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

3.2 Judgments of People and their Actions

People in different countries and in different historical epochs act in accordance with the most diverse systems of norms and values. But it is hardly possible to accept all these different sets of values on an equal footing, not unless we do not wish to take any of them serious any more. This, however, raises the question of fairness when we form moral judgments about what people did in former times or what people do in other places of the world.

The answer proposed here is that we should judge the actions of concrete people against the background of the moral common sense of their respective culture or historical period.[4] This simple answer may at first sight appear like plain moral relativism, but it is not. “Moral common sense” can be described as the morals that are common knowledge and in effect over a longer period of time.[5] Moral common sense as a criteria frees us from the necessity to take account of such sets of moral rules that are only transitory or that remain partial even within one society or that are in the long run not compatible with the neccessities of every day's life. This is especially the case for morals that may be characterized as the outcome of fanatism. Fanatism is an exceptional state of mind that can hardly be kept up over a longer period of time, and it is to its full extend often only adopted by a subgroup of the society. It may, for a certain while, act as a kind of “” that overshadows the common sense moral, but it will never fully replace the common sense moral, although it must be assumed that it can influence the subsequent development of the moral common sense to a certain degree. An example for this kind of “” are the morals embodied in the ideologies of totalitarian states. Typically, the totalitarian morals are so excessive that before they have pervaded the whole society they are either broken down or have, before long, been watered down to a much more common sense like version of themselves. That the Nazis made some attempts to hide the mass extinction of the Jews from the rest of the populace bears proof of the fact that they were aware of the existence of a another set of morals according to which genocide is a crime. If they chose to rather adhere to Nazi morals they can - even under the variant of moral relativism advocated here - be held fully responsible for this choice.

The line of reasoning in the previous paragraph does, of course, rest on the optimistic empirical assumption that “fanatical morals” are normally not evolutionary stable. But if this is true then we can safely rule out fanatical morals without risking to be “unfair” to the people acting according to a fanatical set of morals. For, neither do we demand that they act according to an enlightened set of morals that they cannot realistically be expected to take account of (or even just be aware of), nor are we, by taking recourse to the (context dependent) moral common sense, forced to accept the most unreasonable moral excesses.

But is the criteria of moral common sense really sufficient? Several problems this criteria raises suggest that it is too liberal and therefore must be restricted some more:

  1. The criteria is ambiguous: There may be situations where several common sense morals are in conflict with each other. Also, the common sense moral is continuously changing. According to which common sense moral shall we then form our judgments?
  2. The criteria is conservative: If we slavishly stick to the criteria of moral common sense then we would always have to give bad marks to those people that are ahead of their time. Moral progress would be practically forbidden.
  3. The criteria is insufficient in cases, where the traditional morals allow or even demand grave moral vices: While fanatism may be only short lived, atavisms and superstitions can be an unquestioned part of a moral tradition. An extreme example is that of genital mutilation of girls practiced in some regions of Africa (Amnesty 2004). The practice is so abhorrent that any abstract principle of moral judgment that does not allow to banish it, must be considered insufficient.

1) The first objection does not necessarily call for a restriction of the criteria of moral common sense, but for a further decision on whether it should be applied liberally or in a more strict way. A liberal application would mean that any of the several conflicting common sense morals should be accepted. That is, if some action is right according to one of these different common sense morals, we are not entitled to criticize the person committing it any more. This may lead to contradictions in the sense that possibly opposing actions must both be accepted as morally legitimate. (Borrowing a metaphor from politics we could say that as outside observers we ought to follow a policy of non intervention when different common sense morals conflict.)

The other way to resolve the conflict between several competing common sense norms, would be to just pick the one that deems us the best (according to our own values) as reference. One might object that this solution essentially breaks the moral relativism to which we have confined ourselves when judging the actions of people. But, after all, we have only introduced a limited relativism to avoid unfair moral judgments. The sort of judgments to be excluded on behalf of their unfairness are primarily those where we would implicitly demand from people to become moral inventors in case their conventional morals should prove unacceptable to our enlightened standards. But if we confine what we may call the justified demand of moral self-reflection to the respectable systems of common sense morals competing within the context under discussion then the unfairness is much smaller and may to this extent be justified by our urge not to give in to a full fledged moral relativism. Of course, whether we ought to choose a liberal or a strict application of the criteria of moral common sense, may depend on the particular circumstances, especially the moral importance of the subject matter in question.[6]

2) The second objection can only be met by extending our criteria of moral common sense, so that it also includes progressive morals (from our own point of view). Unfortunately, we can now hardly argue for a strict application of the criteria in the above (1) sense any more, because it would seem unfair to expect from the majority of people the appreciation of the progressive point of view right away. What we have gained is only that we are not forced to condemn the progressivists as a consequence of our own criteria. This may in effect lead to “tragical situations”, situations where conflicting values clash without even a theoretical possibility of resolution.[7]

3) The third objection could appear to be the most crucial one, because it seems to force us to dilute our criteria of moral common sense by other criteria like the criterion of moral importance, which otherwise should - due to its relatively strong subjectivity - only be applied as a lower rank criteria. But if we think about it a little longer then we might also come to the conclusion that it is especially the case of superstitions and atavisms where the two-tier approach to moral judgments of institutions and norm systems as such and the people acting within these systems pays off. The best way to overcome superstitious customs is by education and tenacious convincing. A moralizing attitude is in danger of producing the adverse effect. The two-tier approach allows us to condemn the practice itself without reacting with moral reproach against the very people that need to be convinced.

If we keep in mind that, following our two-tier approach, the social institutions as such should still be judged rigorously, then the relatively weak criteria of moral common sense may, with the qualifications made above, be morally satisfactory for the judgment of concrete people and their actions.

[4] This idea as well as the following discussion of “” is strongly inspired by Hermann L treatment of “political moralism” (Luebbe 1987).

[5] This definition is, of course, not very strict, but only intended as a rough explanation to supplement the verbal intuition the phrase “moral common sense” suggests.

[6] It should be emphasized that even if we chose the liberal application of the criteria of moral common sense, we still need not include fanatism in the previously described sense, because fanatism does not even count as common sense moral.

[7] Usually, there are good reasons for avoiding “tragical situations” in any system of ethics: Tragical situations are often just a bad excuse for not taking a stance or for already having chosen the wrong side in the past. More importantly, tragical situations are essentially a type of ethical contradiction and contradictions should by and large be avoided. What appears as a contradiction in an ethical system is in practice a matter that is decided by the right of the strongest. Normally, we do not want that. But if there is really no sensible way to resolve an ethical conflict it might in certain exceptional cases even be the most humane choice to accept tragical situations and thereby the decision according to the right of the strongest. For, then the inferior is still spared from additional moral humiliation of having been illegitimately wrong.

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