Critical Race Theory Debates and Authoritarian Morality

I am not referring to critical race theory as a methodology for scholars in legal and social research wherein they focus on uncovering and diagnosing remedies for practices which, perhaps very subtly, have an adverse impact on certain populations; especially African-Americans. In September of 2021 I am writing about thoughts and sentiments I detect in news reports about debates on teaching critical race theory in public schools. I detect no serious interest in teaching a scholarly methodology. I sense as little connection between the current debates and critical race theory as there was between the “spirit of Vatican II’’ and the documents of Vatican II back in the 1970s.

I detect debate about adding a moral dimension to the teaching of certain subjects such as history and civics. Should children K-12 be instructed that white people ought to suffer some harm for harms inflicted on African-Americans? The debates are not primarily about teaching children of the harms inflicted on African-Americans, even if voices frequently claim that they only want the facts to be presented. The concern is over learning and understanding these frequently horrifying facts with a special moral sensitivity and aspiration. The special sensitivity is a sense that someone now bears guilt for these injustices and there is an aspiration is that we be purified of the guilt for these injustices. The purging will require discomfort if not clear cut physical damage.

My writing on this topic fits in with my project of showing that moral thought is thought of rules given by divine command. For I detect in these debates presuppositions of significant themes of what I have called “authoritarian morality.” It is authoritarian morality which I, then, model as divine command morality. But of even more importance for my own efforts to make a final contribution to philosophical thought which might then trickle down to improve everyday moral thinking, these confused debates convince me of the need to write a booklet on the notion of moral harm which I have been articulating in my series of blog posts. The confusion of these debates comes from confusion about guilt, punishment and moral harm .

The major theme presupposed is the legitimacy of retributive punishment in its primitive form. . Presupposing retributive punishment is assuming that violation of a moral law entails an expungable moral rule that some harm ought to be for violation of the moral law. The expungable moral rule is expunged when the morally required harm occurs. I have called the morally required harm “moral harm.” The fundamental or primitive form of retributive punishment does not specify the type or degree of the harm which ought to occur, the person or persons who are to suffer the harm nor who is to inflict the harm. Human beings, with development of theories of retributive justice, determine the moral rules for moral harm. That development is long and hard. See The Virtue of Seeking Retribution.

I am delighted to find acceptance of retributive punishment so widely used in a public debate. For that provides some evidence for my thesis that common moral thought is thought of an authoritative morality. Unfortunately, the satisfaction to my philosopher self is offset by my dissatisfaction as a citizen. People are implicitly using concepts such as collective guilt, obligatory harm, and substitutionary atonement without realizing they are doing so. Such unthinking use might do significant damage. For instance, there might be a need to induce much more consciousness of race if white children are to develop a sense of being guilty for harms inflicted by Whites on Blacks in 1920.

Thoughtful use of these concepts of primitive retributive punishment might alleviate the harms of thoughtlessly using them. I do not deny that thoughtless use of the authoritative moral theory that I recommend can afflict psychological and social damage. That fear gives urgency to my project of articulating clearly this moral theory because I believe it is implicitly the dominant, but confused, way of moral thinking.