The Metaphysics and Morality of Racism

by Cole DeSantis


On October 24, 2018, a man by the name of Gregory Alan Bush tried to break into the First Baptist Church in Jeffersontown, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky.  Upon realizing that the church was closed and the doors were locked, he then left. Ten to fifteen minutes later, he went to Kroger Marketplace, a supermarket chain that had a franchise nearby. He then opened fire on the store, killing a 69-year-old man named Maurice Stallard. As he fled, he shot a 67-year old woman name Vickie Jones. [1]


Many suspect that the act was more specifically a hate crime, and is currently being investigated as such. While shooting up the store, Bush specifically targeted Stallard, an African-American man, shooting him in the head, and then shooting him several more times. Both Stallard and Jones (who was also African-American) had several gunshot wounds. As he was being arrested, he said, “Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.” Further, the church he tried to enter into was a predominantly African-American congregation. [2]


A few days later, on Saturday, October 27, 2018, another tragedy occurred. A man named Robert Bowers barged into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and went on a 20-minute long rampage in which he attacked a group of people worshiping at the synagogue while shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Bowers, who worked as a truck-driver, was known for frequenting the website Gab, which was popular among white nationalists. In various internet posts, he wrote of several anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including that the Jewish human rights group HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was attempting to bring immigrants into this country to try to displace the native white population. He also claimed that he did not vote for President Trump because he was not “hard enough” on Jews. [3] He also wrote in one internet comment, “[J]ews are the children of Satan.” [4] There were a total of 11 victims. At the moment in which he opened fire, he yelled, “All Jews must die!’ [5]


Anyone who hears of these stories will feel shock or disgust, which will then lead to a sense of moral outrage. And rightly so. Yet, why is this? It is taken as a given within our society that racism – and murder or hate crimes more generally – are wrong. The acceptance of certain values which people treat as axiomatic is necessary for the creation of stable societies. Yet, unless we can show whether or not these values are in line with what is objectively good, we will always run the risk of falling into one of two pitfalls: either taking any moral principle or value to be merely an arbitrary phenomenon contingent on evolution or social constructs; or, on the other hand, not rationally examining the truth or falsehood of any moral value, and accepting as true or good anything we are told. Both can lead to immense evil.


And that is what I hope to do here: demonstrate why it is we as a society take racism to be evil. It is no mere moralizing sentiment. Here, I will be drawing mainly on the tradition of Christian anthropology, especially the metaphysical and anthropological viewpoints of St. Thomas Aquinas.

First, it is good to define some terms. And so, let us look to a work that Aquinas wrote in the early 1250’s, relatively early on in his career, namely On Being and Essence. Here, Aquinas defines the term essence to refer to “that by which it belongs to something to be what it is.” He also references how Boethius, in his work On the Two Natures, defines an essence as that which is “grasped by the intellect.” That which is grasped by the intellect is that which is abstracted from the thing itself, namely its definition. [6] To define a thing, as the late Dominican priest and theologian Fr. Herbert McCabe wrote, is not merely to describe it, but it is to “give its essence” or to “say what it is.” It is to describe the core of what makes a thing what it is. [7] But, more about that in a little bit. When the term “essence” is used in this sense – that is, as the identification of what sort of thing something is – it can be used in a manner synonymous with the terms “nature” or “quiddity.”  [8]


The form of a thing, Aquinas further goes on to say, is “the full determination of each thing.” [9] Take, for example, a statue: the marble, wood, or clay, before it is made to resemble something, doesn’t look like something specific. By molding the raw materials so that it resembles something specific, you giving it a definite, concrete structure whereby this particular statue is distinguished from other statues, or from non-statues. The form is thus the concrete structure of a thing, whereby something is given all of the characteristics associated with a particular essence. As Edward Feser notes, “any determining, actualizing pattern counts as a ‘form’…” [10]


Aquinas, when defining substance, quotes from Book V of Aristotle’s work Metaphysics, wherein he says that “every substance is a nature.” Here, the term “nature” takes on a specific meaning: it is “the essence of a real thing according as it has an ordering to the things proper operation; and no real thing lacks a proper operation.” [11] A substance is, in short, a thing that which exists in and of itself, as opposed to being a thing we predicate onto something else. For example, if I say, “This being is Bob,” I am identifying what the substance is. If I am saying, “This being is tall,” I am not identifying the substance, but a quality of the substance. Bob, as a substance, exists in and of himself; Bob’s tallness has no existence in and of itself, that is, it has no existence independently of Bob. This will come into play again in a short while.


