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Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?

Posted by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 4:50 PM
  • 42 Replies
Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?
Last updated 5 hours ago

Our ancestors' views and social mores were very different
Everybody thinks they know what's right and wrong. But will things that seem moral today be deemed completely immoral later, asks David Edmonds.

"Women should leave reasoning to men. And they are not fit for serious employment."

Happily not sentiments one hears very often these days. But there was a time when such views were far more conventional. These are the opinions of the 18th Century Prussian, Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers in history.

So how should we think about Kant in the light of his judgements about women? Assessing attitudes and behaviour in the past presents us with a puzzle. What we might regard as offensive today - sexist, or racist, or homophobic for example - might have once been orthodoxy.

A moral relativist would say that our values today can't be compared with the values from another era. What was right for them was right for them. What is right for us is right for us.

The philosopher Miranda Fricker is not a moral relativist, but she thinks the test for blameworthiness is whether the person could have known any different. "The proper standards by which to judge people are the best standards that were available to them at the time".

It's unfair to blame people for failing to be moral pioneers, she says. "The attitude of blame presupposes that the person was in a position to have done better."

But if we can't blame people for abhorrent views, does that also mean we can't hold them responsible for these views?

Influenced by ancient philosophy, the 20th Century British philosopher, Bernard Williams, tried to tease apart a distinction between blame and responsibility. He did so by writing about what he called "moral luck".

Take the following example. Imagine that while a lorry driver is on the road a child suddenly runs out in front of him. Through tragic bad luck the child is hit by the vehicle and dies.

The man is blameless, for the accident has happened through no fault of his. In this sense he has nothing to reproach himself for, and has done nothing wrong. And yet, writes Williams, surely this man is now enmeshed in a set of moral responsibilities that, for example, a bystander, who is equally blameless, is not.

It makes a moral difference that it was him at the wheel. As the driver, he might have an obligation to meet the parents or attend the funeral - obligations not incurred by a bystander.

This is one kind of moral luck, or moral unluck. "Another kind of bad moral luck is being born at a time when you'd need to be a moral genius to see that a certain view or practice is wrong, because all around you are people who accept that the practice is alright," says Fricker.

These issues of blame and responsibility are relevant for reflecting on how we make amends for historic moral mistakes. For years the Australian government refused an apology to its indigenous peoples - in particular for the practice of forcibly removing children from their families.

It seems utterly shocking now, but it involved thousands of children and continued for decades. It was the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who finally made the formal apology on behalf of the state in 2008, against the wishes of a significant minority of the Australian people. Here is an example where, arguably, the current state might be blameless, yet somehow responsible

Should the UK apologise for slavery or celebrate its role in abolition?
Similar controversies arise over whether the UK should apologise for its role in slavery, and whether people like Alan Turing should be posthumously pardoned.

Turing, the brilliant mathematician who among other things helped crack the Enigma Code in World War II, was one of many people charged with gross indecency in 1952, under laws criminalising homosexuality.

He killed himself two years later. "It seems to me to be a measure of civilisation that our institutions have full accountability, in much the way that individuals do," says Fricker. "An apology is an incredibly important act that our institutions should increasingly become capable of - people who have been wronged by the state are owed an apology by the state, even if the individuals in government are different from those at the time."

Kant might think differently if he were alive today
Immanuel Kant, of course, was writing in the 18th Century. But the way attitudes to homosexuality have so rapidly evolved in the UK and in some other countries, shows how morality can undergo a revolution within a generation.

It may well be that the young or middle aged people of today will, in future decades, look back at views they once held and feel horrified and ashamed. And just as we judge Kant's century, and identify its moral defects, so it is inevitable that the people of the 23rd Century will detect flaws in ours, the 21st.

What might these flaws be? Our treatment of the environment? Our tolerance of poverty?

Fricker thinks that in the not-too-distant future we'll be shocked by the way that we, in the early part of the 21st Century, still treat animals. "I hope that some of the ways we currently still treat animals, the way that we factory-farm them, for instance, will seem completely unbelievable and unacceptable."

What else might our descendants condemn us for? If enough of us know the answer to that today, we really have no excuse but to act on it today.

The Philosopher's Arms was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 15:30 BST or catch up with iPlayer

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BBC © 2013
by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 4:50 PM
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Replies (1-10):
by guerrilla girl on Aug. 20, 2013 at 6:53 PM


by Ruby Member on Aug. 20, 2013 at 7:50 PM


by Mahinaarangi on Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:10 PM
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I dont think that we should or have to act now for future morals that society may find acceptable tommorrow.  How do you do that?  Animal factory farming may be deemed abhorrent and unacceptable in a generations time.  But it may not also.  It may be seen as completely normal.

Is paedophilia going to be seen as normal in the future?    

Ages of children having consentual sex has been lowering over the years and becoming more and more acceptable. (although this was deemed acceptable 100 years previous)

Do we act now and allow paedophilia to happen?  Or do we accept that the societal moral thinking that this is wrong will stick in the future?

IMO something that causes pain and inflicts torment....should never change our moral matter how much acceptance is going to occur.

by Platinum Member on Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:13 PM
1 mom liked this

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable : )

by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:33 PM
1 mom liked this

 This is why we have knee-jerk legislation which is NEVER a good idea.

by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:47 PM

I tend to lean fairly heavily toward the relativist side of morality, across both time and culture. However, I feel free to judge :) As in, I understand the context and accept certain attitudes and actions within that context, but I don't condone them within my own context. 

by Emerald Member on Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:58 PM

My generation certainly did a piss poor job of raising the next  generation.

by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 9:28 PM

 Very interesting post.  I enjoyed reading it.  Philosophical questions are great for really making one think!  I'm going to see if I can get this station and give it a listen.  Thank you for posting this!

by Platinum Member on Aug. 20, 2013 at 9:58 PM

Relative mores of society change and evolve as people and technology evolves.  The natural evolution would also include differing treatment of various groups.  Absolute morals, the basics do not change. 

by on Aug. 20, 2013 at 10:00 PM
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We can not judge others from the past with current western moral standings. Their enviroment, experinces, and knowledge base are vastly different than our own.


What will be seen as our "moral failure?" I would suspect several things that are not even in my schema of the world yet. Homosexuality (as the article suggests) will certainly be one.

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