This piece, by a professor of ethics at Seton Hall, considers the complexities involved in judging thinkers of the past:
"How should we evaluate controversial thinkers of the past? ... A good example of this is the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is esteemed for his fundamental contributions to moral theory, among other things. Indeed, his theory of the Categorical Imperative means that he is generally counted among the greatest moral philosophers of all times. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Kant also wrote things that would today be characterized as seriously immoral, as some academics have been noting for a while now. For instance, Kant wrote of his belief in the superiority of white Europeans over other races (‘Of the Different Human Races’, 1777). ... The question we have to answer in light of such statements is, What standards should we have for the thinkers of the past? There are some common answers that I think are too simple, and the reality is that working out how to respond is more difficult than some have realized. ... What I think we need to do at this point is make a distinction between a person and their ideas. Specifically, there is a difference between an individual, and the ideas or theories written or documented in their work. ... This point is important, because the fact that an individual said something morally wrong does not necessarily show that a theory of theirs is objectionable and should be rejected. We should allow that people who are utterly wrong about something can still be right about other matters. One way of illustrating this is to consider Albert Einstein. It was noted recently by Peter Dreier (‘Was Albert Einstein a Racist?’, The American Prospect, 2018) that Einstein at one point held some opinions unacceptable by today’s standards; in his personal writings he made inappropriate statements about certain groups. Although this is saddening coming from such an otherwise inspiring scientist and human being, I presume it does not disprove his General Theory of Relativity nor imply that we should no longer teach it. ... We can think of there being a range of possible cases to consider here. I would say that if someone says something objectionable in a way that’s not related to their theory – as in the Einstein case – then that statement doesn’t mean the theory itself is problematic. In this case, we can think of the statement as at worst being incidental or tangential to the theory. Next, if someone says something objectionable that is of marginal relevance to their theory, this is unfortunate, but this also should not confuse us over the truth or value of the broader theory. In a third case, if someone says something objectionable that is centrally related to their theory – think of someone defending eugenics, for example – then we have reason to believe the theory itself is problematic and should be rejected. This approach will permit us to dismiss views that are ‘centrally’ problematic, while still leaving room for discussion in other kinds of cases. ... Our present difficulty exists because the past is comprised of individuals who are flawed, like all humans, and how people respond to their historical circumstances can be complicated. In reflecting on historical thinkers like Kant, we need to engage with that complexity, including the complex relationship between the individual’s prejudices and the more timeless theories they have left for posterity."
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