The Ethics Of Harvard’s “Racist E-mail” Scandal

The whole sad, sordid story of a Harvard Law student’s racially provocative e-mail that is now circling the web like the deadly virus in The Stand can be read over at Above the Law. The simple facts are these: At a dinner discussion at Harvard Law School, a law student expressed openness to the possibility of future research showing that blacks were, as a group, genetically inferior to whites in intellectual ability. After dinner, she made a fateful decision to elaborate on her views in an e-mail to two “friends” who had been involved in the discussion.

The e-mail said, in part…

“…I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair…”
One “friend” was so outraged that she decided to make sure the e-mail became public, and thus shared it with  Harvard’s Black Law Students Association.  (Why she did this is  a matter of some controversy: some sources report that it was provoked by an unrelated personal dispute between the students. No matter. It is just as rotten a thing to do regardless of  the reason.) A member of HBLSA then used a discussion mailing list to start it on its viral journey, and the opinionated…and trusting… law student is now the object of abuse and denigration far and wide. The Dean of the law school, Martha Minow, mindful that she may be on President Obama’s short list to fill the soon-to-be-vacant Supreme Court seat, even felt obliged to weigh in to say that the sentiments in the private e-mail were “unfortunate” and “false.” The third year student, whose future clerkship is being questioned by some who want her to lose it, has issued a mournful apology.

So let us tally up the ethics here:

Was it unethical for the student to  discuss possible genetic differences affecting intelligence among the races?

No. This is a school. This was at dinner. The whole point of universities is that anyone should be able to discuss anything.

Was the e-mail sent by the student unethical?

Again no. She sent it to people she trusted, who she did not think would be hurt or offended by its content, because they were also present at the dinner. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with this.

As Above the Law (courageously) noted, the e-mail wasn’t even racist. She was continuing a discussion. The e-mail didn’t say she believed blacks were inferior. She was expressing the idea that if other characteristics could be more or less common in genetic pools, it seemed possible to her that this could also include intellectual abilities. This is far from a radical concept, just an unpopular one. The previous President of Harvard stepped on a similar landmine when he opined that genetic differences between the genders might explain the lack of diversity in certain fields. He was driven from his job for being “sexist,” when in fact he was only raising a politically incorrect but completely logical possibility. Universities are supposed to be the places to have healthy debates about unfashionable ideas, not rigid ideological conditioning camps where ideas that vary from accepted norms are punished and snuffed out.

Was it wrong for a recipient of the e-mail to send it to BLSA?

Of course it was. In fact, it was a despicable, mean, thoroughly irresponsible and unfair thing to do. Circulating the e-mail was a conscious effort to hurt a fellow student for holding an opinion that this individual didn’t like, but apparently didn’t have the wit or courage to attack the old-fashioned way…with a rebuttal.

The ethical issue is the same with all examples of embarrassing e-mails (and sometimes voice mail messages) broadcast to the world in malicious efforts to embarrass and damage the reputation of a careless or impolitic writer. Sometimes it has been a graceless e-mail break-up note; sometimes a stupidly worded admission of dishonesty; sometimes a political opinion. But in all these situations self-righteous avengers decide to do to someone else what they would never want done to them: have strangers “meet” the writer and form negative opinions about him or her based on unguarded comments intended to be read by only a trusted few.

Was it unethical for any individual who received the e-mail second-hand to pass it on and increase a) its circulation and 2) the likely harm to the writer?

Yes! Do you know what the kind and considerate thing to do would be? The kind and considerate act would be to mitigate the harm of a careless message written by a stranger, rather than try to exacerbate it. As I wrote on The Ethics Scoreboard in 2005…

“Somehow a mistaken ethic has developed that holds that if an individual has been guilty of an indiscretion, a mistake or bad judgment, it is perfectly acceptable to maximize the damage from that error for one’s own amusement or sense of righteous retribution. Yet the Golden Rule obviously applies here: if you made a mistake and accidentally sent an improvident memo to a stranger, you would want that person to be merciful and delete it, rather than expose your insensitivities to the world. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation, is it? Just because a person is not a friend or acquaintance shouldn’t make him or her fair game to humiliate.

In addition to violating the ethical principle of reciprocity, the act of circulating embarrassing communications goes against another ethical obligation, the duty to mitigate harm caused by others. And it doesn’t just go against the principle, it reverses it. If you saw a small fire burning in a house you were visiting, your duty would be to put it out or alert someone who could. It would be violating the obligation to mitigate harm if you ignored the fire. But this is the equivalent of throwing kindling on it.”

Was it foolish for the student to send the e-mail?

