Social Justice Orthodoxy
Many on the Left speak as though and seem to believe that social justice and truth cannot conflict, as if views that conflict with social justice orthodoxy are, by definition, false or unreasonable. But before dismissing an argument or claim as unreasonable (or unwarranted), shouldn’t one first address its reasons and evidence? Shouldn’t a legitimate search for truth focus more on the truth claims and their supporting arguments, reasons, and evidence than on the identity of the claimant or whether or not the claim serves one’s self- or group-interests?
The failure of many scholars and activists on the Left to see a need to do so contributes to the crisis of credibility facing our country’s liberal, democratic institutions. Constructive engagement with reasonable challenges to progressive views would likely help to move the divided country along a more productive path to reasonable pluralism.
Race and gender are two of the most difficult subjects to discuss in a rational, open manner in today’s polarized political climate. Such conversations are particularly difficult to have on college campuses, where public discourse about the intersections of identity and justice is dominated by aggressive activists on the far-Left. Legitimate ethical and political concerns have led to illegitimate efforts to suppress dissent from orthodox perspectives on these subjects.
Group divisions are as old as humanity, but before the European Age of Exploration began in the latter part of the fifteenth century, little thought was given to the concept of race. Group loyalties tended to be based upon kinship, tribe, or nation. Attitudes about human differences were typically based on culture or nationality rather than skin color or other physical features (references for this section).
Religious and Folk Theories
Religious traditions have historically offered some weighty insights into questions about why people looked different, spoke different languages, and behaved in different ways. Although there is much in the Christian Bible that directs followers to treat outsiders with kindness, there is also a great deal of scripture that portrays non-Christians as heathen, barbaric, and evil. Thus, the conception of otherness reflected in European folk theories of race has strong (but certainly not exclusive) roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions—the religious traditions most recently influential within western societies. Nevertheless, the sense of otherness presented in the Judeo-Christian scriptures was not usually based on physical difference or what we have referred to as race.
The Bible has little to say directly about race, but the Old Testament addresses differences among human groups in a rather indirect manner—for example, through its generally accepting treatment of slavery, the “curse of Ham,” and the story of the Tower of Babel. Notably, the Bible’s uncritical treatment of slavery served as evidence of divine sanction for some Southern plantation owners who sought to justify the peculiar institution on religious grounds.
The biblical “curse of Ham” (also referred to as “the Curse of Canaan,” in reference to Ham’s son) has been cited as a source of validation for the oppression of black people, particularly during the decades surrounding the American Civil War when it was perhaps the most commonly referenced justification for slavery. It is based on the idea that Noah was angry with Ham, one of his three sons, for looking upon him in his drunken slumber and making fun of him.
As punishment, Noah allegedly cursed Ham’s progeny (Africans) to become servants to the descendants of his brothers Shem (Semitic peoples) and Japhet (Europeans) (Genesis 9:25-7). And as for the roots of human variation and the origins of the world’s many nations and cultures, the account of the Tower of Babel offered a convincing explanation to many 17th and 18th century scholars.
The argument for slavery as ordained by God for the mutual benefit of slave and master was commonplace in the Antebellum South. Abolitionists, however, challenged this claim long before the American Civil War. Most abolitionists used an altogether different interpretation of scripture to condemn the institution of slavery. These individuals argued that all humans were God’s children and that slavery was in opposition to his divine will. But the abolitionists’ views about race were not strictly egalitarian. In fact, many abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took the view that while slavery was immoral, blacks and whites were by no means equal.
The Age of Exploration and the resulting globalism brought people who seemed very different to one another together for the first time. Peoples from the far reaches of the world began to encounter one another with greater regularity, and travelers brought tales of other groups back home to share with their fellows. These descriptions served as the basis for many folk theories of race that would inform later understandings of human difference.
At this point we turn to the academic theories of race: those based on the systematic works of mainstream scientists and philosophers of post-Renaissance western societies. The first influential academic theories of race—most of which were based on a conception of white supremacy—were expressed by European philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment. It was during this time that a philosophical vocabulary was developed that used terms such as “race,” “civilization,” “savage,” “nature,” “progress,” and so on.
Among the most widely read Enlightenment philosophers who opined on matters of race were John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Locke did not write much specifically about race but was well aware of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and wrote in defense of the institution of slavery. Hume, on the other hand, was more direct when addressing race.
