Darwin, Victorian


Adam Rutherford presents a balanced assessment of Darwin.

Darwin was a liberal, and an abolitionist, perhaps influenced by his taxidermy tutor in Edinburgh, a Guyanese man called John Edmonstone who had once been enslaved. But we must be honest in our assessment of him and his work. He was a man of his time, and The Descent of Man contains many passages that seriously jar today, being scientifically specious and politically outmoded. Darwin never mentions Edmonstone by name, only as a “full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate”. He speaks of how the “civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races”.

In the more elegant quotations, you may note the typically Victorian use of “man” to mean all humans. It is less forgivable given Darwin’s belief that women were intellectually inferior: “If men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” At least part of his incomparable legacy is that we now know this to be incorrect.

That’s fair. Basically, everyone who lived over 50 years ago was stuffed to the gills with wrong ideas — wrong as we know them to be now, and 50 years from now the next generation will be appalled at what the majority believes now (“You went to church, and thought capitalism was good?”) — but at least he was in the vanguard of those trying to bring about a better world for all.

Still, when Bill & Ted fetch him back to the modern day in their telephone booth, I expect to be disappointed. I can imagine Darwin tut-tutting on Twitter about all those women in comic book movies, and suggesting, in the name of the betterment of mankind, that maybe those ladies should be home tending the children, and maybe they aren’t better than a dog anyways, what with all these modern ideas. Let’s keep him in the 19th century!

Hmm. Maybe we could use that telephone booth to send a lot of 21st century babblers back the 19th, where they’d be happier.

Comments

  1. says

    Which reminds me…there was once a creationist on talk.origins who announced that Darwin saying “with whom I happened once to be intimate” was his confession that he’d had homosexual relations with a black man, and that he’d openly written about it. Everyone howled. We tried to explain that “intimate” has broader meanings than he thought, and I think he eventually backed down from that claim, but not from all his other stupid ideas.

    I’m trying to remember his name. Did he call himself “American Patriot”, or something like that? Terry something? I’ve been trying to edit creationists out of my brain.

  2. blf says

    @1, Wasn’t there also a cretinist loon who mistook Darwin’s use of “ejaculating” — similar to your own use in “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations fro m a godless liberal” — to mean sexual, possibly homosexual, relations / acts?

  3. flexilis says

    Heh…As adolescents my friends and I got a lot of amusement while reading the Conan the Barbarian books which featured a frequent “‘Crom!’ he ejaculated.”

  4. weylguy says

    I can forgive many of Darwin’s sins as being a consequence of the time he lived in, but maybe I’m letting him off too easily. My main problem with his work is that, like many other physical scientists, there are no equations to study and understand. So it’s no wonder that strict creationists and others of the non-scientific sort reject evolution outright.

  5. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “use that telephone booth to send a lot of 21st century babblers back the 19th,”

    FIFY.

  6. Bruce says

    What is this “telephone booth” of which you speak? I can’t remember the last time I saw one.

  7. kathleenzielinski says

    I’ve never been completely comfortable with where to draw the line of letting people off the hook because they are products of their time. Sure, if you grow up in a society in which everyone (or almost everyone) believes women are inferior to men and blacks are inferior to whites, and you have no particular reason to actually think it through on your own, chances are good you’ll just roll with the tide. And none of us is perfect, so I’m fine with honoring people for the good they did even if they also did some bad.

    The problem, though, is that that ultimately lets most bad actors off the hook. Arguably, Hitler was a product of his time — he grew up in a time when anti-Semitism was a given, and his ultra nationalism was fueled in large part by the fact that Germans were in fact cold and hungry. Yet I’m not prepared to excuse gas chambers because Hitler was a product of his time, even though to a certain extent he was. (I also don’t believe in free will, which further complicates things, but that’s for a different discussion.)

    So where does that line get drawn? Are there some principles that are so basic and axiomatic that all people at all times and places are expected to know and follow them? If so, what’s the basis for the claim that they exist? Where is the line drawn on evil that is so malignant that it cancels any good whatsoever that the person otherwise did? Lincoln freed the slaves, but he was also personally racist and thought they should all be relocated back to Africa; was he a good guy or a bad guy? Sometimes it’s complicated.