All substances fall into one of two categories. Simple substances are substances that do not have parts. God, for example, is a simple substance. Composite substances are substances that have parts. [12] One way in which composite substances can be divided into parts is the fact that some composite substances – such as a being with a bodily or physical existence – can be divided into matter and form. Matter, as the physical stuff that a particular thing is made out of, allows for a particular form to express itself in a concrete manner; form gives intelligibility to matter.


With regard to humans, the matter of the human person is our bodies; the form of the human person is the soul. For Aquinas, like Aristotle before him (from whom he drew much of his philosophical inspiration), the term “soul” didn’t refer to some vague ghost-like entity that dwelt within us. The term “soul” referred to the form of a living thing – that is, that which made a living thing alive. It was the life-force of a thing. As Fr. Joseph Torchia wrote, “…the matter of the body is related to life as potentiality to act, and the soul is the act whereby the body lives.” The soul is what makes the body a living thing as opposed to a corpse or an inanimate object. A body enlivened by the soul is a life that has been actualized. The soul is thus “the first principle of life,” “the act of the body in a potential state of becoming.” [12] The soul, as the life-force of a thing, encompasses or includes all of the capacities necessary for life or existence. There are three types of souls in the Aristotelian-Thomistic model: the vegetative soul, found in plants and bacterial life (which includes the capacity to grow, consume nutrients, and reproduce, the most basic characteristics necessary for life); the animal soul, found among non-human animals (which includes all the capacities of the vegetative soul, plus the capacity to move and perceive the outside world via the senses); and the rational soul, found among humans (which includes all the capacities of the vegetative and animal soul, plus the capacity to think rationally). Thus, humans being rational creatures, our soul not only animates a particular piece of matter and makes it living, but, as Fr. Torchia continues, “is also the intellectual principle of the mind.” [13]


This is important because it raises a lot of problems concerning the relationship between the mind and the body, which then, in turn, points towards the center of what makes man, man. The soul is an incorporeal subsistent reality – that is, the soul is a non-bodily reality; further, the soul, while not a complete substance in itself (the fullness of the human substance comes from the unity of body and soul), operates independently of the body, and is not corrupted by the body, and thus is capable of surviving even if the body should cease to exist (as happens in death). More specifically, certain operations of the soul are closely interconnected with and deeply reliant on the body – such as in the case of sense perception – but other functions of the soul – such as understanding – cannot be reducible to merely physical processes. Thus, the soul and the body are distinct, but closely connected. The soul cannot be thought of as a motor running a vehicle or a human operating a machine, but rather the intellectual and the bodily – the physical and non-physical – in man form one entity. [14] In this sense, Aquinas draws from early Christian sources which see the relationship between the body and the soul as a “union without confusion”: two distinct principles which are united together without them being in any way mixed or having one converted into the other. [15]


Aquinas, being a Christian, thus turns to the Trinity and to the Incarnation to shed light on this. The Divine Nature or the Godhead as such is a Person, in that it is a personal entity. Yet, within God, there are three sets of relations – that is, there are three entities within God within which the Divine nature completely and totally subsists. Each of the three entities also qualify as Persons since they each constitute “an eternally subsisting subject that is both distinct and one with the Godhead.” [16] How is it that each eternally subsisting subject can be distinct from the others while remaining as one being? How can the Father be distinct from Son and Holy Spirit, and so on, without being three distinct beings? There must be some anchor point which unites them without confusing them, and allows them to be distinct without being divided. Likewise with Christ: in the person of Jesus Christ, God became man without ceasing to be God, or without having His Divine and human natures combine. There must be some focal point which allows the human and Divine to be one Christ, while remaining distinct. [17] This carries over into the human person. Aquinas sees personhood in man as the “dynamic center of psychological and bodily experience.” [18] Personhood is what unites our mind and our body, our form and matter, into a singular substance we call “man.”


