Why a Philosopher’s Racist Email from 26 Years Ago is News Today


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 ViceDaily 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.

 

COMMENTS POLICY

 

28 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Extremely vindicated
20 days ago

Adding this to the “WTF Nick Bostrom” folder, alongside CV embellishments like “Undergraduate performance set national record in Sweden.”Report

Kaila Draper
20 days ago

I am of the general opinion that people should worry more about their own moral flaws than those of others. The email is racist and morally repulsive, but everyone (except for a few saints, perhaps) has done things morally worse than sending that email. And I don’t think the email is newsworthy. I disagree with you when you say, “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.” The email was not really that public, and it really doesn’t tell me much at all about what philosophy has been like or what Bostrom is like today.Report

Dave
Dave
Reply to  Kaila Draper
20 days ago

We should be concerned about at least some moral flaws of anyone who is in a position of power over others, or influence over young minds.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Dave
20 days ago

Of course.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Dave
20 days ago

Unless those moral flaws are evident in whatever it is young minds are reading, then I don’t get what this concern amounts to. You have moral flaws Dave (don’t worry, I do too) but unless I’m having students read something you wrote that’s racist or sexist, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do or say about your flaws to the young minds I teach every term.

I have students read quite a lot of Bostrom’s work across a lot of different classes (simulation argument, transhuman stuff, superintelligence, etc) and none of these seem to me to contain anything too problematic. This doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says (indeed, the fact that there’s a lot to disagree with is why his work makes for such interesting class discussion).

So…what’s the upshot? Let they who are without sin cast the first retraction?

Weinberg frames this as if Bostrom’s work is infected with the racist content of an email from decades ago but I haven’t seen that in his work or as if, perhaps, other works culturally diverse work won’t have been written by people who at one time expressed views that racist or sexist or culturally insensitive. This is a question for you too Justin:

>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.

Maybe what we’re seeing is what’s true about the world in general (for better or for worse): one’s success in a specific field is often completely divorced from field-irrelevant character traits. Somoene can be an excellent x but a terrible y. Gandhi was racist and sexist, Pogge a sexual predator, MLK a homophobe, and Bostrom a racially insensitive jerk.

We should still read their work though. It’s good work. It represents a diverse set of ideas from diverse cultural backgrounds. The arguments often clear and full of interesting ideas to wrestle with. I’m genuinely confused at the conflation between a person’s character and the worth of their ideas.

Maybe you (or others) think that whether one has objectionable, even repulsive, character traits should lead us to abandon someone’s work (even if that work doesn’t contain evidence of those traits). I can imagine positions like that but it leaves me feeling like we’re letting meta-philosophical norms or values guide our philosophical practice in ways that aren’t good for the practice. I guess I also wish, when you made these sorts of posts Justin, that you were more straightforward with what you really think. Seriously. What do you think should be done? How should we treat Bostrom or his work? What’s your position? Should Bostrom lose his current position? Your conclusion seems to imply that his current “prominent position” is somehow undeserved.Report

Dave
Dave
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
20 days ago

There is a reason we have a category of behavioral tendencies called “moral flaws”. The detection of a particular moral flaw in another (or ourselves) provides the opportunity to change the behavior or, in more serious cases, withhold entitlement to certain social or institutional positions. I was responding to Kaila’s “general” suggestion that we worry more about our own flaws than those of others. Some academics may swear they’re only teaching evolutionary psychology but it is naive to suppose that their own biases never enter the picture. I only said that we should be concerned in *some* cases.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Dave
20 days ago

In that case I apologize for mixing you up in this Dave. I misread your comment.Report

Traveler
Traveler
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
20 days ago

I’m not sure things like this can be dismissed as “field-irrelevant character traits” when one of the field’s most salient aspects is teaching. Presumably the professor has had black students. If he was racist, as these emails clearly show, this has negatively impacted his ability to teach black students: He thought they were stupid. That isn’t a harm limited to those students. It’s a harm to our field, too.Report