  8. snarkrates says

    Why is there any talk of letting anyone have a pass for their sins because they were “men of their time?” By the same token, shouldn’t our own shortcomings make us all the more guilty because of the “enlightened” time in which we live?

    Regardless of our time, in the end, we are the sum of all the things we have done–for good or ill. The only criterion by which we can judge each other–and more to the point–ourselves is whether we leave the world better or worse than it was when we came into it. The world was a far better place because of Darwin, while Rush Limpdick only made the world worse. It doesn’t matter when they lived. Darwin was a good man. Rush was an asshole.
    It is my fondest hope that our progeny look back on our time and our prejudices with embarrassment. If they don’t, it means they will not have progressed.

  9. raven says

    What is this “telephone booth” of which you speak? I can’t remember the last time I saw one.

    LOL.
    Not so long ago, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I saw a full size pay telephone booth next to an old gas station.
    From the style, it was a blue Bell Telephone type from somewhere between the 1950’s and 1960’s.

  10. Vreejack says

    There was a video game from around 20 years ago but set in our future in which a character encounters a glass phone booth in a forgotten corner of an abandoned industrial zone and wonders if it was some kind of art object. An old telephone in a glass case. Experiencing that, I felt I was looking forward and backward in time all at once. It was disturbing.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    kathleenzielinski @ # 7: … was he a good guy or a bad guy?

    Dichotomous, Manichean thinking serves little purpose but mental and moral laziness.

  12. stroppy says

    Somebody here referenced Margaret Thatcher a while back as believing there is no society, just individuals and families. Interesting how that bias lurks behind so many of our judgements even while we deny it.

    Are we a product of out time? Can’t wait to see how we’re judged, though I rather think that it will be all about the climate change…

    Phone booth. Reminds me that my chameleon circuit is stuck in blue box mode.

  13. mikereid says

    If a historical person’s views were typical of and acceptable in their time and place and if they were acting within the societal norms of their time, I think that we should not to be too critical of them.

    I read “The Descent of Man” years ago and yes, by today’s standards, Darwin was a racist and a sexist. But I do give him a pass on this because I don’t think it’s fair to impose modern values on historical persons. Darwin was a product of his time as we are of ours and his values and views were inevitably shaped by the norms of that time. And Darwin was actually more liberal and enlightened in these areas than were most of his Victorian contemporaries.

    I greatly admire Thomas Jefferson even though he owned slaves. As morally abhorrent as slavery is to us, in his time and place it was an accepted societal norm. He was therefore acting within the norms and values of his time, so I give him a partial pass. (I would admire him even more had he not owned slaves and had he been part of that outlier minority in his day that did think that slavery should be abolished.) I also think that for completeness his slave ownership needs to be front and center in every historical discussion of him.

    A previous commenter asked how much of a pass should we give to historical persons based on their time and gave Hitler and the NAZIs as an example. I would say that it’s perfectly valid to condemn Hitler and his NAZIs as monsters because they were acting well outside the societal norms of even their own time and place. Their actions were abominable even by 1940s standards, even in antisemitic Germany, and they knew it. Because they knew that the world and even many of their own people would see them as villains, they kept their atrocities secret to the degree that they could. Contemporary Allied soldiers were horrified when they discovered the death camps. The majority of Germans did not know the full extent of their government’s atrocities until after the war and were horrified when they found out. The NAZI’s actions were so atrocious that they would have been condemned in pretty much any period in human history. So when a historical person’s beliefs or actions are reprehensible by the standards of even their own time, it’s fair to condemn them.

    This is why, for what it’s worth, I see Darwin as a hero and Hitler as a monster.

  14. lumipuna says

    What is this “telephone booth” of which you speak? I can’t remember the last time I saw one.

    There’s an app you can use to call a telephone booth from 20th century when you need to time travel.

