Should People Be Held Morally Responsible for Not Rising Above Their Culture?
America’s founding fathers were racist and therefore immoral.
This may be a Q1 violation if you believe that morality can be, in some way, a product of culture.
This is a Q2 violation if you would not wish to be thought immoral by people who consider their morality to be more advanced than yours.
It is tempting to judge people who live in a different culture or who lived in the past by our morality and find them wanting. The founders of the United States, for example, were advocates of freedom, yet some of them owned slaves. Seemingly even worse, some of those that owned slaves considered slavery to be wrong.*
To what extent can we condemn these people for owning slaves if slavery was accepted in their culture? Does it matter that it was not universally accepted? Would it be a valid excuse if one of these slave owners could argue that he thinks there should be no slaves but that freeing the slaves would significantly damage the economy?
When you say that a historic person should be held responsible for not having a moral position that was not wide spread at the time, you need to specify why they should be responsible. For example, would such a person be morally responsible for not having a moral position that he had not even conceived of? If their position seems ridiculous now, does it matter that it did not seem ridiculous then?
By Q2 you also have to consider how much blame you are willing to take for moral positions you either do not agree with or that you have not considered, but which become wide spread in the future or are wide spread in another culture. For example, if in the future environmentalism becomes a very important part of common morality, would you blame your descendents for considering you immoral because you owned a gasoline-powered automobile?
Are there alternatives to blaming people in these circumstances? Do you think it would be sufficient (and correct) to have pity or feel shame for them instead?
In which of these cases do you think it would be proper to hold members of one culture morally responsible for beliefs another culture considers to be immoral?
- In some middle-eastern cultures, it is considered indecent for women to go outdoors without being almost completely covered up.
- In France, it is not considered indecent for a woman to be topless at a beach.
- In Europe in the middle ages, it was considered just to wage war in the name of God.
- Aztecs sometimes performed religious human sacrifices.
- It was traditional in some Hindu communities for a widow to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
- In the early 18th century, public hangings were still attended by spectators in England.
- In the western United States in the 19th century, you could be put to death for stealing a horse.
- In 19th century America, humans hunted the passenger pigeon to extinction.
- In 19th century America, women were not considered capable of many kinds of employment, but children were sometimes employed in factories.
- In 20th century America, it was not uncommon to discipline children by beating or spanking them.
- In the 1940s, Americans made racist jokes about Japanese people.
- In the 21st century, it is considered moral to kill and eat animals.
*Thomas Jefferson, for example, spoke out against slaves but did not free his slaves for financial reasons. George Washington had a large number of slaves and specified in his will that they be set free upon his wife’s death. Benjamin Franklin has two slaves, but eventually set them free and became an abolitionist.
You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at LuLu.com and Amazon.com. See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.