And moral temporality.
I passed – I can’t remember where, or I’d reference it – someone else’s Twitter discussion about whether or not people’s attitudes should be forgiven because they lived in a past time, and whether or not that changes if they’re still alive. I then, apparently, continued to think about it for a while, and thus this post was born.
So: is being “a product of their time” a valid reason for a person’s (presumably currently out of favour with the speaker) opinions, moral or otherwise?
Well… it depends.
Largely, it depends on the speaker and their relative viewpoint. If you assume some form of overarching, eternal, unchanging moral framework that defines “right” and “wrong” (and usually conveniently happens to agree with your own opinions), then obviously the excuses are somewhat limited, since the hypothetical moral framework was presumably always there and “waiting to be discovered”. Alternatively, if you assume that morality is a construct of the individual, updated and refined or held constant according to their experiences and preferences, then it is only natural that they should be a product of their environment, time coordinate included.
So instead of one easy question with two simple answers, we now have answers that say something about the question-answerer themselves! And, each one has subdivisions. (Obviously you can draw as many subdivisions and nuances as you want. I don’t have time for more than a couple.) Let’s check them off:
- Morality is absolute. What I think is right today is and always has been right. I may be wrong about some aspect of this absolute morality, in which case I am a bad person and ought to update my judgements to agree with it the moment that I find out.
- It is furthermore reasonably easy to find out about this absolute morality by relying on one’s feelings about it. Then anyone who disagrees with me must be ignoring their feelings, and therefore evil. Since I mostly don’t feel bad about myself, I must be mostly good. (This is, in my authorial eyes, the single most dangerous version of morality, and in case that wasn’t already clear, I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s also very seductive by virtue of its sheer easiness.) The people of the past who didn’t agree with me in life are as unforgivable as anyone who doesn’t today: they should all think and feel exactly what I think and feel.
- It is, however, quite difficult to work out the full depth and breadth of this absolute morality, and people make mistakes about it all the time, myself included. Since we can only learn from our experiences (even if that experience is reading about someone else’s experience, it’s still an experience we had – and certainly isn’t the writer’s actual experience), and our experiences are in part determined by the people around us, it’s forgiveable to at least some degree that someone surrounded by people with an incorrect understanding of this absolute morality should themselves come to an incorrect understanding.
- Morality is relative. It’s a series of opinions about how people “should” interact with one another and the world, formed by individuals based on their experiences and reasoning. What I think is right defines my actions and says something about me, but it’s not derived from any external scale.
- That doesn’t, however, make the people of the past any better. I don’t expect everyone to come to the same conclusions, but I still judge them by my own. These people may not be “not good enough”, but they are certainly “not good enough for me” . Their thoughts about what they were and why are no excuse.
- As a result, I think their opinions are probably about as valid given their circumstances as my own, give or take details of the interaction of their opinions and their circumstances. They were who they were because of the combination of their thoughts and their surroundings, and if I don’t like their morals, I consider it understandable that they were what they were. Perhaps in other circumstances, they would have been different people entirely. This doesn’t excuse them from responsibility – people can still be responsible for their actions without those actions being either good or bad in any specific individual’s eyes – but it does attempt to value the fact that they thought they were right, whether or not I agree. They would probably have thought I was just as wrong as I think they are.
So, which one are you? (And yes, I know these categories are overly broad; in fact, I’m itching to write more subdivisions and nuances. But I only have so much time in my life, and I have a whole new website to write, as well as my next book!) Which are you, and are you happy with it? Are you certain that you are right about the moral question?
If you are certain… why?