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Does Moral Ignorance Excuse?

Written by Neil Levy

Everyone agrees that ignorance of fact can excuse. If I take your suitcase thinking it was mine, and my belief that it was mine was faultless (perhaps the coach driver handed it to me, saying “this is yours”, and it looked exactly like mine), I seem excused of blame for taking it. But philosophers and ordinary people have been reluctant to excuse people on the basis of their moral ignorance. Think, for example, about recent debates concerning memorials to people we now recognize as deeply racist. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to demand that such memorials be removed on the grounds that it’s inappropriate to laud bad people, but the demand is often combined with blame directed at the racist (conversely, those who defend the memorials often think it’s sufficient to deflect blame on the grounds that the person was “a man of his time”).

In this post, I want to draw attention to some undiscussed problems that arise when we blame those who acted horrendously in the past, at a time when acting in that way was widely accepted. The problems I want to focus on arise when we ask how could people act like that? There are three possibilities: they acted like that because they could; because they were worse people than us; or due to factors outside their control. On each option, it’s hard to see how they deserve blame, or at least deserve our blame.

Suppose, first, they weren’t morally ignorant; suppose that Edward Colston or John Hawkins knew that slavery was wrong. Perhaps it’s obvious to any competent adult that slavery is wrong, and they simply ignored what they well knew. Perhaps they were wilfully ignorant. This is perhaps the most common view about the beliefs of really serious wrongdoers in the past. But this view runs straight into the problem of explaining how they could act in a way that they recognized was so awful.

One possibility is that they were worse people than we are. On this view, moral improvement between then and now has consisted not in the acquisition of new moral knowledge, but in becoming better people. Of course, there are plenty of terrible people around now – people we think would engage in awful conduct given the opportunity – but we can’t explain slavery and genocidal colonisation by reference to a small subset of awful people in the past. There are examples of especially bad people in the past engaging in especially bad behavior – Christopher Columbus appears to have been seen by his contemporaries as barbarous – but we’re concerned with ‘ordinary’ awful actions – the actions of people seen by their contemporaries as worthy of statues. If we’re to suppose that being worse people explains the behavior, we must suppose that most were worse than we are.

The problem with this is that it is either mysterious or excusing. The obvious explanations of moral improvement all look pretty exculpating. If we’ve become better people due to relative affluence or due to better communication or due to an institutional environment in which trust is warranted, we’ve become better due to facts for which we’re not responsible. This looks exculpatory, because we’ve explained the badness of past people by reference to facts that neither they nor we are responsible for (facts the significance of which they might not even have been able to see). On the other hand, if there’s no explanation of why we’re better people than they are, if it’s just a brute fact, that’s very mysterious, and our theories shouldn’t appeal to the existence of mysteries.

Suppose we’re not better than them. Then we seem committed to the following depressing conclusion: if we could get away with exploiting people as directly and awfully as they did, we would. It’s only watching eyes and condemnation and perhaps a lack of opportunity that prevents us from behaving as they did. If that’s right, though, then our standing to condemn them is considerably weakened. In general, X can’t blame Y for acting badly when X would have acted just as badly had they the chance to do so. So even if they’re morally responsible, we’re in no position to hold them morally responsible, and those who want to blame them have no right.

All in all, it’s hard to make sense of the situation where ‘ordinary’ past wrongdoers aren’t excused our blame. Either they’re genuinely and non-culpably ignorant, which seems excusing, or its mysterious why they acted contrary to their moral knowledge, or we lack standing to blame them.

Of course, slave owners, and those who supported them, were engaged in morally horrendous activities. Of course we should condemn what they did. That seems adequate grounds to tear down the statues. We don’t need to blame them as well.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Hey Neil,
    I take it that the ancient baddies were often quite aware of the wrong-making features of their actions even if they didn’t think of them under that description. If we accept the ‘No Worse’ claim, it looks like we’d have to say that they’re ‘No Worse’ than us even though our dispositions to respond in thought, deed, and emotion are right (or could be assumed to be given the dialectic) and theirs are not, but that suggests that they manifest a willingness to do damage, destroy, and injure the things that morality cares about when we do not. That’s at least one sense in which they would be worse than us–our actions might manifest concern for the very same things that morality cares about even if their actions would manifest a lack of concern for these things.

    I guess the next question is whether this has much of anything to do with blame. Here, I’m thinking that we need to distinguish the conditions under which attitudinal blame would be correct or objectively suitable from those that have to do with the propriety of the expression of blame. It might be that the acknowledgement that we’d have had their bad dispositions had we been in their shoes gives us some reason not to blame even if this acknowledgement tells us nothing about whether the conditions for attitudinal blame might be correct. I wonder what you think about feelings of guilt? If we had an ancient baddie who converted and they came to see that they’d treated people cruelly or didn’t recognise the dignity inherent in persons, do you think they should feel guilt for their wrongdoing (again, assuming that they were aware of the features that made their actions wrong)? I’d think that they should feel guilt, but maybe that’s another point of disagreement. I’ve been wondering if this is a reasonable test for the correctness or suitability of attitudinal blame–the proper object of attitudinal blame exists when the grounds for feeling guilt upon discovering the wrongfulness of our behaviour obtain.

