Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Judging the Past in the Present

Monday, 28 December 2020

I often hear or read someone objecting to judging an historical person or act by present moral standards. Although there seems to be some element of reasonableness entangled in this objection, it's very problematic.

It is especially problematic as expressed. Technically, we cannot judge anyone or anything at all, except by whatever may be our present standards. If we judge historical people and acts differently from how we do present-day people and acts, it is exactly because our present standards incorporate a recognition of historical context.

I don't see that the real issue is historical context as such, but context more generally. If we are to make allowances for historical person or acts, it is because of what informed them and what did not inform them; and, similarly, acts by persons in some present-day contexts are very differently informed from acts by other persons in other present-day cultures. As L.P. Hartley usefully noted, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cultural relativism, in application to other places or to other times, is sensible when it warns one against presumption that one's own culture is doing things the only right way. (One's culture may be doing things a wrong way, or there may be other ways that are just as good.) But a cultural relativism that instead claims that something is automatically acceptable simply because it prevails in the culture of that place or prevailed in the culture of that time dissolves into nihilism because each person at each time and at each place is him- or herself a subculture.

And I think that some allowances should be made; but I think that too much allowance is often made.

For example, is the case against slavery now available really all that much better than the case that was available in America a few hundred years ago? Inverting that question, was the case against slavery available a few hundred years ago really much worse than the case available now? There is a sound argument, even to-day, for not waging war against slavery in the territories ruled by other states; and there may be a case for making treaties or even forming alliances with such states; but those are different practices from engaging in slavery or actively enabling slavery. Is there really a meaningfully better defense of the slavery of two hundred years ago than there would be of slavery now?

I   don't   think   so.

Nor do I think so for a great deal else that I am told not to judge by modern standards.

Moral Symmetries

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

It is recurringly claimed that omission and commission are morally equivalent, that failing to assist someone is as blameworthy as injuring that person. But, were that really the case then, by the same token, failing to injure someone would be as every bit as laudable as acting to prevent his or her injury by some other agency. The man who did not kill a random stranger upon whom he chanced would be as much the hero as one who rushed in to save one stranger from another.

A cat is penned up in a steel chamber

Friday, 25 April 2008

Neither the Woman of Interest nor I would ordinarily wish to live forever, whether it be on Earth or on the other side of some Pearly Gates. But I posed a problem to her:

What if I had a device by which I could make the Beet Weasel immortal?
I have little doubt that, so long as it were kept in good health and otherwise fairly physically comfortable, the typical cat would choose not to die. A dog might additionally need friendly companionship, but then it too would not ever want to die.

I don't know whether the Woman of Interest knew where I intended to go with my hypothetical, but in any event her first question about the device was of who would take care of the Beet Weasel, and I offered that I would have a slightly larger device for her. So, now the question becomes one of whether one would allow one's companion animal to die in order that one might oneself have the freedom to die.


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