As Fr. McCabe says, the definition of a thing differentiates things within a common genus. For example, the description of humans as “rational animals” is a definition – “animal” is our genus, but “rational” is what differentiates the human essence from the essences of other animals. With this in mind, accidental qualities (that is, those qualities whose absence or presence does not effect the essence of the thing) are not included within the definition. That which pertains to the definition of a thing is described as existing ens secundum se (“a being in virtue of what it is itself”). That is to say, that which pertains to the definition has existence in and of itself; it exists simply by virtue of what it is. Thus, to say, “Bob is a human” and “Bob exists” are thus synonymous. “Human” is Bob’s substance. Yet, that which we predicate onto Bob’s substance has no existence, in and of itself. It describes how we exist but not the fundamental substantial qualities that define our existence as such. To say Bob is tall or smart describes how he is man. [19] It is this which serves as the ontological center of a things existence.


A particular individual’s ethnicity or religion is an ens secundum accidens, that is, “a being according to the accidents.” No one exists as an African-American, Englishman, or Jew, for these, being accidents and not defining qualities of man’s substance, have no existence in and of themselves apart from existing as man. What a racist does is elevate an accidental quality to the level of something included within the definition; they turn it into a substantial quality. Yet, race is not a part of the dynamic core which defines personhood. It is not included within the definition of person; it is not a part of our substance, but rather is something we predicate onto the substance. Our form makes us to exist as a particular type of being. Matter gives expression to form. The matter does not define our being; yet, since matter has a particular set inherent qualities, it causes the form to manifest itself in a particular way. Black people, white people, Jewish people, all represent our common humanity or personhood existing thusly. Matter is thus the cause of accidents. The form is what causes a substance to exist as this type of being or that type of being; yet, when form is united to matter, form ceases to exist in potentiality and manifests itself in a manner defined by a particular set of physical characteristics.


The physical, concrete circumstances which define how a particular form is made manifest, which can separate one substance from another substance of the same form (i.e., the genetic differences between the races) are merely accidental because it is simply a form existing in a particular manner; the form as such is not reducible to the accidents. To use the example of genetics: according to racist theory, a certain race (or family of races) are superior to another, and the members of other races or families of races are either inferior humans or altogether non-human. Yet, there are genetic differences even within races or families of races. How does this not undermine the common personhood or humanity of all of the members of the “master race”? The answer is because all members of a particular race have the form of a human person, which is not reducible to the accidents.


The Biblical and Christian worldview would extend this to all beings, to all substances labelled “human,” regardless of their race. Race is an accident of the human substance which the human form cannot be reduced to. Race or religious affiliation does not exist as such, for it does not touch at the ontological core of our existence. In general, Aquinas felt wary about saying that any given quality or set of qualities, even those that are not accidental, define personhood. Personhood runs deeper than any given quality or set of qualities. Aquinas believed that the concrete act of existing took precedence over all else. Any given quality or operation was the result or effect of a particular nature or form. [20] To exist as a substance with the form or nature of man is what makee you man, not any specific quality. It is for this reason, for example, that reason is seen as one of the defining qualities of personhood, and yet we can affirm the personhood of severely mentally disabled people or the insane, whose reasoning faculties are severely limited.



The inability of the perpetrators of these recent hate crimes to recognize these facts led to their denial of the personhood of anyone different from them. By defining a person’s humanity in terms of secondary, accidental qualities, it became possible to deny their dignity as humans. If someone’s personhood or humanity is defined by their race, religion, political affiliation, class, etc., then, if you hate them, it is that much easier to deny their personhood. Demonstrate that these secondary qualities somehow make them inferior, and you have proved them to be non-humans or inferior humans.


Yet, what is at stake here is not merely a metaphysical or anthropological misstep; rather, there is a more insidious ethical problem at play. Racism – the hatred of others on account of their race – absolutizes and even divinizes race. It makes race the leitmotif through which we view all things, the guiding principle of our behavior, and thus the foundation of how we interact with others. The spirit of racism is, in my opinion, best articulated by the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in a speech he delivered in late 2016 in which he said, “Hail our people! Hail victory!” The good of the white race is,  implicitly, the highest good that a member of that race could strive for. Racists of all varieties have the same ideology. The only difference is, “Which race is superior and which one is to be the object of scorn?”