    This doesn’t address your points about exculpation, but I thought I’d try to formulate the beginning of a response to push back in support of the view that we can rightly blame the ancient baddies. The one thing that I’d say about exculpation and moral improvement is that there might be a way for fans of blaming the ancient baddies of trying to do justice to part of what you’re saying. Things have changed so that it’s easier to grasp the connection between wrong-making features and wrongfulness, so maybe it IS easier to be a good person now than it was back then. It’s true that the ancient baddies might not have been responsible for living under a more challenging regime, but maybe that just shows that it’s harder to excuse our behaviour if we act like they did in full awareness of the wrong-making features of our acts than it is to excuse theirs if they , not that their behaviour should be excused. On its face, it seems that we might acknowledge that our situations differ from theirs and that some differences might matter to exculpation and/or inculpation without having to accept that the conditions that make blame suitable didn’t obtain in the time of the ancient baddies. (Don’t know if that last part made any sense. Quite sleepy, but thought I’d try to float a few ideas by way of response.)

    1. The point about guilt is an interesting one. I don’t think agents should feel guilt in agent regret cases but this isn’t faultless wrongdoing. One way to go would be to align guilt with actions that are wrong under the relevant description, where that description is available to the agent at the time of acting. I think that’s how I would go. I’ve defended the “under the relevant description” claim elsewhere, when it comes to the issues in your first para.

      Your final point: we can acknowledge that exculpating factors are in play without being committed to thinking that they’re sufficient to move from blameworthy to blameless? On that view, these factors would weaken blame without removing it; is that the point? There are plausibly such cases, but I think the commemorations of slave traders strongly suggests that contemporary recognition of wrongness was sufficiently weak that this is not a case in which the person could take the relevant sufficiently seriously to qualify for a significant amount of blame. They’re like the meat eaters of mid century, perhaps. The criticisms were available to them but seen as unserious.

  2. Winston Churchill in 1922 said about Benito Mussolini that Mussolini is a gorgeous politician who can be our defender against communism.
    The Pope Pius said about Mussolini that he is a man send by the God’s Providence ….

    Were Churchill or Pope moral ignorant? Can we judge the past according to the principles of present time?

  3. Eric is vicious in some way—unkind, let’s say—because he fails to recognise the salience of other people’s feelings to how he should act. Erica is not vicious in that way; she recognises facts about other people’s feelings as reasons to act and to refrain from acting (and acts accordingly). Even if there’s a some cultural story to be told about how Erica has been raised to recognise the value of others’ feelings whilst Eric has not, I don’t yet see what content the question ‘Yes, Eric is vicious in a way Erica isn’t, but is he a worse person?’ could have.

    Is the thought perhaps this—given two equally complacent people, how virtuous or vicious they are and in which ways will depend on how they are brought up? That might of course of be true and will underpin the Aristotelian insistence that how someone is brought up (including in which cultural conditions) is crucial for what kind of character they will have; simply, whether they come to value what needs to be valued. But the idea that the central judgement about someone’s character should concern how complacently they accept the values of those around them looks far fetched to me. But if what’s at issue is not that, I’m not sure what it could be.

    Similarly (perhaps), once I’ve judged that someone has acted in a way that’s unkind or unjust or whatever and has done so not because they’re akratic but because they’re relevantly vicious—the action manifests their bad character—I’m not sure what more is supposed to be, or could be, needed to blame them for doing what they did.

    1. Sure, Eric is a worse person. Their action manifests their viciousness and it is condemnable. But does that entail blameworthiness? We can assess agents and actions without thinking they’re deserving of blame. At least as often conceived, blameworthiness opens one up to unpleasant treatment. It’s that sense I have in mind (we can, as some people do, use ‘blame’ to refer to person assessment instead).

    2. But then it looks to be our temporal relation to the vicious agent that blocks our ability to blame them—the question of how to treat them simply can’t arise—rather than the particularities of why they acted as they did. If we ask whether their contemporaries could legitimately have sanctioned them for their vicious behaviour, the answer is surely yes.

      1. Blaming is an attitude toward a person that justifies harsh treatment if you’re in the right relationship to them. We can have that attitude without being in a position to act on it.

        1. Presumably it’s not the attitude itself which justifies any sanction, it’s rather that the attitude *is* the belief that sanction is warranted. But that take me back to my original concern: if someone’s having acted viciously (rather than merely akratically) isn’t such as to warrant sanction, what more could be needed? (Which isn’t, of course, to say that akratic bad action isn’t also blameworthy.)

  4. I don’t know what constitutes moral ignorance. Were we discussing primitives, with sorely limited KSA’s (knowledge, skills and abilities), I could, I think, understand the question. But, no, insofar as such people do not exist, in great numbers, in modern society. So, is it moral ignorance that is being addressed, or something else? I poked fun at a blog post which questioned fifteenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes position on racism. It was asked: was Hobbes a racist? He, it was alleged, never wrote about slavery. I do not know. I offered that this was not necessarily a priority for Hobbes, who had things to say that interested him more.
    I also claimed that a reasoning which asserts complacency=complicity=guilt fails: applying twentieth century morality to sixteenth century reality is ludicrous. Retro-active history also fails. So, what may we say of moral ignorance? By these lights, not much.

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