  15. brightmoon says

    I thought of Bill and Ted’s telephone booth from the movie . The last phone booth I saw was about 13 years ago and it didn’t have a phone in it . It did have the familiar piss smell though if you remember why people hated phone booths .

  16. brightmoon says

    John Edmonstone, thank you , I always wanted to know his name ! Darwin probably didn’t mention it because of class . Working class people were generally below the pale and if you were female or non white it was even worse. I’m surprised he gave Wallace credit as that wasn’t customary either.

  17. klatu says

    @mikereid #14

    I don’t think it’s fair to impose modern values on historical persons

    Fucking. Wrong.

    Darwin was a racist and sexist by definition, because his views are in line with what is now understood to be racist and sexist. Sure, that definition depends on the observer’s historical frame-of-reference. But his views weren’t less reprehensible for existing in a more reprehesible framework.

    Just… You basically just said the holocaust would have been morally defensible if the rest of the world had participated. Or if the Nazis had won and taken over the world.

    I’m glad you’re alive today and not back then. Who knows what you might have felt comfortable being accomplice too, given what just fell out of your keyboard?

    Sorry for the combative tone. I don’t want to start a thing. But I couldn’t just let that bullshit stand there unchallenged.

  18. whheydt says

    I don’t recall author or title, but there is an SF novel in which there is a machine that can take a “time slice” to bring a (live) historical person into the present. The owner of the company whose research labs built it has 9 of his “ancestors” brought to his current time.

    At one point, one who was a slave owner is dismissively rude to the–Black–scientist that developed the machine. An opponent of the the company owner arranges to have someone hand the researcher a gun, which he proceeds to use to shoot the slave owner.

    It does get complicated when when, during the ensuing murder trial, the “deceased” (remember, time slice retrieval) is called as a witness and walks into court, and the computer AI that assists the judge, promptly blows up (unrealistic, to be sure, but it furthers the plot).

  19. cartomancer says

    It strikes me that this whole idea of judging famous people from history as potential moral exemplars is itself an arbitrary, culturally specific thing. There is no intrinsic reason why we should view history as a storehouse of people to admire and imitate or despise and reject – and yet it is a ubiquitous impulse in our cultures. Not all cultures do this.

    I think the reason why we view history, especially biographical history, in this way is because the Greek and Roman historians did, and our popular concept of history is still very much rooted in their ideals. These kinds of debates trace straight back to Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus, and above all to Plutarch – who set out explicitly that their aim was to show the great men of the past and how their characters came across, for admiration and emulation or scorn and dismissal. But their conception of history was very much a product of their own time – a time which lionised great men and made competition between them for honour, glory, power and authority the cornerstone of politics and culture. It’s the Greek educational ideal of mimesis or the Roman ideal of aemulatio writ large, and it presupposes a whole range of assumptions about inborn moral character, the performative nature of virtue and historical causation that most of us simply don’t subscribe to.

    Modern historical sensibilities would lay aside such moral questions more or less completely. The historian doesn’t need to perform a moral assessment of characters from the past, because modern history writing is not about making value judgments but exploring causation and the unfolding of circumstance. It is not about finding heroes and villains in the cast of past ages. I’m not sure that even moral philosophers have much interest in doing so either.

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    kathleenzielinski @ # 12: … what are you proposing as an alternative?

    Suspending judgments of “good” and “bad” unless/until you need to make a binary decision (a vote, an invitation, etc), and simply accepting/researching the factors involved in any given case so far as necessity/interest/information available will take you.

    mikereid @ # 14: I greatly admire Thomas Jefferson even though he owned slaves.

    He not only “owned” them, he raped (at least) one (slavery obviates any idea of consent).

    … had he been part of that outlier minority in his day that did think that slavery should be abolished.

    In his younger days, he did think (or anyway stated) exactly that. And he had some justification for believing that the institution would decline and disappear on its own – before the invention of the cotton gin totally transformed plantation economics. In his old age, he openly conceded his generation had failed on that account, and explicitly left it for future generations to resolve. Sadly, if tellingly, his avowed intention to free his slaves on his death was aborted by the mass of his accumulated debts.

