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Nick Bostrom, an influential philosopher at the University of Oxford who has been called the “father” of the longtermism movement, has apologized for a racist email he sent in the mid-90s. In the email, Bostrom said that “Blacks are more stupid than whites,” adding, “I like that sentence and think it is true,” and used a racial slur.
Bostrom is a prominent philosopher in the field of existential risks to humanity’s long-term prospects; specifically, superintelligent AI, but also others. For example, Bostrom has listed “dysgenic pressures” as an existential threat—the idea that less intelligent people might out-breed more intelligent people for a total loss of species-wide intelligence. “Currently it seems that there is a negative correlation in some places between intellectual achievement and fertility,” he wrote. “If such selection were to operate over a long period of time, we might evolve into a less brainy but more fertile species.” He added that this might not come to pass, either because the trend doesn’t hold, or because genetic engineering allows parents to make their children more intelligent.
Bostrom’s ideas have not just been highly influential in the field of AI, but also laid the foundations for the longtermist movement. Longtermism is a belief that has found traction among the Silicon Valley elite, and encourages its adherents to take actions now that are aimed at benefiting humans living many years in the future. Elon Musk has called the philosophy a “close match” to his own, and disgraced former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried has also expressed die-hard longtermist beliefs. Longtermism has been criticized for being essentially anti-democratic, leaving humanity’s future up to a select handful of super-wealthy people and their potentially dubious personal beliefs. For example, longtermist thought—in particular, Bostrom’s concern over “dysgenic pressures”—has been criticized as being eugenicist.
The apology is on Bostrom’s website. According to Bostrom, he heard that someone had been digging around in the Extropians listserv—an early gathering place for transhumanists online—with “a view towards finding embarrassing materials to disseminate about people.” The email represents “the very worst of the worst in my contribution file,” he said.
According to Bostrom’s apology, he was having a conversation on the listserv about “offensive content and offensive communication styles.” His email praised this method of communication, calling it objective. “The more counterintuitive and repugnant a formulation, the more it appeals to me given that it is logically correct. Take for example the following sentence: Blacks are more stupid than whites,” Bostrom wrote. “I like that sentence and think it is true,” he added.
The email then went on to explain that this doesn’t mean he doesn’t like Black people, but that he thinks “it is probable that black people have lower average IQ than mankind in general.” He then used a racial slur to prove his point about how this supposedly “objective” communication style could be negatively perceived by people outside the listserv.
“I may be wrong about the facts, but that is what the sentence means for me. For most people, however, the sentence seems to be synonymous with: “I hate those bloody n------!!!!” he wrote, using the full, uncensored phrase.
Later in the email, he said he thought it was laudable to accustom people to the offensiveness of truth. “But be prepared that you may suffer some personal damage,” the email said.
In his apology Bostrom wrote, “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,” he wrote.
Bostrom then attempted to elucidate his “actual views.” Differences in “skills” and “cognitive capacity” exist, he said, but are due to “unequal access to education, nutrients, and basic healthcare,” which is why, he said, he donates to charities such as the Black Health Alliance. On the question of whether there are “genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities,” he said he leaves it to others to debate.
This “debate” about genetics and IQ has been part of the broader culture war since the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994, and has been repeatedly pointed out as blatantly racist. Various philosophers have resurrected it over the years, and have been shocked when people called them racist.
Bostrom’s apology broaches the topic of eugenics, saying he does not support it ”as the term is commonly understood.”
“Some of the most horrific atrocities of the last century were carried out under the banner of eugenic justifications and racist rationalizations,” he said. “In contemporary academic bioethics, the word ‘eugenics’ is sometimes used in different and much broader sense, as including for example the view that prospective parents undergoing IVF should have access to genetic screening and diagnostic tools (as is currently the established practice in many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom).”
Bostrom then went on a tangent about therapeutic “eugences” meant to enhance the human race and linked to five different papers on the subject. “There is a rich bioethical literature and it involves many complex moral considerations that cannot be captured in a single word or a slogan,” he said.
Bostrom did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.