David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/ Getty

September 14, 2020   4 mins

Until the past few days, and with the possible exception of a handful of minor academics rooting around for an obscure subject on which to write their PhDs, the question of David Hume’s racism was not one that detained many of those seriously interested in the great man’s contribution to knowledge.

But with the decision of Edinburgh University to rename the Hume Tower, the ever widening gyre of cancel culture has once again extended its search for moral deplorables. Like some gutter journalist going through our bins to seek out evidence of our hidden and secret short-fallings, this new style of moral persecution seeks out the minor footnote and throw away comment to bring down those who have been at the bedrock of Western culture. Make no mistake, more will follow as this new industry of blame keeps on sniffing around after other people’s sins. Darwin will be next, I suspect. No one will be exempt from this merry-go-round of gleeful condemnation.

It seems impossible to imagine that anyone was seriously troubled by David Hume’s unreconstructed views about the superiority of white people. His views were those shared by most of his society. Blaming him for them is to blame him for reflecting back something of the time and place into which he was born. And, yes, thank God we don’t think like this anymore. But it is not Hume that is really on trial here, it is England in the 18th century. Almost any number of people could be had up on the same charge — but show trials need their high profile figures.

Of course, this is not the first time Hume has been cancelled. In his own day, his gentle scepticism about religion was seen by the academic authorities as reason enough to thwart his university career. These days, this is one of the reasons that he is taught and valued. His famous expression of the problem of evil has become the go-to statement of its logic: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”

But what Hume did not consider was how this question would be answered when God was no longer around to take the blame. And the answer, of course, is that, without some heavenly master-planner to carry the can, the accusatory finger would now point directly towards human beings themselves. From whence comes evil, Hume asks? From you, comes the reply.

Yet however much we think of ourselves as having escaped from the sort of ancient superstitions that Hume did so much to dismantle, the kind of moral thinking by which he now stands accused carries more than a whiff of the religious world-view. For what the Black Lives Matter movement looks to be attempting is some sort of binary separation of the sheep from the goats, a division of the world into those who a racist and those who are not. Does anyone ever get accused of being a little bit racist? No, of course not. A poorly judged quip, or even a simple preference for familiar food or styles of dress, can be used as reason enough to judge that someone is a racist — which immediately places them in a category alongside people who have perpetrated some of the most heinous moral crimes in all of human history.

The trouble with dualism is that leads its proponents to abandon any sense of proportion about moral failure. Because if people are to be fundamentally divided into two groups, the virtuous and the damned, then all that is needed to situate a person amongst the damned is the faintest scrap of evidence. Even a throw away comment can be decisive evidence for a person’s position in the great moral order of things. With this modern-day Manichaeism, there is no ‘a little bit damned’, just as there is no ‘a little bit racist’.

A person who knew quite a lot about human evil was the Russian dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His famous passage in The Gulag Archipelago encapsulates perfectly why all this moral dualism is such a mistake.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. … And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

And so, even those who are overwhelmingly virtuous contain within themselves pockets of moral failure. No one wants to use the phrase “a little bit racist” because it feels like it downplays what is so clearly a serious moral fault. But if Solzhenitsyn is right, then it cannot come as any surprise that the human capacity for racism lurks within us all to some greater or lesser degree. The division between good and evil runs “through all human hearts”. And so those who make it their business to go around seeking out other people’s sins will probably always find some evidence of it, in your life and in mine.

That is why it is not misguided to be afraid of the grand inquisitors of this new moral movement. They have abandoned any sense of proportion about our moral faults. And once they have discovered what they are they wave them about for others to jeer at – and so we all jeer the louder because we are terrified to be counted amongst their number. The more we condemn, the more we hope our own failings will go undetected.

David Hume wasn’t perfect. He said a number of racist things for which he is inevitably going to be condemned. But what has been lost in the present maelstrom of accusation is a sense of the relative weight that should be ascribed to these scattered comments. Hume was a good natured, convivial and inquiring mind. He was one of the greatest thinkers of the enlightenment. That is why the building was named after him. It wasn’t anything to do with celebrating his views of race. And the feeble university authorities clearly understood that. They just wanted to make a show of their virtue. Which is why they are the ones to have come out of this whole thing with their reputations damaged.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.