Sep 052014

thomasjefferson_smYesterday I said people who didn’t terminate Down Syndrome fetuses weren’t individually immoral, even though they were making an immoral choice. They were misguided by a broken moral system that has failed to update to changing conditions. Most people are basically good, and they’re trying to make their way through life guided by principles that all of society has told them are Good. That’s what being good means, right?

The people who actually deserve condemnation are the leaders of the broken systems that oppose fixing things because they are personally comfortable. If you tell people they are evil, you’ve simply made an enemy. If you show them they have been misguided by self-indulgent or hypocritical rulers, they may someday become allies.

For this reason I also think we shouldn’t judge the past too harshly. You know what’s evil? Slowly torturing people to death because they were accused of being witches. But as horrific as that is, the individuals were simply trying to save their community from Satan’s clutches, and help to redeem the soul of their fallen neighbor. They thought they were doing good. Likewise, slavery was an unalloyed evil. And yet poor whites in the American south fought for the Confederacy, even though slavery was hurting them. Not only that, but many black men, some of them slaves, voluntarily fought for the Confederacy. They weren’t evil, they were simply trying to do what all of society agreed was the Good and Right thing to do. As Jai says, “Almost no one is evil, almost everything is broken.”

So when people point out that America’s Founding Fathers (should that be capitalized?) owned slaves and didn’t believe women and non-land-owners should have rights or votes, and say they are bad people, I think they’re using a bad metric. They would be bad people if they believed that, in our society. But for their time they were far ahead of the average. They were pushing moral progress forward from where it was! And that is what actually makes one Good. Accusing them of being bad would be akin to saying they are evil people because they allowed their children to die of pneumonia and infected cuts instead of giving them antibiotics. Medical science had not advanced enough for that to even be an option at the time. Likewise, moral science had not advanced enough for them to have the option of our standards at that time.

It is entirely possible that two hundred years from now we may be judged evil for eating the products of factory farms, or for eating animals at all. Are you willing to call your Auntie May the equivalent of a slave-owner for eating her chicken-fried steak every Thursday?

Changing the system is hard work, and takes decades. But it’s the only way to make things better. Things don’t suck because people are evil. People try to be good. They’re just working inside a broken system.

(or, if you wanted to summarize this post into a single tweet: “Eneasz says slavery is about as bad as eating steak.” :/ )

  3 Responses to “Don’t judge past people too harshly”

  1. I do not think you can compare someone not thinking rationally while examining their morals is quite the same as not having anti-biotics. Since I am on the torturing animals because we enjoy eating them isnt actually ok side of the fence, I would have to say that it doesnt seem much better than slavery.
    Rationalizing bad behaviour isn’t good.If they lived in a place where there was 100% agreement that slavery was acceptable then I can pass it off as they didnt know better.
    If there was anyone around who did present the other side of the argument to them and they chose to ignore it for their own personal gain, then how can you not call that evil ? or broken or willfully stupid or something. Whatever word you use it shouldn’t be a nice one.

    • Well, I agree with you that industrialized torture farms are awful. I eat less meat than I used to, no pork, and I try to get my animal products from sources that are advertising as less torture-y. That being said, even though I know this is far from ideal, I still eat some animals. When I go out I’ll order chicken & eggs, even though the restaurant likely doesn’t care where they come from.

      I admire vegans, and people like yourself. But the system is broken in so many ways, and I only have so much energy to use on fixing it. I will try to focus on the parts I’m most concerned about, and I will wish you the best of luck on fixing on the parts you are most concerned about. Once the system has been fixed to NOT encourage wide-spread animal torture, and all the social incentives and pressures are there to make doing the right thing by default easy, I will be very happy and go along with it. Until then, I’ll mostly be defaulting to what’s easiest in the system I’m in if it’s not one of my focal points.

      Which is why I don’t think you can’t condemn people too much if they’re already working to make the system better. Yes, the founding fathers kept slaves in a time when it was already being argued this was terrible. They had a lot going on already, what with fighting a war, forging a loose union of bickering states, and trying to implement a new form of largely untested government. At least they acknowledged the problem and put in a few first steps. No one can do everything. The system is vast and terrible, and to fight more than a human-sized piece of it requires strength reserved for gods. That’s the domain of fiction, not reality.

  2. You should probably try and use the most shocking example of moral change you think plausible when describing future changes in society.
    We would be seen as shockingly immoral (homosexuality, sexual practices, divorce) by western people from a couple of hundred years ago. We’d be seen as evil (capitalism, selfishness, lack of community) by some tribesmen from a few thousand years ago.
    We mostly measure moral progress from how far a moral system is to our current one, we are both almost certainly doing things future people find horrid and prohibiting things future people will think is fine.
    The hypothetical example I like to use is a distant future were sexual interactions with young children are seen as perfectly fine. It horrifies the vast vast majority of us today, but it’s also fairly easy to construct or imagine a future person who would find our attitude puzzling and our persecution of pedophiles horrible.

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