Marc Bobro
Marc Bobro
Reply to  Kaila Draper
20 days ago

The issue is not really about doing morally better or worse things. (Though I doubt that only a few saints have not done worse things.) It is principally about moral character. And this email does appear to reveal something about character. He was an educated adult who posted something that was in his own words “idiotic and offensive” on an intellectual forum. Many of us who also posted on such listservs never crossed that line. I believe that people can substantially change, so I am not here to condemn the Bostrom of today. However, I do think that Bostrom’s apology should address how his character has changed since the 90s. Instead, he argues that this morally repugnant email has never represented him or his views. Report

Nicolas Fricia
Nicolas Fricia
Reply to  Kaila Draper
20 days ago

Kaila Draper, when you say, “people should worry more about their own moral flaws than those of others.” I fail to see why people cannot do both. Also, calling out the moral flaws of others can help other people see those flaws in themselves by shedding light on them.

I am confused why you mentioned, “everyone (except for a few saints, perhaps) has done things morally worse than sending that email.” How is this comment relevant? His statements should raise questions about how he conducts himself with students and colleagues who are people of color. This is a very pertinent concern for the integrity of philosophy’s public perception (which is not great at all already) and the institution he represents.

Tutors at Oxford are active in the admissions process which is concerning considering his biases can skew admissions for underrepresented groups, especially many prospective philosophy students from minority backgrounds.Report

JDF
JDF
Reply to  Nicolas Fricia
19 days ago

Bostrom is not a tutor at Oxford. He has no college affiliation, no teaching responsibilities, and no faculty responsibilities.Report

Nicolas Fricia
Nicolas Fricia
Reply to  JDF
19 days ago

These points are all currently true. However, I am not sure if this has been true for his entire career, nor do I know how recently he does not have many of these typical responsibilities of an academic. I know he was/is part of many important selection committees for different research institutions associated with his fields of expertise at Oxford.

One disconcerting point about his response to his old email was how agnostic he was to the research question about intelligence differences between people of different races and whether it is genetic or epigenetic. He flat-out said he was not interested in pursuing the question further, which seems like a missed opportunity to learn about how he was wrong if indeed he held those views. He does not have to publish or debate it, but at least demonstrate in the response he has not been duped by the bountiful of misinformation on the topic.Report

My jaw dropped
20 days ago

I am surprised to know that Justin Weinberg does not know that saying and believing that “Blacks are more stupid than whites” have nothing to do with how one well understands what racism is. You form a racist belief not because you do not have a full understanding of the subtle nature of racism, but because you are stupid, prejudiced, and entitled just as many other white guys–including Weinberg who tries hard to dilute the issue. I don’t think people should lose jobs or their work should be discredited just because they were so stupid and prejudiced some decades ago. However, if Nick Bostrom wants to come out clean, he should do at least the following things: 1) Explain why he believed that blacks are more stupid than whites 26 years ago. 2) Explain what made him abandon that false belief. Without doing these, we cannot really know whether he is holding the same false beliefs that initially made him believe that blacks are stupid, and he is now just not expressing his belief in the same way he did 26 years ago because now he understands racism better and because of that, he thinks that even though blacks are more stupid than whites, he should not put it that way. If that’s the case, he should be ousted, and his work should be discredited as it clearly shows his lack of intelligence.Report

Gphilosopher
20 days ago

I’m surely in the minority on this, but I find it hard to see just what’s so racist about the old email. I also sense, though, that this thread probably isn’t the place for a discussion about to what extent the email was racist. Such a discussion would involve no doubt involve lots of heat. I wanted to ask, then–and I do mean this as a good-faith question–does anyone know of a resource I could consult to better understand the view that the email is (blatantly, extremely) racist?Report

Traveler
Traveler
Reply to  Gphilosopher
20 days ago
My jaw dropped
Reply to  Gphilosopher
20 days ago

