Andrew+numbers has brought up another and in many ways better example of moral pluralism than the one I mentioned: namely, the changes in morality through time.
This is an issue that I have had to deal with frequently, since I do a lot of research and teaching on history. It is easy for kids to hear about the actions of people in the past which we now deplore, and conclude that the people at that time were just wicked. This is not a conclusion borne out by the evidence. It is clear that people of other times were like us in their degrees of goodness and wickedness, and also that they disagreed with us, or at least behaved very differently, when it came to moral issues.
C.S. Lewis writes about this, saying that we tend to focus on the ways in which people of other times were worse than we are, but that there are virtues that are characteristic of a time, just as there are evils. We look down on the people of the Middle Ages for their cruelty, he said, but they would look down on us for our lack of courage and chastity. Having reminded ourselves of this, let us recognize that there are plenty of things that people did in the past which scandalize us today.
Let us consider slavery. It is, I think, an excellent example of this because we would be hard-pressed to find either anyone who approves of it now or any culture that has never practiced it.
When you talk to people who remember segregation, they often say that they never thought about it. It was just “how things were.” In my own lifetime, I can remember people smoking in public places, men making sexist jokes to their female employees, and parents spanking children — all behaviors now shocking to many of us but once accepted as commonplace. Doubtless there were people who accepted slavery in the same way. But there were also people who thought about it, and concluded that it was right.
Joseph Ruggles Wilson, the father of President Woodrow Wilson, wrote a sermon on the subject (click on “sermon” to read the whole thing) which argued that slavery was just another type of family relationship. Someone has to do the work, he said, and it is often the wife or the eldest child or a poor relation living in the house, or it may be a slave. To Wilson, a slave had a relationship to his or her owner akin to the relationship of child to parent or wife to husband. He was not advocating cruelty or rejoicing in evil, but his understanding of slavery was fundamentally different from ours.
There were also people who believed slavery to be wrong, but were involved in it anyway. In the town where I live, there was a woman who inherited several slaves in the 1860s. She could not simply free them, because at that time it was not legal for a black person to live in this state as a free person. She did not have the funds to send them to another state and set them up in a new life there. She agonized about this in her diary at some length, and in the end determined to keep the slaves in her household. Now it might be that, had she asked them, the slaves would have said they would take their freedom and chance the consequences, but she did not ask them. Nor, it seems, did she consider keeping them in the household, but in a position of equality. She was a product of her time, and did not see those alternatives. She simply saw that she was in a complex situation, and chose the best of the options she could think of.
Slavery continues today. I have written about this before and I will probably write about it again, and I hope you do not think that it is conspiracy theory imaginings. The U.S. Congress and the International Labor Office are among the institutions that are concerned about slavery in the modern world. I have often spoken about this, and about the steps we as first world consumers can take to end it, including boycotts of the worst offenders, buying Fair Trade goods, and writing to the businesses involved.
I know that many people who get this news continue to buy goods produced by slave labor. In the 21st century, I am fairly confident that this is not because they approve of slavery. Nor is it really because they feel that they have no option. It is because they prefer to do what is cheaper or more convenient, or more accustomed, in spite of the moral issues involved.
A Wall Street Journal essayist recently announced that he would buy laundry soap from Satan if he were offering the best price. Many of us are doing essentially that. And I am sure that there were many people in the days when slavery was legal in our nation who participated in it or benefited from it in lower prices, who knew full well that is was wrong, but were able to still their consciences.
Across time and across cultures, we see that people have different interpretations of specific behaviors, that they feel stuck in behaviors they think wrong, and that they do things they know to be wrong. I don’t think that this has changed.
As students of history, as readers of literature from other times, we have to consider the historical context of behaviors in order to understand what was going on. I think we also have to understand the cultural context of behaviors in our own time in order to read the news with understanding, or to have compassion for others.
But that does not make slavery right.