Mises Review

The Racial Contract, by Charles Mills

The Mises Review

Single-Issue Scholarship

Mises Review 4, No. 2 (Summer 1998)

Charles W. Mills
Cornell University Press, 1997,171 pgs.

Charles W. Mills has, by his own estimation, located a crucial gap in Western political and ethical theory from the Enlightenment to Rawls and Nozick. As Mills rightly says, the social contract dominates modern Western thought. But the contract, as described by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, leaves out a crucial component of the way society actually operates.

Readers who have attended to the title of Mr. Mills’s book will have no difficulty in surmising the nature of the omission our author has discovered. The major theorists do not mention blacks and other persons of color in their account of the social contract. In so doing, they occlude the mainspring of modern European history, white exploitation of those of darker hue.

I lack both the space and the stomach to go over at length our author’s analysis of modern moral philosophy. A few examples must suffice. John Locke, we learn, “defends slavery [in the Second Treatise] resulting from a just war, for example, a defensive war against aggression. This would hardly be an accurate characterization of European raiding parties seeking African slaves, and in any case, in the same chapter Locke explicitly opposes hereditary slavery and the enslavement of wives and children. Yet Locke had investments in the slave trading Royal Africa Company.... So one could argue that the Racial Contract manifests itself here in an astonishing inconsistency, which could be resolved by the supposition that Locke saw blacks as not fully human and thus as subject to a different set of moral rules” (p.68).

Richard Rorty should be grateful for this passage and others like it in Mr. Mills’s book. Were it not for them, Professor Rorty’s Achieving Our Country would be the worst book on politics written by a contemporary philosopher. But as the foregoing extended quotation amply shows, Mr. Mills can plunge to depths that even our second-hand John Dewey cannot fathom.

Let us, if you will, look at the “logic” of Mr. Mills’s remarks. Locke opposed hereditary slavery. Therefore, he regards blacks as subhuman, since otherwise he could not consistently support black slavery. Did it ever occur to our author that it might be worth looking at the possibility that Locke did not think hereditary slavery of blacks morally justifiable?

But suppose that Mills is right: Locke, we assume, and all the other founders of the social contract, thought blacks subhuman. In thinking this, they colluded in the establishment of the racial contract, an agreement among whites to exploit blacks. No doubt if a racial contract of the type Mills adumbrates exists, whites have much to answer for; but what has all this to do with the social contract?

As Hobbes, Locke, and Kant employed the social contract, it was a device to help them answer the questions: What political arrangements are morally justified? What, if any, natural rights do people have that limit the power of the state? These questions arise whether or not whites exploit blacks. No doubt, to reiterate, they should not do so: but regardless of the actual state of affairs, the question of what ought to be the case arises. Aristotle’s discussion of the virtuous man in The Nicomachean Ethics is invalidated neither by the existence of Greek slavery nor by Aristotle’s relative lack of attention to this social phenomenon; and an analogous point applies to the thinkers our author considers.

To Mr. Mills’s suggestion of a “racial contract,” then we can reply, with Morris R. Cohen, “even if you were right, so what?” But I must not allow my contempt for our author to do him an injustice. He has in part anticipated the objection just raised.

As he sees matters, the social contract was intended not only as an account of how matters ought to be, but also of how the state might plausibly be seen to have arisen. Only when the realities of black exploitation could no longer be ignored did political philosophers abandon the pretense of giving an account of the hypothetical genesis of society and the state.

As Mills explains, “[t]he great virtue of traditional social contract theory was that it provided seemingly straightforward answers both to factual questions about the origins and working of society and government and to normative questions about the justification of socioeconomic structures and political institutions. Moreover, the contract was very versatile.... From its 1650-1800 heyday as a grand quasi-anthropological account of the origins and development of society and the state, the contract has now become just a normative tool, a conceptual device to elicit our intuitions about justice” (pp. 4-5).

To the extent that Mr. Mills’s remarks respond to the objection I raised, they fail. Even if we take the social contract to be in part conjectural history, it still does not follow that the contract theorists erred in ignoring the alleged racial contract. Again, the question seems very much worth asking: how might a group of people (whether or not engaged in organized racial exploitation) have formed a state? The fact that an inquiry abstracts from a certain phenomenon does not render it useless. And Mills has also not shown that there is anything amiss in the later shift to an entirely normative framework.

Mills on Locke, I hope to have shown, is not a topic worth extended pursuit. Nor does the situation improve when our author favors other philosophers with his attention. Contrary to widespread belief, Rousseau was no real egalitarian. True, he praises the noble savage. But the “only natural savages cited are nonwhite savages, examples of European savages being restricted to reports of feral children raised by wolves and bears...even if some of Rousseau’s nonwhite savages are ‘noble’...they are still savages.... So the praise for nonwhite savages is a limited paternalistic praise, tantamount to admiration for healthy animals, in no way to be taken to imply their equality, let alone their superiority to the civilized Europeans of the ideal polity. The underlying racial dichotomization of civilized and savage remains quite clear” (pp. 68-69).

Oh, it does, does it? Mills’s mighty mind has not considered the possibility that Rousseau does not cite European savages because he had no accounts of them available to him. Mills offers not the slightest evidence that Rousseau considered whites racially superior to blacks. And he ignores the extended critical dispute on whether the precontract state is superior to the social contract. Had Mills consulted Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, he would have seen that his assertion of Rousseau’s paternalism toward the savage is dubious in the extreme.

No, I am sorry to disappoint you: things do not improve when Mr. Mills reaches contemporary moral philosophy. He writes: “So John Rawls...writes a book on justice widely credited with reviving postwar political philosophy in which not a single reference to American slavery and its legacy can be found, and Robert Nozick creates a theory of justice in holdings...without more than two or three sentences acknowledging the utter divergence of U.S. history from this ideal” (p. 77).

Our author omits to note that Rawls’s work after A Theory of Justice has been extensively influenced by Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death. Rawls is quite aware of black slavery, as Mr. Mills would have found out had he bothered to read him. And Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia seems sympathetic to reparations for American blacks (one of many reasons we should prefer Murray N. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty). In any case, an analogous point about the irrelevance of the racial contract to that raised in the discussion of Mills on Locke of course applies here.

In his acknowledgments, Mr. Mills tells us that he is “a beneficiary of affirmative action” (p. xi). I am glad to give this assertion my enthusiastic assent.


 Gordon, David. “Single-Issue Scholarship.” Review of The Racial Contract, by Charles Mills. The Mises Review 4, No. 2 (Summer 1998).

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