Should People Be Held Morally Responsible for Not Rising Above Their Culture?


America’s founding fathers were racist and therefore immoral.

Q1 Analysis

This may be a Q1 violation if you believe that morality can be, in some way, a product of culture.

Q2 Analysis

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?

*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 and See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.

Posted on May 28, 2010 at 10:13 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. Written by ed42
    on May 28, 2010 at 12:15 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Can we not have a universal (in all times and all places) moral ‘minimum’ to which to judge the actions of others? I’m thinking something like the non-aggression principle (‘Do not initiate force nor fraud’) ought to be universal.

  2. Written by Zach
    on May 30, 2010 at 3:52 am
    Reply · Permalink

    We could judge others by that principle, but that doesn’t mean that that principle held through time and space. Think of holy wars, for example.

  3. Written by Zach
    on May 30, 2010 at 3:53 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Or, where are the limits to this? Is it okay to “initiate force” against an animal that you are about to eat?

Subscribe to comments via RSS

Leave a Reply