What is it with progressives? They see that guns are used to harm people, so, instead of apprehending and punishing the criminals, they seek to prohibit gun ownership. This fails doubly, for (1) those disposed to use guns to harm people are not likely to be deterred by a law that tells them they can’t possess guns and (2) it deprives law-abiding citizens of guns. Now comes philosopher Philip Kitcher, who, seeing that the concept of race is used to harm people, seeks to eliminate it. This, too, will fail doubly, for (1) those disposed to use race to harm people are not likely to be deterred by moral argumentation and (2) it deprives nonracists, including nonracist scientists, of a useful tool.
Kitcher admits that “There are biological phenomena that can be connected with infraspecific distinctions biologists find it useful to make in nonhuman cases, and, more to the point, that are valuable for research on human historical geography” (Philip Kitcher, “Does ‘Race’ Have a Future?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 35 [fall 2007]: 293-317, at 317). In other words, the concept of race has legitimate uses. But, he quickly adds, “That does not clinch the case for making infraspecific divisions within our own species,” for “There is a genuine issue about whether the category of race is worth retaining.” Kitcher insists that he is not advocating censorship; he is making a moral argument. He is saying that certain research should not be done, not that there should be a public ban on certain types of research. His argument, presumably, is directed to scientists and to those who fund them.
Ideally, Kitcherian scientists would “insulate” their racial research from the public “so that potentially damaging consequences do not occur” (308). This would allow good uses of the concept but disallow bad uses. When I read this, I thought of Henry Sidgwick’s “Government House utilitarianism.” (The term is from Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985], 108.) Kitcher is advocating Government House science! Unfortunately, science journalists don’t play along. They translate the scientists’ word “clusters” as “races.” Kitcher thinks journalists who do this are “distort[ing] the transmission of knowledge” (308 n. 29). Really? Isn’t it the scientists who are doing the distorting? Aren’t journalists merely refusing to be their accomplices?
As if Government House science isn’t bad enough, Kitcher wants to use the concept of race for affirmative-action programs and race-based medicine. He asks: “Might sociological research not require a concept of race to identify the damage that has been done by various forms of racial discrimination? Perhaps repairing that damage may require policies of compensation, explicitly crafted in racial categories: think of programs of affirmative action” (311). But this, according to Kitcher, is just one side of the scale. The concept of race may do more harm than good, all things considered, in which case it should be jettisoned. Kitcher ends his essay on a bland note, by saying we need more research on “all the uses” (316) of the notion of race.
What to make of this essay? First, Kitcher grudgingly admits that the concept of race is biologically fecund (which is why it continues to be used by scientists), but he knows that scientists can’t insulate their research from the public, who will, with the assistance of “culpable” journalists, find out about it. Second, Kitcher wants to keep race alive for purposes he favors, such as affirmative-action programs, but to kill it for all other purposes. How is that possible? How can something be both alive and dead, existent and nonexistent? Even if Kitcher manages to persuade some people to forgo the use of the concept of race, there will be others who continue to use it—to good, bad, or indifferent effect. Even if use of the concept of race were banned, it would still be used. Banning guns doesn’t take guns out of the hands of criminals; it takes them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. Banning race wouldn’t take race out of the hands of racists; it would take it out of the hands of people of good will.