I find it hard to see just what statement would be racist for you. Are you saying that Bostrom was not a racist if Bostrom believed that blacks were inherently less intelligent not because he hated them but because he had some evidence? There has never been good evidence that supports the claim that blacks are more stupid than whites. The fact that he made such an unfounded assertion with such confidence shows that he just held a very deep prejudice against black people. It is also very hard to believe that the statement did not represent the view he held then. You don’t say that a scientifically baseless claim is true unless you have a very deep conviction in the truth about the claim, and you don’t have a very deep conviction that blacks are more stupid than whites unless you are quite extreme racist. I am really curious about what his views are about other races. Does he think that white people are the smartest? It is really sickening. Oxford should feel ashamed. All of you who defend him should feel ashamed, and all of his former colleagues who did not bring it up earlier should feel ashamed.Report

Louis Zapst
20 days ago

Well, Bostrom’s claim that his racist statement did not accurately represent his views when he made the statement is very difficult to believe, given the statement itself and its context, including the explicit insistence that he thinks it “true.” Furthermore, his apologetic (in the sense of “defensive”) speculative foray into the supposed social causes of “cognitive disparities” seems an ill-advised current doubling down with respect to his original racist statement. He really should be more sensitive to the nasty historical baggage his words and arguments carry, especially given that he works in the controversial area of human enhancement and eugenics where lots of critics will eagerly jump to conclusions about what proponents of these technologies really have in mind.Report

My jaw dropped
20 days ago

I do not enjoy writing my opinions on an Internet thread. However, I will just leave one last comment because I find it important to point out that what Justin Weinberg is doing in this article is very harmful. He is misleading the reader as if the issue is whether it isn’t too harsh to dig up someone’s past mistake and condemn the person. I would be happy to see Bostrom lose his position, but what I think is the real issue is whether he properly apologized for what he did in the past. He said horrible things, but it might be a good thing to forgive him. However, he should earn forgiveness. As far as I can tell from Weinberg’s quote, all Bostrom is doing is making an excuse. He is saying that what he did wrong was not to correctly phrase his view. That’s not an apology–well, he apologized for the use of slurs. However, that only highlights the fact that he hasn’t really apologized for having defended the view that blacks are more stupid than whites. We do not even know whether he has abandoned the view. He just wants to weather the storm, and Justin Weinberg is helping him by diverting the issue from his eugenic belief to the issue of whether Internet records should be used to condemn people. I don’t know whether they are personally close, but I am impressed by the camaraderie of two privileged white guys.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  My jaw dropped
19 days ago

Justin Weinberg wrote in the OP “I don’t know Bostrom,” so they can’t be “personally close.”Report

Rollo Burgess
20 days ago

This story is certainly news, ‘as a matter of contemporary media practice’, but so is every minute detail of the life of Kim kardashian, etc.

I think Bostrum’s foolish and nasty email may be relevant to people deciding whether to hire him for a job or whatever, but it’s ridiculous that there’s an article about this in yesterday’s Times (the London one) etc., and reflects an unpleasant inquisition-style culture.Report

Last edited 20 days ago by Rollo
Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
19 days ago

There are a few reasons to think this is news. The first is simply his stature in the field of philosophy. That in itself of course isn’t enough to make this news. I wouldn’t think it news if some top level mathematician had sent an email like this. But couple Bostrom’s stature with the fact that he is someone who is trying to influence public policy and shape political debate and has had at least some success at that. That does make this much more relevant. I don’t think that this proves that his work is “infected with racism” (whatever that even means) and no one has said it is. It does give one more reason to read Bostrom’s work with more suspicion, especially say the transhumanism stuff which already brushes up against old school eugenics. I also think it’s pretty revealing of some rather dumb assumptions a lot of philosophers have about intellectual virtue in a way that should get us to have a larger conversation. There’s this idea that the willingness to say the most edgy and offensive things is at the least the supreme intellectual virtue if not identical with love of truth itself, and that anyone who might take issue is on the same level as the jurors who convicted Socrates. Bostrom’s hardly alone in this (note all the fanfare and self-congratulation around the “Journal of Controversial Ideas”). But something has gone badly wrong when the edgelord is your epistemic ideal. Finally, this is news because it bears on whether we should teach Bostrom’s work. I’ve never taught much of it, but I used to teach his more popular piece on the simulation argument in intro. I doubt I will in the future. This isn’t because it’s “infected with racism” but for the simple reason that students often google stuff they read and having to talk about this in class is a massive distraction. And if I were a black student it would rub me the wrong way if I found out the prof assigned an article by a guy who’s said stuff like this. Space is limited on any class’s reading list. There are a lot of things I could replace Bostrom’s work with that doesn’t have this baggage. I see no good reason not to do that.Report

