, deflationary pluralists run a very high risk of becoming overly permissible and slipping into the ‘anything goes’ abyss. How does a deflationary pluralist avoid this risk?

Realists might respond that certain definitions of race accomplish a few things, while others accomplish no epistemic goal at all. For example, Hardimon defends a minimalist conception of race, according to which races are groups or individuals that share a common ancestor, originate from a distinctive geographic location, and share phenotypic characteristics (2017). This definition of race does provide explanations, such as how human phenotypes change and foster survival while settling into Europe and other geographical regions (2017, 81). Given the potential explanatory usefulness of the racial category, its definition in terms of ancestry, geographical, and phenotypic properties might be considered superior to others. Hence, adequate definitions of the race category are not only grounded in shared biological properties, but they also have a few epistemic values (Spencer 2003, Hardimon 2017). Here, however, more challenging questions begin to arise.

The first group of questions concerns what the realist epistemic values are and how they ground the reality of racial divisions. For instance, to be real, do racial divisions need to allow inductive generalizations? What sorts of things do definitions of race have to explain or accomplish to give rise to ‘real groups?’ Is the pluralism about race definitions a consequence of the pluralism of epistemic values? These questions do not necessarily pose huge problems for the biological race realism, but they highlight a gap in reasoning with features that have not been properly addressed so far. This is a consequence of biological race realists concerning themselves with the “correct” definitions of race, while avoiding how matters of choice among different definitions relates to pluralism and deflationary commitments. Leaving these issues aside, it is time to point out a second group of questions, which further challenges biological race realism. I argue that they turn the metaphysics of race upside down.

These questions concern the value-ladenness of claims about the reality of race (Ludwig 2015). For example, as defined in terms of ancestry, geographical location and phenotype, the race category produces divisions that are considered real because they support explanations about migration patterns and human adaptations to new environments. For instance, isn’t the interest in migration patterns dependent on the fact that humans care about land property, claims about ownership, or other non-epistemic values? In fact, it seems that disputes between states and indigenous populations about who rightly owns a particular area of land or remains often motivate studies of migration patterns. In this case, it seems that non-epistemic values influence epistemic ones. In other words, socio-political concerns inform explanatory outcomes. The consequence is that non-epistemic values influence the definitions of race and thus claims about the reality of races. Biological race realists simply do not address these possibilities by simply assuming that non-epistemic values do not influence the metaphysical discussion of race reality. In fact, they will probably not be moved by the concern stated here. Why?

One might respond that non-epistemic values and interests only serve as motivations for epistemic values like explanatory power, and thus do not influence the reality of races in any informative and non-trivial way. In other words, there is no direct influence. This is a controversial claim that deserves scrutiny. Non-epistemic values might directly influence the acceptance of a particular race definition. For example, Ludwig notices how biological definitions of race contribute to a public misunderstanding of human diversity (2015). Research that includes analysis of racialized and non-racialized textbooks shows that students tend to mistakenly associate many complex traits with genetic causes when exposed to some biological definitions of the race category. In this case, the creation of misunderstandings and their possible social consequences is a value that might lead us the refuse certain biological definitions of race. At this point, it is not clear whether biological race realists would accept that non-epistemic values might have this sort of influence on the acceptance of definitions of the race category. Would they accept it? If not, why? Well, as pluralists and deflationists, biological race realists certainly accept that at the very least epistemic values guide choices concerning racial definitions. Why shouldn’t they accept the influence of non-epistemic values on the as well?

If we accept that non-epistemic values directly influence racial definition choice, then the reality of race depends directly on non-epistemic values. This consequence turns the metaphysics of race upside down. As conducted by biological race realists, such as Hardimon (2017) and Spencer (2017), launching the metaphysics of race debate is a strict separation between [1] the metaphysics of race from [2] values and normative issues involving race, especially socio-political values and interests. The motivation for the distinction is simple and might prima facie seem reasonable: whether races are real seems independent from and prior to normative issues, such as whether racial definitions and classifications are morally and politically bad or harmful. In particular, the reality of races is independent of moral and socio-political contexts and purposes. Because biological race realists make that distinction, they push the metaphysics of race debate without considering how normative issues affect their claims (Hardimon 2017, Spencer 2017). The problem is this: if we accept that non-epistemic values might play a role in deciding what counts as a real racial division, then the metaphysical question becomes dependent on non-epistemic values and consequently on normative questions. If norms and values underlie our judgments about which definitions of the racial category are adequate (i.e., the ones that produce real racial divisions), the reality of race is not completely independent from normative judgments. As a result, to assume that the metaphysics of race can be settled without taking normative issues and values into account is naïve. Realists of such a naïve variety think that first we should ask whether race exists and then tackle the normative questions. Rather, one must turn this upside down (or perhaps better put, the proper side up): depending on the contexts and purposes at hand, the metaphysical reality of race is secondary to the normative questions that guide are choices of race definitions. The fact that certain definitions of race promote public misunderstandings with potentially harmful social consequences might be a good reason to claim that those definitions do not capture real racial divisions. At this point, the reality of race becomes secondary to how and why we should use the race category.