If the leitmotif of ones worldview and behavior is solely or primarily the good of ones race, race-based hatred doesn’t seem that far off or that illogical of a conclusion. This, of course, is problematic on both an ethical and a metaphysical level. Christian ethics is defined in terms of man coming forth from, and being fundamentally ordered towards, God. God is the Source of all good, and thus it makes sense that God is not only our Creator, but also our Final End. Lesser goods need to be ordered towards higher goods (the good of the individual needs to be subjected to the good of the family, nation, or the Church); and, in the grand scheme of things; every created good is finite and passing, and thus can fail to satisfy us on the deepest levels. The only good that can truly do that is the Highest Good, namely God Himself. To place a lower good above a greater good, or to place any good above the Highest Good (God) is the definition of sin. [21] Disordered behavior, including malice, is the inevitable result of disordered desires. We see this with racism, which is nothing more than the idolatry of one’s race and culture.


Further, an authentically Christian anthropology rejects such a worldview. Personhood – the dynamic core which unites various disparate qualities into one substance we call man – derives its value not from secondary accidental qualities such as race; it does not even derive its dignity from whether or not its primary essential qualities are all present and functioning. The value of a human life is derives from the fact that it comes forth from, and is fundamentally ordered towards, God, Who, as the Source of all good, is truly the Highest Good. When we see our fellow men as products of Divine love and NOT merely as the sum total of their qualities – and when we begin to see these qualities as pointing towards a much deeper reality rather than as all there is to them – then it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to treat our fellow humans as the objects of scorn based solely on race or religion, and much easier to appreciate the immense dignity of the human person.




  1. Faith Karimi, “Kroger shooting: Man who killed 2 tried to enter predominately black church minutes earlier,” on CNN.com, August 28, 2018. Accessed on https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/26/us/kentucky-kroger-shooting/index.html
  2. Laurel Wamsley, “Killing Of 2 At Kentucky Supermarket Is Being Investigated As Hate Crime,” on NPR.org, October 29, 2018. Accessed on https://www.npr.org/2018/10/29/661834642/killing-of-2-at-kentucky-supermarket-is-being-investigated-as-hate-crime
  3. Ashley May and Josh Hafner, “Pittsburgh synagogue shooting:What we know, questions that remain,” on USAToday.com, October 29, 2018. Accessed on: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/10/29/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-what-we-know/1804878002/
  4. Katie Zezima and Wesley Lowery, “Suspected synagogue shooter appears to have railed against Jews, refugees online, WashingtonPost.com, October 27, 2018. Accessed on: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/suspected-synagogue-shooter-appears-to-have-railed-against-jews-refugees-online/2018/10/27/e99dd282-da18-11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html?utm_term=.f4d8835cb36e
  5. Amir Tibon, Noa Landau, Judy Maltz, and Allison Kaplan Sommer, “11 Killed in Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting; Gunman Yelled ‘All Jews Must Die,’ on Haaretz.com, October 28. 2018. Accessed on: https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/man-reportedly-opens-fire-near-a-pittsburgh-synagoue-1.6595493
  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia). Accessed on https://dhspriory.org/thomas/DeEnte&Essentia.htm
  7. Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P., God and Evil in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Fr. Brian Davies, O.P. (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), pg. 26
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia)
  9. ibid.
  10. Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, pg. 161
  11. St. Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia)
  12. Fr. Joseph Torchia, O.P., Exploring Personhood: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Nature (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), pg. 133
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid., pg. 135
  15. ibid., pg. 112
  16. ibid., pg. 141
  17. ibid., pg. 140-141
  18. ibid., pg. 141
  19. McCabe, God and Evil in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, pg. 24-27
  20. Fr. Joseph Torchia, Exploring Personhood: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Nature, pg. 143
  21. St. Augustine, On Free Choice, translated by Dom Mark Pontifex (New York City: Newman Press, 1955). Pg. 67-73.

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