Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?



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Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings?

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




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