Influential Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, well-known for his work on philosophical questions related to ethics, the future, and technology (existential risk, artificial intelligence, simulation), posted an apology for a blatantly racist email he sent to a listserv 26 years ago.
You can read his apology, which includes the text of the original message, here.
In the original message, which appeared in a thread concerning offensiveness, Bostrom complains that the statement “Blacks are more stupid than whites” (about which he says in the message “I like that sentence and think it is true”) would be mistakenly interpreted as racist. He then, in the same message, conveys that the reason he thinks that it would be interpreted as racist is that it would be seen as “synonynous” with using a racial slur to declare one’s hate for black people.
To put things in an understated way, one thing to conclude about this is that in 1997, Nick Bostrom did not have a good understanding of racism. Nor of good communication norms.
What about the Nick Bostrom of today? In his apology, he writes:
I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago. It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologized for writing it at the time, within 24 hours; and I apologize again unreservedly today. I recoil when I read it and reject it utterly.
Philosophers especially are likely to read this as an unsatisfactory apology, as “it does not accurately represent my views” is a hedge when “it” refers to a composite statement. What Bostrom says following this, attempting to describe his current views on race and intelligence and eugenics, doesn’t help. People might conclude, again putting it in an understated way, that even the Nick Bostrom of 2023 does not have a good understading of racism or communication norms.
I don’t know Bostrom. I learned of his apology via someone forwarding me a thread on Twitter from Anders Sandberg on January 11th. But I didn’t post about it until now. Why? Part of the answer is that I thought there might be concerns about whether this should be news. Sure, that someone relatively well-known said something horrible a couple of decades ago is, as a matter of contemporary media practice, news. That fact is what prompted Bostrom to come clean about his old email, as is clear from the opening of his statement (“somebody has been digging through the archives of the Extropians listserv with a view towards finding embarrassing materials to disseminate about people”). But, unless it’s directly related to something else newsworthy now, one might ask, is this what we think news outlets should be talking about? On the one hand, it seems good that there are social forces that can influence people to confront their past mistakes. On the other hand, in the world of the internet, confronting one’s past mistakes in anything but an introspective manner puts one at risk of mass condemnation, the effects of which may be disproportionately severe.
I understand this concern. To be clear, the question is not some general one about whether people should be held accountable for bad things they’ve done in the distant past. Rather, it’s the more specific one of whether the news should direct pretty much everyone’s attention to the fact that someone said something terrible a long time ago. It would seem that it would have to have some connection to something else that is or should be getting attention now.
So what is that connection? I have seen some philosophers attempt to make connections between the views Bostrom expressed in his 1997 message and current positions he has taken or areas of philosophical work in which he has been involved. Some of this has struck me as on a par with conspiracy theorizing.
I think that the newsworthiness of this has little to do with the views of Nick Bostrom of 2023. Rather, it has to do, in part, with racism in general and specifically in philosophy. The philosophy world is still grappling with racism in various forms, with the racism of some philosophically important historical figures, with scholars taking “race science” seriously, with the underrepresentation of blacks in the discipline, and so on. That a philosopher who publicly expressed repulsively racist views, even a long time ago, was able to gain such a prominent position in philosophy tells us something about what philosophy has been like, and that seems worth our attention.
P.S. The story is now breaking into mainstream media, and is no longer confined to Twitter (on which, to remind people, very few of the total number of philosophers in the world are active); it has shown up in publications such as Vice, Daily Beast (picked up by Yahoo News), and The Times.
UPDATE (1/14/23): Comments are closed for the time being, as I don’t have the time at the moment to moderate them. They may reopen for a time later.