  21. ORigel says

    @19 I think we should criticize Darwin but regard him as a relatively good guy and that if we were in his time and social class, we would hold views just as reprehensible if not worse.

  22. says

    I read “The Descent of Man” years ago and yes, by today’s standards, Darwin was a racist and a sexist. But I do give him a pass on this because I don’t think it’s fair to impose modern values on historical persons. Darwin was a product of his time as we are of ours and his values and views were inevitably shaped by the norms of that time. And Darwin was actually more liberal and enlightened in these areas than were most of his Victorian contemporaries.
    I greatly admire Thomas Jefferson even though he owned slaves. As morally abhorrent as slavery is to us, in his time and place it was an accepted societal norm. He was therefore acting within the norms and values of his time, so I give him a partial pass.

    What do you mean when you say that you “give someone a pass”?

    I don’t given anyone a pass just because they died before I was born, but that’s because my decision making system isn’t about creating heroes & villains.

    I label the actions and statements as sexist, racist, good, bad, etc. As a consequence, the person who undertook those actions or made those statements can be labeled, if it is relevant or necessary, “A person who did X and said Y.”

    Darwin is not magically a person who actually didn’t do the morally reprehensible things he did, nor actually say the morally reprehensible things he said. The statements and actions are not magically less reprehensible because they were common among a certain class of persons. But labeling someone a hero or villain is not merely unnecessary, it’s counterproductive because it gets in the way of seeing (and clearly judging) the actions and statements themselves.

    Giving someone “a pass” would seem to me to bad for all of us. But if you simply mean, “I do not label them a villain”, well, fine. But you’re doing the right thing (withholding the “villain” label) for the wrong reason.

  23. kathleenzielinski says

    Pierce, No. 23, but all you’re doing is kicking the can down the road for another time. I might agree with you that sometimes it’s just as well not to make decisions that don’t have to be made. But when the decision does have to be made, sometimes there’s a binary choice.

    Though I would go a step further than that and say that good people and bad people exist in the movies; in real life most of us are a bit more complex than that. Which does not mean that I would have Hitler over as a dinner guest on the theory that there must be some good buried there somewhere.

  24. James Fehlinger says

    If a historical person’s views were typical of and acceptable
    in their time and place and if they were acting within the societal norms
    of their time, I think that we should not to be too critical of them.

    Fucking. Wrong.

    Darwin was a racist and sexist by definition. . .
    [H]is views weren’t less reprehensible for existing in a more
    reprehesible framework. . .

    You basically just said the holocaust would have been morally defensible
    if the rest of the world had participated. Or if the Nazis had won and
    taken over the world.

    I don’t want to start a thing. But I couldn’t just let that bullshit stand
    there unchallenged.

    Oh dear. You know, I’ve known what certain folks on the left think
    of J. R. R. Tolkien ever since I read Catherine R. Stimpson’s little
    pamphlet about him more than half a century ago
    ( http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/J.R.R.Tolkien(by_Catherine_Stimpson) ).

    I still enjoy The Lord of the Rings (and the rest of the Tolkien mythos),
    and I’ve had the luxury of not worrying too much about who might
    conclude from my appalling literary taste that I might have racist,
    sexist, or Fascist sympathies.

    So — Tolkien, Darwin, . . ., Homer, the Epic of Gilgamesh. . .
    Should we burn the books, keep them under lock and key (or at least
    out of the reach of the tender-minded, such as public school kids),
    or would a strongly-worded disclaimer be sufficient? (For the latter,
    I imagine a bulk supply of standard boilerplate stickers
    that can be affixed by junior librarians to the inside front
    covers — like those old “Ex Libris” stickers you could put
    in your personal collection to serve as reminders to anybody
    who might want to borrow a volume.)

    Jeez, I just read this in today’s Times
    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/opinion/bon-appetit-cancel-culture.html
    (and yes, I know that Bret Stephens is not “one of us”).

    ;->

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    kathleenzielinski @ # 26: … all you’re doing is kicking the can down the road …

    Not really, unless by some fantastic scenario I end up needing to decide whether, e.g., Lincoln was a good guy or a bad guy.

