Moral Judgments of Foreign Cultures and Bygone Epochs

Eckhart Arnold

1 Exposition of the Problem
2 Preliminary: The meaning of moral reasoning and discussion in face of the impossibility of proving the truth of moral statements
3 Breaking up the Question: Judgments of Institutions and Judgments of People
4 Objections and Refinement

1 Exposition of the Problem

The problem that I would like to address in this paper is how we can form sound moral judgments of actions that take place outside of our own historical and cultural context. Strictly speaking, there are two different problems, one concerning historical judgments and one concerning judgments of other cultures. But there is a strong logical similarity between both types of moral judgments insofar as they both concern judgments about something that takes place in a life context different from our own.

It is, I believe, easy to see that this is indeed a problem in the sense that the historical or cultural context does make a difference for our moral judgments. For example, when Alexander the Great conquered the city of Tyros he crucified all remaining men in the city and sold the women and children as slaves (Fox 1973, p. 239). Yet, despite the severe violation of human rights during his conquests historians usually do not tend to place Alexander in the same league with dictators like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il. Or, to take another example, it is reported that some tribes in the highlands of New Guinea honor newly deceased relatives by devouring their corpses (Diamond 2005, p. 151). Abhorrent as it may seem to us, there would be no point in blaming the high-landers of New Guinea for following a revered ancient custom.

Thus, there are many cases where a certain amount of cultural or historical moral relativism seems appropriate. It is simply a fact that values change over time and differ between cultures. If we do not take account of this fact in our ethical convictions, we risk to become hopelessly parochial or to slip into absurdities. On the other hand, the opposite standpoint, a complete cultural and historical relativism, would be equally unsound. For, to take an extreme example, there is certainly no way of justifying the atrocities that communist or fascist regimes committed in the last century on the grounds that the allowance of licentious manslaughter was common at that time.

Obviously, we can neither leave historical and cultural contexts aside when forming moral judgments nor must we fully submit to these contexts. The right solution has to be a golden mean somewhere between these extremes.

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