Noblesse Oblige

Spiderman has often spoken about the moral principle that power brings responsibility.


Clint Hamada CC BY NC

 This moral principle is rarely taught in moral philosophy, but it is an important idea that was the basis for the principle of noblesse oblige.  That was the principle that the powerful people of society (the nobility) had an obligation to serve their people.  Luke Froeb’s Managerial Economics textbook seems to mock this idea, but it is in the Bible and it is one of the most important concepts for making a just society.  Luke 12:48 says: “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”

There are two main ways to define power: power to make other people do things and the power to do things on one’s own.  The latter kind of power does not necessarily bring responsibility in the rare case in which actions have no externalities on other people, but any power that affects others brings a noblesse oblige.

One of my favorite professors in college, Kesho Scott, said that racism is a form of power and when minorities don’t have power, they cannot be racist.  I wouldn’t go that far because every person has some amount of power over every other person that they relate to.  The IAT test shows that almost everyone has racist tendencies and everyone has a responsibility to counter it.  But she was correct in her moral sentiment because people with more power have more responsibility.  For example, both slaves and slave owners probably harbored some racist animosity, and the slaves would have much greater cause for it than the owners since the owners got a lot more benefit from the slaves than vice versa.  But the slaves’ racist attitudes weren’t the problem that caused racial injustice.  Only the owners’ racism was a problem.

Similarly, being part of a majority group creates power which also creates a responsibility to be more careful than people in a minority group.  For example, a minority group is likely to experience more racism than people in a majority even if everyone has the same likelihood of being racist, so the majority should put more effort into reducing their racism because a minority inherently has less power.

Suppose that there is a population of eleven people on an island and they are all equally racist.  There are ten whites who hate blacks and one black who hates whites.  If they all express their racism by hurling stones at the other race, the whites are each going to suffer 1% as much as the black.  If they each hurl ten stones, the black guy will get hit 100 times whereas the whites will only get hit once each on average.

Fortunately our society isn’t that racist, but we all know there are a few bad apples out there who are horribly racist.  Suppose that one percent of all people, black and white, are horribly racist and everyone else is colorblind.  If there are ten times more whites than blacks (which has been fairly close to the racial mix in the US for most of US history), then racist whites are going to have 100 times more impact upon every black person than the racist blacks will have upon white people.  Even though in this scenario the blacks and the whites have an equal tendency to be rabid racists, blacks will feel under constant siege from racism whereas whites will rarely see a problem.

This is why racism is harder for a minority.  Blacks would have to have much greater propensity for racism to make the hurt equal between blacks and whites.  For example, if 100% of black people were racist and only 1 percent of white people were racist, that would equal out the amount of harm that each person feels from the other race!  For example if there are 100 white people and only one is racist (only 1%) and there are ten black people who are all racist (100%), then each person in the community would feel the same amount of racism from the other race.  If they were expressing their racism by hurling stones indiscriminately at the other race (¡¿because they all look alike anyhow!) then each person would have an equal probability of getting hit by the other race even though only one white guy is hurling rocks and all the blacks are doing it.

This is why racism is a much bigger problem for minorities than for a majority even if only 1% of the population is racist.  And 1% of the population being racist seems like a minimal guess.  In 2008 when Obama was elected, Stephens-Davidowitz found that “one in every hundred Google searches that included the word ‘Obama’ also included ‘KKK’” or the n-word” and 1% dramatically understates the true percentage of racist people searching on Google because most racists undoubtedly used some other search term. Even if only 1% of cops are racist, because there are about ten times more white cops than black cops, blacks are going to feel under siege by racist cops whereas the whites are probably never going to experience a problem.

Suppose there is an island with 10 white guys and one black guy but they are all blind and every person throws rocks randomly at every other person without any racial discrimination.  Now, the black guy ‘s attacks will still appear to be racially motivated because he is only attacking whites whereas only 10% of the white attacks will appear to be racially motivated in attacking the black guy.  We should expect similar statistics in the US if we had a colorblind society.  Because about 12% of the population is black and 63% is white, there are over five times more whites than blacks.  Therefore, in a colorblind society, both races should be murdering five times more whites than blacks.  In reality, in 2014 the FBI data for the murders in which the race of the victims and perpetrator is known shows that whites killed 13 times more whites than blacks and blacks killed 5 times more blacks than whites.  So neither race is colorblind.  Whites prefer to murder white people and blacks prefer to murder black people.  If whites were colorblind and didn’t prefer to murder other whites, then they would be killing twice as many blacks as they have been.  Even more strikingly, blacks would need to kill 26 times more whites to be colorblind in their homicidal tendencies!

The homicide data confirms that white racism is a greater problem than black racism because whites have more power due to being a majority.  Plus whites have greater average economic and political power.  A democracy is effectively a dictatorship of the majority and whites have had a majority in both political parties for most of American history.  As a minority that must inevitably have more experiences of racism, blacks should be more resentful about racism even if whites are no more racist than blacks on average.  Although everyone has some power over other people, being part of a larger social group brings extra power over minority groups, ceteris paribus and with power comes responsibility.

Viktor Frankl wrote in 1946:

“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”

Posted in Discrimination
One comment on “Noblesse Oblige
  1. […] obviously have no responsibility to do something if you don’t have the power to do it. Thus power creates moral responsibility and the absence of power absolves […]

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