James A. Moffett '29 Lectures in Ethics Recap: Robert Gooding-Williams, "Du Bois and 'The Souls of White Folk'"

Jan. 10, 2023

Written by Elvira Basevich, Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow

Can learning to appreciate beauty make one a better person? Can art dislodge white supremacist commitments? In the 2022 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, Robert Gooding-Williams, M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and Professor of Philosophy and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University, answers these difficult questions in the affirmative. Gooding-Williams draws on W.E.B. Du Bois’s neglected classic, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, published in 1920, to explain how white supremacy undermines group moral sensibility and how art might restore it.

Gooding-Williams develops an account of the moral psychology of white supremacy, illustrating the formation of unconscious biases. Enculturation into white supremacy creates vicious moral agents. Building on Du Bois’s innovative historiography of the Reconstruction era, Gooding-Williams underlines Du Bois’s moral realist commitments in writing about racial realities. A moral realist framework elicits that white historical agents act on reasons whose evaluative basis one can retrospectively reconstruct—and condemn. White supremacy is a destructive sociohistorical force that agents’ moral judgments and actions bring about; it is not a natural phenomenon to which they succumb, like an illness or a natural disaster. On the contrary, it highlights their systematic, group-based moral failure.

Art is ideally suited to tackle the unconscious formation of biases. To be sure, art is just one strategy among several that Du Bois proposes to dislodge white supremacy, including a defense of science and rational inquiry, as well as the fight for freedom via explicit political agitation, such as sit-ins, civil disobedience, and political propaganda. But art has a special role in the moral education of the vicious: “beauty calls the white supremacist to question their conception of what it is to live an ethical life,” argues Gooding-Williams. On his view, moral education is a kind of self-discovery. One canvasses one’s beliefs about the world and other people in the light of an ethical ideal one already holds. Following Du Bois, he anchors his critique of white moral psychology to an ethical ideal that many white Americans avow: the Christian ethical ideal. White Christians might eventually see how their ethical ideal contradicts their racism, revealing the hypocrisy of such “white souls.” Art will be of service here in that it can spur moral self-development by making vivid the contradiction between an ethical ideal one values and the beliefs one holds. Art can motivate an agent to reconcile their beliefs and ideals to forge a more coherent evaluative outlook.

Listen to the lecture here.