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
    3.1 Judgments of Institutions and Moral Systems
    3.2 Judgments of People and their Actions
4 Objections and Refinement

3 Breaking up the Question: Judgments of Institutions and Judgments of People

Moral judgments can be formed with different goals in mind. They can be formed for the purpose of conflict resolution, which is the case when a judge decides a lawsuit. Or they can be formed merely with the aim of gaining a well reasoned moral opinion on some subject matter. This is the goal of historians when they judge historical persons and their actions. The former requires that we reach definite and unambiguous solutions, while the latter allows some amount of ambiguity. If it is just for the sake of forming an opinion, we may look at the issue from different angles without reducing the different perspectives to a single ultimate decision. The following discussion is primarily concerned with well reasoned moral opinions. How the cases where definite decisions must be made are to be dealt with will only briefly be considered later, in the concluding paragraphs of this paper.

What then are the reference points that we should look out for in order to form well reasoned moral judgments of strange cultures and bygone epochs, if we are to avoid the extremes of imposing our set of values (moral absolutism) and moral relativism alike? The solution that I would like to propose is to make a fundamental difference between the judgment of social institutions, including moral codes, and the judgment of people acting within the social institutions of their time and culture. While the former may be valuated rigorously, only taking into account the objective possibilities for having other institutions at a certain development stage, the latter should be judged against the background of the moral common sense of the respective time and culture.

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