According to Bernard Williams, what is true about relativism is that the more distant cultures are historically and culturally, the less willing we are to make moral appraisals that concern them. We don’t think that their ethical views are incorrect, and we won’t adopt reactive attitudes of praise and blame towards the representatives of these cultures – no matter how well or badly they behave. Yet, we do make moral appraisals of cultures that are closer to us in the history, and we blame their people for their evil deeds.
There is then a challenge of giving an account of moral appraisals (I’ll focus on blame) that carves up the joints of history at the intuitive places. Here I’ll focus on three accounts: Williams’s, Miranda Fricker’s, and Tim Scanlon’s. I’ll then develop my own proposal on the basis of Scanlon’s view.
1. Williams himself began from confrontations between moral systems. Such confrontations happen when the systems come to different practical conclusions about some acts. He then made a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘notational’ confrontations. There are two conditions for being a real confrontation. First, another system of beliefs is in a real confrontation with ours if we could, as a community, adopt the beliefs of that system. Second, we should also be able to make rational comparisons between our system and the other system we could adopt.
Williams thought that this explains why we do not blame Greek Bronze Age chiefs or mediaeval Samurais. Their ways of lives are not in real confrontation with ours because we have no way of living them (and thus the first condition is not satisfied). However, Miranda Fricker convincingly argues that the first condition is too demanding. As a community, we could not today really live the Victorian system either but we can still blame the Victorians for many things (their sexist and racist attitudes for instance). So, it cannot be required for the appropriateness of blame that a past culture is in a real confrontation with our moral system in Williams’s sense.
2. Fricker’s own solution is more appealing. She suggests that one cannot be blamed for failing to do something if one is not in a position to access the reason to do it. The idea is that accessing moral reasons depends on one’s conceptual resources. These resources are provided by the standard, routine moral thought of the ethical culture in which one lives. Fricker then claims that one cannot be blamed for behavior which is a product of thinking that is routine in one’s culture. Of course, there are people who do exceptional moral thinking and thus rise above the culture’s moral failures, and one could in principle at any given time do such a move. Yet, if some individual failed to do so in the past, we can only be disappointed in him or her, but blame would be out of order. So, the routine moral thinking of a given culture gives a criterion for when blame is appropriate.
My problem with this is that, if I think of the cultures in the distant past, many moral reasons would have been accessible in routine deliberation for them, and yet I don’t think that blame is appropriate in the relevant cases. The histories of ancient civilizations are full of stories of murder, destruction, rape, torture, slavery, and so on (consider even Williams’s examples). My sense is that we don’t blame the agents who took part in these wrongdoings. Now, could the responsible agents have been able to come to the conclusion that these things should not be done by routine moral reflection? This may be a bit naïve, but I believe they could have. First, not everyone at the time thought that these were the right things to do. Presumably the victims didn’t for one. Second, everyone should have been able to think that there are moral reasons not to act in these ways – merely in virtue of being able to put oneself to the other person’s shoes. It’s not such an exceptional leap to think that causing unnecessary unbearable suffering to another human being is wrong. Yet it still doesn’t seem that we blame the people who lived in these cultures for their wrongdoing.
3. You might think that Scanlon’s account is especially bad for understanding blame towards the past. On Scanlon’s view, you start from the presumption that people mutually recognize each other as fellow rational beings. Such recognition enables one to see the other person as a source of reasons, as someone to whom one should be able to justify one’s actions. Likewise, one begins to expect similar constrained behavior from the other person. Now, if the other person acts wrongly, this can be seen as expressing certain demeaning attitudes that are incompatible with the ideal of mutual recognition. This changes the way in which one sees one’s relationship with the other person. In fact, for Scanlon, to blame the other person just is to modify one’s relationship to a more distant one, to be less willing to interact, and so on.
This doesn’t seem to work well for the past. Scanlon begins from symmetric relations of interaction. Blame then is to remove oneself from such a relationship. But, we cannot relate to the past people in relevant way in the first place. There’s a paragraph in which Scanlon recognizes this. He says that the ‘content’ of blame changes when we think of people in the past. He writes: “As our distance from a person increases, blame becomes simply a negative evaluation, or attitude of disapproval, and even this evaluative element can seem pointless grading unless we have some particular reason to be concerned with what the person in question was like.”
I think this is wrong. It’s true that we may disapprove the people murdering and raping in the very distant past. But, we should not call this blame with different content. Mere disapproval is never enough for blame. Furthermore, the initial intuition was that we don’t blame people in the very distant past. But, if mere disapproval can count as blame, then it’s not clear why we shouldn’t disapprove everyone in the past alike, no matter how distant they are.
I think Scanlon should stick to the original account of blame and use it to explain our intuitions about the past. There’s a spectrum of relationships we have towards past cultures. At the other end, we have the past cultures that are mainly presented as curiosities in historically orientated museums. Towards them, we take a more ‘scientific’ attitude similar to the one we would to alien species. In contrast, other cultures closer to us in time are alive to us in a different way. Their art is also shown in the art galleries, and their philosophical texts are not only studied as history of ideas but also as philosophy which speaks to the problems we still struggle with. Their literature is not only seen to tell us about their times but also teach us things relevant to our lives. And, of course, there are many cultures that are located between these ends.
Now, assume that we are thinking of blaming people in past cultures as distancing ourselves from them. With the first kind of cultures, we start from a situation in which we could not do so. We have already placed those cultures in the formaldehyde of museums. Yet, at least with the cultures at the other end of the scale, the move to distance ourselves from them is always available. Instead of interacting intellectually with the given culture, we can always distance ourselves from them if we find out that their attitudes express contempt towards other human beings who are like us in most respects. This is why blame is available and appropriate for wrongdoing. The wrongdoers reasons for wrongdoing may express attitudes that were common in the culture and which make us distance ourselves from it.
So, if we think of blaming as severing our relationships to others (be they individuals or cultures), we can explain why blame towards distant past is inappropriate. We need to start from a relationship from which we can distance ourselves in the first place, and in the more distant past cases this precondition just isn’t satisfied.