Obviously. It was foolish for her to trust fellow students who were capable of setting out to destroy her for a controversial opinion. It was foolish for her to make herself so vulnerable. It shouldn’t have been foolish, however. If people could be counted on to be fair and ethical, she would have been safe. Sadly, we know from repeated incidents of this sort that many people feel that the offense of holding differing views justifies retribution.

Now she knows too.


Addendum: Eugene Volokh shares this on his blog…

“Here’s a message that I got in response to the earlier posts on the Harvard e-mail controversy. I do not know the author personally, but I thought it was worth passing along; I certainly saw no cues suggesting that it was insincere or otherwise not credible:

I wish I were a tenured professor, and was able to say reasonable and true things freely, like the idea that things that haven’t been proven yet remain unproven.

Instead, I’m an incoming student at Harvard Law next year. And even though I’m neither interested in nor well-informed about the IQ-race correlation debate, I am scared to even mention my opinion on the subject to my friends or roommates, or ask them about it. I have no idea what I would say if someone asked me if I could categorically rule out the possibility that there was a correlation between race and IQ… but the funny thing is, I have no idea what anyone would say. The reasonable thing to say has been tabooed.

And I wish that I could write an op-ed or something about it, except I realize that if this is the reaction to stating these kinds of ideas in a forwarded private e-mail, imagine what people would say about a published argument…

And I wish I could send this email to Dean Minow instead of you, except that I know now that she doesn’t seem to condemn or criticize the forwarding of private emails, and I don’t know where it would end up, and I realize that it is privately rational for me to just shut up and pretend I agree with everyone else, and I wonder how many people are doing that….

13 thoughts on “The Ethics Of Harvard’s “Racist E-mail” Scandal

  1. Interestingly, I learned about this controversy through another post ( immediately before coming here.

    That post is an excellent example of the kind of reasoning that must not be used. I note, e.g., that the pertinent statement was shortened in a critical manner, to “African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.”—without any caveats and even with the claim that this belief was “adamantly” held…

    I have left two comments there (the second after discovering the deliberate misquote). It remains to be seen if they go through moderation.

  2. The real travesty here is that such condemnations such as this, the labeling of a person as a “bigot” or “racist” when that person, in fact, is not – only diminishes the meaning and effect of those words.

    I’m not sure if this is a good or bad example of cognitive dissonance, but if someone likes his/her self, and he/she think like someone that has been mis-labelled as a racist, instead of changing his/her thoughts – he/she might decide that being a racist isn’t such a bad thing or big deal.

    • Additionally, despite the intentions of the Harvard thought-police, this is just adding fuel to the flames with regards to racial relations. I’m sure you guys have all noticed a growing backlash, particularly among whites, against this Orwellian enforcement of PC.

      Makes me want to forward some emails of my own in protest. I don’t think Asians count as enough of a minority, though. What we need are people like Thomas Sowell, who despite being black wrote respectfully about Arthur Jensen’s assertions that racial disparities were largely a result of genetic differences relating to IQ.

  3. Pingback: Page not found « Ethics Alarms

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  5. Jack,
    Small note .. if it was unethical for people who recieved the email to pass it on, would that not include the Scoreboard and “Above the Law” as well? I realize it may be trivial at this point considering the story is already “out there,” but I don’t see how that changes things ethically (fruit of the poison tree, and all that). None of this is meant to invalidate any of your points, I just find it curious since you’ve usually been careful in the past NOT to post similar such links before.


    PS: Please accept my apology if the link in question refrained from using the student’s name as part of the email text, as I didn’t actually click on it. Moreover, I did appreciate you not using her name in your article as well.

    • No apology necessary, but no, the link did not include her name; “Above the Law” handled it correctly. Three guesses who DID post her name and picture: GAWKER. My favorite unethical website.

      I guess I would also argue that that anyone who reads about the e-mail here is not going to be moved to regard the student as anything other than a bit naive and a victim of betrayal. I actually did think about this, but once the story is all over the web, and it is, my commentary isn’t doing any more harm, and is indeed an effort to mitigate. It’s too late to stop the onslaught.

  6. In ‘A Darwinian Left’ Peter Singer notes that group disparities may be partially due to diverse evolution. Similarly, David Friedman at University of Chicago in his post ‘Who is Against Evolution?’.

    University of Chicago Geneticist Bruce Lahn & Lanny Ebenstein last year wrote in Nature that recent genetic findings show that the assumption of biological sameness across groups is becoming untenable. People need a better moral framework to adapt to genome findings.

    ‘Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity’

    Nature 461, 726-728 (8 October 2009)

    • But you know—the student needs no defense. Even if her statement was in fact the endorsement of a racially biased concept, it is still just a thought and an opinion, supposedly communicated to friends. This just isn’t ethical misconduct—thoughts aren’t conduct, and communications are only conduct when they do harm. The people who circulated the message are the ones who actually did something wrong.

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