For instance, in an essay entitled “Of National Character,” Hume expressed the view that “negroes [were] naturally inferior to whites.” Though Kant’s views on race shifted in a more moderate direction later in his life, he initially supported Hume’s belief in black inferiority, and in “On the Different Human Races,” Kant clearly supported an essentialist and hierarchical view of race.
The earliest and most influential racial hierarchies were developed by Carolus Linnaeus and Johann Blumenbach. Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, developed a racial taxonomy—likely the first in history—to explain the differences he perceived between various groups of human beings. His racial taxonomy, which divided humans into four races: Americanus (Native Americans), Europaeus (Whites), Asiaticus (Asians), and Afer (Blacks), would serve as the model for later hierarchies of race.
The most influential of these hierarchies was created by a German physiologist named Johann Blumenbach. In his racial classification system, Blumenbach developed new terms and descriptions for the various sub-groups of the human species and expanded the list from four to five categories: Caucasians (Whites), Mongolians (Asians), Ethiopians (Blacks), Americans (Native Americans), and Malays (Pacific Islanders).
In American physician Samuel George Morton’s ethnography, Crania Americana, he claimed that races not only represented distinct species, but that they could be ranked in a hierarchy according to cranial capacity and shape, which were in turn highly correlated with intelligence. Scottish surgeon Robert Knox added, in his Races of Man, that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites due to compromised brain texture and a lack of nerve endings. He too noted differences in the shapes of the skulls of each race, portraying the skulls of African people to be more similar to those of orangutans than to those of European people.
Expressed in English Reverend Thomas Malthus’s essay on the Principles of Population, and shared by other European thinkers of his day, was a great concern about the health of the human race. Malthus hypothesized that populations tended to grow until they were naturally checked by famine or disease. This natural correction encouraged virtuous behavior (e.g., hard work, law-abidingness, reproductive responsibility) in human beings and explained why the human race seemed to be experiencing moral and cultural progress, as the less virtuous died off to make room for their betters.
Unfortunately, Malthus argued, altruistic interventions removed these natural checks and enabled the less virtuous poor to survive and outbreed the more virtuous middle and upper classes. This would have disastrous consequences for the human race, leading to moral stagnation at best and degeneration at worst. The idea of population pressure was deeply influential on the thinking of English naturalist Charles Darwin, who acknowledged that his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection—first presented in his opus, On the Origin of Species--was heavily inspired by Malthus.
Darwin’s ideas greatly facilitated the shift from religious and folk theories of human origins to natural, biological explanations (at least among the intellectual classes of Europe and America). In The Descent of Man, Darwin applied his theory of evolution specifically to humans. He argued that while all human races were of the same species, natural selection had acted on each geographically isolated group to produce variation in physiological traits.
According to Darwin, the result of this variation led to the development of a racial hierarchy in which whites resided at the top and blacks at the bottom. Pioneering American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan elaborated on the ranking concept, differentiating human societies by their various levels of evolutionary development: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Frederic Farrar, an Anglican cleric, added ‘semi-civilized’ to the spectrum to further differentiate among groups. This language would predominate in turn of the nineteenth-twentieth century texts.
Quintessential social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, perhaps the most read philosopher of his day, wed the idea of human evolution to social policy. In his Principles of Biology, Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” to explain how nature acted on organisms to guide progress. He went on to argue that if the ‘unfit’ classes and races of humanity were simply left alone (no state hand-outs, no imperialism, no slavery, etc.), then they would be unable to compete in the modern economy and would eventually disappear from the face of the Earth.
Racial Hierarchies and Levels of Civilization
Some geographers and anthropologists writing at the beginning of the twentieth century believed that any group of people could become “civilized,” regardless of race. Maury wrote, “the people of any race may be savage or barbarous… civilized or enlightened… [T]hese conditions are due to the manner of living and not to the race.” These authors often presented each race as holding a specific place in the hierarchy of civilization. Illustrations often gave the unmistakable impression that races were culturally homogenous and that some were limited to the lower rungs of the developmental ladder.
Race was generally portrayed in one or more of the following ways: 1) populations differing in skin color and physical features (height, skull dimensions, shape of nose, texture of hair, thickness of lips, etc.), 2) populations of shared ancestry, 3) populations with shared cultural traits (religion, dress, government, etc.), and 4) populations from a shared geographical region.