    As (university-affiliated, teaching historian) cartomancer notes at # 23, historians no longer feel any burden to invest much energy in moral judgments. Even in extreme cases, someone might note that, say, Genghis Khan caused more deaths but Tamerlane was more sadistic, but that doesn’t require rendering a verdict or a sentence.

    … good people and bad people exist in the movies; in real life most of us are a bit more complex …

    A sense of detachment about values judgment may also assist in “real life”. One can with equal validity consider Donald J. Trump a destructive psychopath and a victim of abusive fathering, and work however possible to oppose the effects of his actions, without any need to play St. Peter and render decisive moralistic conclusions. Admittedly, that calls for a detachment and a tolerance for ambiguity/contradiction that many might find uncomfortable, but I find it preferable to making and defending absolutist conclusions when my moral opinions would have no real consequences anyway.

  26. kathleenzielinski says

    Pierce, No. 28, you can take the position — and I’m not quite there yet — that morality is just a social construct that has no real existence, in which case this entire conversation is beside the point. If there is no objective morality, then there is no yardstick to draw an ethical distinction between a mugger and the victim of a mugging.

    But if that’s the case, then why are we bothering to take down statues of Confederate leaders and sympathizers? Why not just say that Robert E. Lee was a complicated human being and leave his statue up for his fans to venerate? Is there really no difference between Martin Luther King and the racists he fought? Sorry, not buying it.

  27. quasar says

    The big question for me is whether or not Darwin would have been open to new idea’s, were he exposed to them. He was a progressive by the standards of his time, and we know he changed his views on many things throughout the course of his life, incl. religion.

    That along with a bunch of other tidbits about the man’s personality makes me think he was an introspective, compassionate and reasonable person, someone who may have been open to the progressive idea’s of later generations had he ever been exposed to them.

  28. azpaul3 says

    Darwin may surprise you, Dr. M. Though stuck initially in his Victorian mindset he may well come to recognize challenges to his thinking in the greater body of evidence in today’s biology.

  29. stroppy says

    Hmm. @ 29 Glad you mentioned the mugger, because I think this discussion also touches on how we think about corrections, criminal justice, and for that matter prison reform.

    You go to court to determine what happened, then you determine what to do about it. You don’t want the forensic history colored by value judgements. When it comes to sentencing, what are you trying to achieve? That’s were what you decide affects society for better or worse.

  30. unclefrogy says

    I do not know what to say really. There is an idea that permeates Christianity which that we are all sinners. It is often said by people who use the idea to judge others which is kind of the opposite of what “the christ” said kind of one of the ideas that helped to push me away from religion. I think that is a good way to look at the past as well as the present. There are consequences and results to actions to be sure and they do involve judgments but they are are they not relative to the time in which the judgments are made. I do not know if it is a subtle point or not or even if it is necessary to try to make it.
    people have abilities and weaknesses. People often seem to be able to come up with one or two related great ideas and that is about it. Darwin made his discovery a profound one at the time revolutionary even and spent his time on it. His question of how did all these creatures come about was a tremendous one to attempt answer and obviously he recognized some of the unsettling implications of it He was pretty much a conventional middle class englishman and he and his family was part of that middle class and being part of it was important he was not some kind of radical he maintained his status.
    As far as I know though he held to the conventional racism and sexism of his society he was not engaged in active abuse and discrimination to any great extent.
    jefferson is a much more complicated person with great contradictions all through his life with strengths and weaknesses he said and accomplished some great things that still reverberate today as well as some much lesser thins that might put him in prison today
    Looking at the other person mentioned in this discussion I would say that he was probably the result of abuse and the product of his times. he behaved monstrously and in the end was very much a danger to the order of the world and the society that was growing out of it and since he would not accept the growing change he was destroyed by it. It probably was an act of self destruction acutely
    uncle frogy

  31. brucegee1962 says

    I don’t have a problem with passing moral judgements on people today or in the past. But I do think the prevailing standards of the day must be taken into account. Why should I hold a slaveholder in dynastic Egypt, when as far as we know virtually nobody thought there was a problem with slavery, to the same standards of Jefferson’s America, when clearly people were beginning to realize they needed to come up with rationalizations because slavery was making them uncomfortable? Are either of them comparable to an American southerner in 1860, who had the opportunity to be exposed to decades of abolitionist literature and chose to ignore it?

