The flap in question is Geraldine Ferraro's comment that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position, and if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." In case you care what I think about this remark, Mickey Kaus gives spot-on reasons to think it was at least not racist, though Ferraro could at least be condemned for failing to exercise what philosophers would call sufficient modal skepticism. I'm not much interested in whatever claims about race the comment may imply, and will likely ignore any comments disputing my position here. What I care about is the implied philosophical claims.
You see, many contemporary philosophers believe that there is this thing called the "Problem of Transworld Identity"--the question of how two people in different possible worlds could be the same person, "possible world" here indicating a fancy variant on the idea of a possible situation which philosophers often invoke when they have no good reason to. Peter van Inwagen has mocked this idea, suggesting it is analogous to the problem of transpropositional identity: how can "Nixon is a villain" and "Nixon is an honest man" refer to the same person, when one is about a villain, and one is about an honest man? Nevertheless, even van Inwagen agrees that there are serious questions in the general vicinity of this problem, such as (and I think he uses this specific example) whether Socrates could have been an alligator.
Now the relevance of Obama and Ferraro: many metaphysicians would be inclined to deny that Obama could possibly have been white. For example, Saul Kripke has advocated a thesis known as the essentiality of origin, according to which you could not possibly have originated in a different way than you did. What this all means is not entirely clear, but it at least means you would have had to have had the same parents. However, Obama could not have been white unless he had a different father, a white one. Ergo, if Kripke is right, Ferraro made a serious metaphysical mistake aside from any racism that was or wasn't present.
In the discussion of the flap, I have found one brief suggestion that a philosophical mistake might have been involved. Here's Ezra Klein:
After all, Obama is not a woman, nor a white man. He's who he is. To say that if he were different, things would be different is to say nothing at all.So far so good, but then Klein lapses back into taking Ferraro's assumptions at face value (while advocating the modal skepticism I referred to above):
As a white woman, maybe he would have led a military coup and established himself dictator. Who knows!? Hell, if he were a slightly less inspiring speaker, or had an off-night at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he wouldn't be in this position either. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton were a black man, it's unlikely that she would have been a national political figure for the past 15 years, as it's unlikely that she would have married another man from Arkansas, and unlikely that the country would have put an interracial, same sex couple in the White House. But so what? This is an election, not Marvel's "What If?" series.Now for another what if: what if Kripke were to contact Ferraro or Kaus or Klein and try to explain their metaphysical mistake? I suspect they would laugh and begin telling their friends about how silly philosophers can be. None of them ever meant to be making metaphysical claims, what they were debating was roughly "would a white man of Obama's age, talents, accomplishments, etc. be a viable Democratic presidential candidate?"
What's especially curious is that though the people mentioned would probably explain themselves in a predictable way when pressed, they also probably never thought about the distinction. I may well be the first person on Earth to notice the metaphysical implications of Ferraro's comment. All of this, I suggest, entails the following: we sometimes say things that look like deep metaphysical claims, aren't deep metaphysical claims, and yet do so without really paying attention to whether or not we're making a profound metaphysical claim. This suggests it is at least possible that some well-known work on transworld identity turns on less obvious but similar mistakes, because philosophers notice something that looks like a profound metaphysical question but might not be, yet the possibility that it is not is not seriously considered. This seems to reinforce the Eliezer Yudkowsky quote I posted earlier this week:
Many philosophers - particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers - share a dangerous instinct: If you give them a question, they try to answer it.