Prior to the 1960s, many scholars in the West subscribed to Blumenbach’s five-fold system of classification (Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, American Indian, and Ethiopian), with some making slight modifications. If they did not specifically label the races by name, they did so by color (white, yellow, brown, red or copper-colored, and black).
Social Justice Orthodoxy on Race
As those hierarchical conceptualizations of race undoubtedly served to justify atrocities and influenced the white supremacist views of Nazi and Fascist regimes, the pendulum would soon swing toward another, equally unwarranted, dogmatic, and radical understanding of human diversity.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, Franz Boas, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, and other Marxist scholars drew inspiration from Soviet communists in their reconceptualization of human difference. These far-Left activist-scholars helped to establish a mainstream academic consensus that the identity category of race is a ‘social construct’ with no significant biological basis. This consensus has morphed into a firmly entrenched orthodoxy in the academy and other spheres of power dominated by the Left.
The impassioned identity politics and volatile political climate of the past few years compelled leading population geneticist David Reich to weigh in on this subject, providing an updated expert assessment on the status of race as a scientific category. In “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of Race,” an op-ed in The New York Times, Reich wrote:
"It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true… that human populations 'are remarkably similar to each other' from a genetic point of view… But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy... that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial… that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations.
The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews… I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism.
But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among 'races.' …Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years.
With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real… Recent genetic studies have demonstrated differences across populations not just in the genetic determinants of simple traits such as skin color, but also in more complex traits like bodily dimensions and susceptibility to diseases."
While these claims are fair targets for critical scrutiny, Reich is among the most well-informed experts in the world on the question of whether genes have a significant influence on human behavior. However, dismissing his claims without examining their warrants, purely on the basis of identitarian, ethical, or political concerns would be a serious mistake. He continues with several points that illustrate why this is the case and demonstrate the need to clearly distinguish among a claim’s epistemological warrants, the identity of the claimant, and the claim’s potential moral/political implications:
"I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims…
This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand… And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too…
You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. The ancestors of East Asians, Europeans, West Africans and Australians were, until recently, almost completely isolated from one another for 40,000 years or longer, which is more than sufficient time for the forces of evolution to work…
To understand why it is so dangerous for geneticists and anthropologists to simply repeat the old consensus about human population differences, consider what kinds of voices are filling the void that our silence is creating… This is why knowledgeable scientists must speak out. If we abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing differences among populations, we risk losing the trust of the public and we actively contribute to the distrust of expertise that is now so prevalent. We leave a vacuum that gets filled by pseudoscience, an outcome that is far worse than anything we could achieve by talking openly…
So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences."
Sex and Gender
Radical gender theorists aggressively promote the idea that sex, too, is a purely social construct, suggesting a similar idea that there are no meaningful biological differences between men and women. The claims that essentialist notions of sex, like race, are epistemologically and ethically untenable (each requiring separate arguments) are well-warranted.
Similarly, the empirical claim that some small proportion of the human population consists of individuals who do not fit neatly into either binary category of male or female, and others who are biologically categorized as one sex but self-identify with the gender norms associated with the other is also well-warranted.
The normative ethical/political claim that citizens of an open, democratic society ought to respect the basic equality and individual rights of all their fellow citizens is also well-warranted. But none of these well-warranted claims forecloses the possibility that (a) there might be significant statistical differences, on average, between biological males and females on socially-relevant traits or (b) that, if such differences exist, genes may contribute to them.
Importantly, moral/political claims about how we ought to treat people who do not fit neatly into the mainstream gender norms are, in important ways, different from empirical claims about the nature of chemical/physical reality and its possible influence on individual and average group differences on phenotypic traits that our society deems important.
Claims about how society ought to be structured and how it ought to respond to such potential differences are also of a different type and, likewise, require normative, reasoned justification. Pathologizing and dismissing dissenters from orthodox positions on these questions is counterproductive. Similarly, conflating empirical claims and justifications with ethical/political claims and justifications can obfuscate these important distinctions and undermine the credibility of purported experts who make them and institutions that promote them.
Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, Larry Cahill is one of the world's leading experts on the neuroscience of sex differences. He discusses how social justice orthodoxy is undermining good science in his field: