Agreeing to Misperceive: Remarks on Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract (Part 1)

From Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract:

“In the standard accounts of contractarianism, it is not usual to speak of there being an “epistemological” contract, but there is an epistemology associated with contractarianism, in the form of natural law.  This provides us with a moral compass, whether in the traditional version of Locke – the light of reason implanted in us by God so we can discern objective right and wrong – or in the revisionist version of Hobbes – the ability to assess the objectively optimal prudential course of action and what it requires of us for self-interested cooperation with others.  So through our natural faculties we come to know reality in both its factual and valuational aspects, the way things objectively are and what is objectively good or bad about them. I suggest we can think of this as an idealized consensus about cognitive norms, and in this respect, an agreement or “contract” of sorts.  There is an understanding about what counts as a correct, objective interpretation of the world, and for agreeing to this view, one is (“contractually”) granted full cognitive standing in the polity, the official epistemic community.

But for the Racial Contract, things are necessarily more complicated. The requirements of “objective” cognition, factual and moral, in a racial polity, are in a sense more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality.  So  here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world.  One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular…

… Part of what it means to be constructed as “white”… is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.” (1997:17-18, emphasis added)

This begins the start of Mills’s analysis of the specific model of epistemology of ignorance, and specifically White ignorance, he introduces. What struck me is the way in which participation in an epistemology of ignorance – and indeed, participation in Whiteness – is itself part of what contractors agree to as members of the polity. Participation in the contract demands participation in the epistemological commitments of the contract. Mills’s point here and throughout the book is that contracts have epistemological components: in contracting at all, participants to the contract enact an agreement not only to behave in certain ways to secure the existence of a stable political organization, but agree to think in certain ways too.

In ‘The Domination Contract’, Mills’s analysis of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract draws our attention to the distinction between contractarianism and contractualism emphasised by philosophers like T. M Scanlon and Stephen Darwall. Contractarianism refers to a Hobbesian model of contract, where the contract goes “all the way down” and where morality is derived “from prudence as a conventionalist set of rules for coordinating the constrained advancing of our interests in a social framework”. Contractualism refers to the Kantian model, “for which the contract is merely a regulative ideal, and morality inheres in the objective categorical imperative to respect others’ personhood.” (Pateman & Mills 2007:83)

The epistemological component of the racial and domination contracts constitutes either a form of epistemic contractarianism or epistemic contractualism. I am unclear at this stage which moniker is the more accurate. I’m also unclear the extent to which it matters. As a sketch, we might say that under the contractarianism of Hobbes, contractors construct morality so as to exclude the now-racialised Other, or at least to demote them to a lower moral standing within the polity. Under this model, constructed morality would be sufficiently sensitive to racialized self-interest to ensure that concern for racialized injustice and immorality is not something on which the contract’s conception of morality can properly gain purchase. Under Kantian contractualism, we instead appeal to objective principles of morality beyond the purview of the contract to determine how best to formulate the contract, particularly insofar as the contract ensures recognition of contractors as free and morally autonomous rational agents. Given the voluminous evidence of Kant’s own racist beliefs that all persons are morally equally except those racialised sub-persons he construes as beneath reason or self-determination, it is unclear that even Kant is contractualist on this basis. Nonetheless, Mills and others seem to believe that once Kant’s racist biases have been identified, a version of contractualism that understands the claim to morally autonomous personhood to apply to all persons rather than all persons racialized as white, is possible.

The foregoing no doubt warrants further exploration, but is, to some extent, beside the point for now.  What I’m interested in here are the following questions: (1) to what extent is epistemic contractarianism/contractualism necessary to run the argument that an epistemology of ignorance is in operation within a polity? Does the identification of an epistemology of ignorance only make sense under political models where there is an agreement to misperceive reality, or can epistemologies of ignorance be located in epistemological-political models that lack this mechanism of agreement? (2) if it turns out that agreement is a crucial component to epistemologies of ignorance, does this make epistemologies of ignorance an especial problem for liberal democratic political frameworks? In other words, is there something specific about liberalism such that among its logical outputs, an agreement to misintepret the world is one of them?

More later, in part 2!

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