The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality after the History of Philosophy
By Naomi Zack; Rowman & Littlefield, 2011
In past decades, a lively debate about which texts to include in the "traditional canon of Western Culture" has arisen. One cause of the debates is the recognition that an uncomfortable majority of college-level courses addressing various aspects of Western civilization could be renamed "Dead White Guys" without requiring any modification of the course's content to bring it into perfect alignment with the new, sardonic title. Historically, the "Western canon" has consisted solely of the works of White men of Western European descent. As Charles Mills argues, this rather homogenous focus is often not the result of chance or accident, but rather is the outcome of a history of racist practices and assumptions that serve to actively exclude or denigrate the perspectives and ideas of those whom the dominant culture labels "sub-persons" (Mills 1999).
These circumstances raise a critical problem for many students who do not identify as White Europeans. Why should someone whose experiences, traditions, insights, and very personhood have been expunged from moral consideration take seriously the ideas and arguments of those who did the expunging? Failure to adequately address this question can lead to an apathetic attitude toward traditionally "canonical" texts, which are seen as, at best, irrelevant, not speaking to the experiences and values of large portions of the world's population. Moreover, as Charles Taylor powerfully argues, the failure of the academy to take seriously the experiences of diverse groups of people constitutes a real and serious harm to those peoples (Taylor 1994).
The history of philosophy and, more specifically, the history of philosophical ethics, are no exception to these problems. However, it is not simply ironic that the rigorous study of ethics is itself a source of harmful misrecognition; in the case of academic philosophy, the problems cut more deeply. The lack of interest in the traditional texts of the history of philosophy is bolstered by the fact that academic philosophy is often characterized, quite rightly, as overly abstract and technical and as lying too many steps removed from concrete matters of life, death, and justice. Arguments about the best way to formulate abstract universal principles of human dignity seem like inane nit-picking when compared to the very real violations of human dignity that are built into the daily grind.
In The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality After the History of Philosophy, Naomi Zack aims at filling in some of the lacunas in the traditional canon. She not only argues that the history of philosophical ethics is eminently useful for developing and promoting anti-racist projects, but also provides a model for how to re-think our deeply-rooted ethical traditions and scholarly practices to make racial justice a more prominent part of our understanding of classic works. By thinking about canonical texts in a new way, she works to revitalize them in the service of anti-racist practices and education, and so takes steps to correct for the effects of the long-standing effacement of the contributions of those peoples who have been overlooked by the academy.
Zack sets out on an ambitious and far-ranging project: to develop and defend a set of requirements for an ethics of race. This project is a prelude to the development of a mature ethics of race, not the construction of such a theory itself. In carrying it out, Zack adopts the role of a surveyor or cartographer, laying out the terrain, pointing to pitfalls along well-worn paths as well as good locations for productive trailblazing.
To this end, The Ethics and Mores of Race provides a broad overview of the history of philosophical ethics in the Western European tradition. It begins with the invention of philosophical ethics by Plato and Aristotle and proceeds chronologically to contemporary theories of universal human rights. Each chapter focuses on specific historical milestones, canonical figures, and theories that represent some of the best thinking about ethics during that era.
For each figure and theory, Zack presents the same basic argument. First, she provides a detailed explanation of the basic position. Second, she argues that...