Will Smith’s Indefensible Moral Relativism

Will Smith was recently featured along with several other actors on one of The Hollywood Reporter’s (THR) hour-long roundtable discussions. Not only did Will Smith make a relativistic statement, but the interviewer asked precisely the right question to push back against his view! It’s worth taking a few minutes to analyze what Will Smith said because his view is unfortunately common and it’s helpful to take a close look at the views of those with whom we disagree.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

About halfway through the discussion, one of the interviewers asked Will Smith about his recent movie, Concussion. The movie is based on the true story of a Nigerian forensic pathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu who spent years trying to get NFL leadership to take seriously his research on potentially lethal head injuries from playing football.

Will Smith on The Hollywood Reporter

Screenshot from The Hollywood Reporter video

Click here to watch this portion of the interview (31:36 – 33:08), or read the transcript below:

Interviewer: Do you hope Concussion will cause change?

Will Smith: Anytime I put something in the world, I’m always connecting to an idea. I’m always asking ‘why am I making this? I’m putting this out in the world. Why?’ So, with Concussion, Dr. Bennet Omalu was deeply connected to tell the truth, and he said that ‘truth doesn’t have a side.’ And that’s what he kept saying, and I thought that was such a powerful idea.

Interviewer: What does that mean?

Smith: That, you know, ‘whose side are you on, Republican or Democrat?’ ‘I’m trying to tell the truth.’ The truth doesn’t have a side, right? So…

Interviewer: But there is a point of view of truth. So if you say, ‘truth is that racism is wrong,’ that does take a side, that takes a side against racism, right?

Mark Ruffalo: It doesn’t take a political side, necessarily.

Smith: To say that racism is wrong, to me, that’s ambiguous. Racism could be the absolute right thing for a certain circumstance. So, for me, with this film, repetitive head trauma can cause permanent brain damage. That’s almost an irrefutable truth. If not, you can bang your head 70,000 times like Mike Webster did playing football and let’s see what happens.

After being asked a very astute question by the interviewer with THR, Smith is forced to either clarify his view or bite the bullet and state that racism could be the right thing in a certain circumstance. Unfortunately, he did the latter. If your worldview, properly understood and applied consistently, says that sometimes racism may be the right thing in certain circumstances, your worldview is flat out wrong. [Tweet that!]

Will Smith on The Hollywood Reporter

Screenshot from The Hollywood Reporter video

I want to be charitable and I don’t want to strawman Smith’s view. Unfortunately, the most plausible interpretations of these statements are not the ones that paint his worldview in the best light. I suspect that Smith is not an extreme skeptic about all truth. He thinks some things are objectively true, like the scientific statement about what is likely to happen after getting your head banged 70,000 times. No, Smith is skeptical specifically of truth claims about morality.

You might be thinking, “But Josh, you’re just equivocating. Smith must mean something different than you by the word ‘racism.’”

Equivocation happens when people use the same word in a debate but with different meanings. For example, some pro-life people use the term “human” to mean “valuable person” while their pro-choice friend may be using “human” to merely mean a biological member of the human species. Equivocation is a common obstacle to good dialogue, so it’s certainly good to be on the lookout for this. But that is not happening in this case. Luckily for us, Will Smith literally defined the word “racism” four minutes earlier in the same interview!

After some discussion that was had on prejudice in Hollywood, the THR reporter asks Will Smith if he feels prejudice today.

Will Smith on The Hollywood Reporter

Screenshot from The Hollywood Reporter video

Click here to watch this portion of the interview (28:25 – 29:34), or read the transcript below:

Smith: Prejudice, my wife and I were just having this conversation and we were going to the dictionary for ‘prejudice’ versus ‘racism.’ Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another; makes them prefer blond hair over brunette, right? You see somebody with dark skin walking down the street and you have a different reaction than you have with someone who’s 5’1” and white, so we all have our prejudices.

But there’s a connotation in ‘racism’ of superiority, that you feel that your race, generally just based on your race, is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare. For someone that actually thinks their race is superior to you, I don’t want to work for them. I don’t want to work at that company and the times that I have come in contact with them, you get away from those people.”

Thanks to the lengthy discussion (at least, compared to most Hollywood interviews) of the topic, we can safely conclude that when Will Smith said that “racism could be the absolute right thing for a certain circumstance,” by racism he meant a feeling of superiority based on race. And that is simply not justifiable.

Understandably the interviewer chose to move on to another discussion, but I would have preferred to watch everybody discuss moral truth claims for the rest of the show. If I had been there, I would have asked Smith a question like, “Okay Mr. Smith, what would be one example of a circumstance where it would be morally justified to feel that your race is superior to another race?”

I like Will Smith a lot as an actor, but his worldview is not only mistaken, it’s foolish. It makes far more sense to say that, at least in regards to moral principles, there is objective truth at an ontological (related to the nature of reality, to how the world actually is) level, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always simple to tell what that truth is at an epistemological (related to what we can know or be justified in believing) level. In other words, truth does have a side, but truth may be sometimes hard to determine.


Question: What do you wish that you could ask Will Smith about his worldviews? Tell me below in the comments!

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The post “Will Smith’s Indefensible Moral Relativism” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blogClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh has worked in the pro-life movement since he was 18. A sought-after speaker, Josh has spoken for more than 23,000 people in six countries and in 22 of the 50 states.

Josh’s primary passion is helping pro-life people to be more persuasive when they communicate with pro-choice people. That means ditching faulty rhetoric and tactics and embracing arguments that hold up under philosophical scrutiny.

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He directed the first 40 Days for Life campaign in Fresno, resulting in up to 60 lives saved.

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