python
19 days ago

what he said was morally outrageous and cruel. It sounds like he doesn’t have much interaction with students–if that’s the case then I’m not sure why this should be news. Consider that most philosophers eat meat/dairy/eggs despite knowing how life for those animals is sheer horror and terror (or they simply turn a blind eye, not wanting to know how awful those lives are): should we release that information as news? Doing cruel things has to be as bad as saying cruel things, no? Please note: I’m not equating the two situations. Philosophers do not have those animals in their courses, nor do they gatekeep their careers. Please try to understand the point before dismissing it as outrageousReport

Former Racist
19 days ago

What steps should one take if they formerly held racist beliefs but are now committed to antiracism?

I don’t know Bostrom. I don’t know what views he held in 1997. I do not know what views he holds now. Reading this post, however, made me think about my own situation.

I am a white male who was raised in a small town in the South. My grandfather was a member of the KKK. My parents were (and are) racists. My high school had segregated proms, homecoming dances, and even senior superlatives (this was in the early 1990s and continued into the 2000s).

I wish I could say that I recognized the repugnance of these views and rejected them as a child, but I did not. I was a racist, and I continued holding racist views into adulthood. Eventually, I moved away from my small town and was called out on my racism by new friends. I set out to re-educate and better myself with regard to my racism.

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have participated in a lot of equity training and to teach on majority-minority campuses. This training and the wonderful people around me made me a better person. I am committed to antiracism.

I don’t think anyone will ever bother to dig up examples of my past racism (I don’t even know of anything out there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was). I don’t publish, just teach. I’m not trying to “get ahead” of anything.

My question is what should someone who is committed to antiracism do about a racist past? Apologies are almost always reactive instead of proactive. What proactive steps should former racists take to deal with their pasts?

I sincerely appreciate any advice.Report

Traveler
Traveler
Reply to  Former Racist
19 days ago

I will admit that however well-intentioned you may be in asking for resources, it is frustrating to read such questions in a forum by and for researchers. If you are committed to changing beliefs and behaviors you find repugnant, a good book is just a Google search away.Report

Former Racist
Reply to  Traveler
19 days ago

Hi Traveler,

My apologies for not being clearer. I’m not asking for resources to change beliefs or behaviors. You are definitely correct that those are readily available, and I have been very fortunate in that regard in terms of reading and training.

My question is about addressing one’s racist past proactively rather than reactively. Bostrom seemed to hold racist beliefs in the past and attempted to address them when they were brought to light. Reactive apologies seem to be universally met with skepticism. These apologies seem insufficient. My question is rather how does someone aware of his racist pass best address this past proactively rather than reactively.Report

Traveler
Traveler
Reply to  Former Racist
19 days ago

Perhaps this may be a good place for you to start: https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/resources?f%5B0%5D=audience%3A589

To find this page, I just typed “how does someone aware of his racist past best address this past proactively rather than reactively” into Google, and then explored this website for a few minutes. It was the first result from the search. I apologize if I come across as harsh, especially when you are well-meaning, but these back-and-forths about resources are especially exhausting for people who deal with racism every day, especially in scholary communities.

If you’re looking for others’ personal opinions about and experiences with un/successful reactive apologies, then that is different. Perhaps you could grab a coffee or two with people you trust and respect, and talk it through with them. Anonymous and semi-anonymous forums are much less helpful in this regard.

Best of luck.Report

Traveler
Traveler
Reply to  Former Racist
19 days ago

I tried to respond to you with a link to what you’re asking for, but I think the moderator was unhappy with some of the content of my initial reply (for reasons that I confess I do not understand, given many of the other comments on this post).

Regardless, I think this website is worth exploring for you and for others who may be reading this thread: https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/resources?f%5B0%5D=audience%3A589Report