  32. unclefrogy says

    I do not think it is an either or question life is simply not a black and white question.
    uncle frogy

  33. Pierce R. Butler says

    kathleenzielinski @ # 29: …you can take the position — and I’m not quite there yet — that morality is just a social construct that has no real existence….

    Not what I wanted to imply, especially since I think morality is a social construct – long-evolving and with major physical effects though lacking any physical substrate. Healthy moralities provide for mutual support, empathy, and desires to improve (oneself, the community, just about anything); unhealthy ones do the opposite.

    We can see negative trends growing across the US and much of the rest of the world, and developing a strong morality seems essential for species survival (I would say a viable morality demands thinking on that sort of scale as well as the inter-intra-personal). And we need to work in the linear dimension of Do-It/Don’t-Do-It to effect any positive moral system, attaching values to various types of action.

    But circumstances don’t work that way regarding the past. As resources allow, we can take time and measure (sometimes) and analyze in depth, and focus on what actually happened/why with no pressure to make value-judgment decisions with probable personal consequences.

    We can respect King, even hold him up as a role model, and still see the need to remember his less admirable traits and deeds. Deliberately overlooking his, shall we say “sins,” will not get us any closer to a better world; it may even set us back if we transfer that erroneous perception to later leaders with their own flaws. Putting a human on a pedestal works only for certain flavors of kink.

    Back to Genghis Khan: He killed and looted and enslaved at every opportunity, destroying multiple kingdoms, yet the “Pax Mongolica” he created opened up Eurasia via the Silk Road, an exchange of cultures which enabled, among other things, the Renaissance. He committed so many rapes (again, consent was moot) that he spread his genetic markers across a continent, but acknowledged, even feared, his mother’s authority. We can’t help but react emotionally to his violations of just about every human moral code, but stopping at that level may prevent confronting the paradoxes of our past (and thus our present).

  34. says

    @kathleenzielinski, # 29:

    Pierce, No. 28, you can take the position — and I’m not quite there yet — that morality is just a social construct that has no real existence, in which case this entire conversation is beside the point. If there is no objective morality, then there is no yardstick to draw an ethical distinction between a mugger and the victim of a mugging.
    But if that’s the case, then why are we bothering to take down statues of Confederate leaders and sympathizers? Why not just say that Robert E. Lee was a complicated human being and leave his statue up for his fans to venerate? Is there really no difference between Martin Luther King and the racists he fought? Sorry, not buying it.

    This is a straw man, and crap argumentation besides. No one is saying that there’s no difference between Dr. King and George Wallace or Bull Connor.

    When we tear down the statues of white supremacists and slavers we do so because the actions for which the white supremacists and slavers are being celebrated are bad actions.

    Thomas Jefferson did some very, very fucked up shit. Evil, if you like, though I would tend to say morally condemnable. But he also did some genuinely good things, for instance his strong participation in the drafting of the US constitution included a defense of religious liberty and advocacy for the impeachment provisions that were supposed to strengthen the country by serving as a defense against corruption and/or incompetence. Those are good things AND ALSO they are things for which he is both famous and praised.

    Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, is neither famous nor praised for anything other than his participation in a war to preserve slavery. He had to commit treason in order to fight on the side of slavery, so it’s not even as if he had some greater loyalty which made him vulnerable to being swept along, making no particular decision to join the wrong side, but, having been offered a high position in the Union army and a chance to demonstrate his faithfulness to the oath he took to uphold the US constitution, he chose to forsake his country and his oath so that, after considering the matter, he could quite intentionally join the slavers.

    He is remembered and celebrated in the south for that choice – for choosing the side of slavery and secession and treason, and then killing in the name of those causes. For nothing else is he famous, and therefore his statues could only be in celebration of these actions.

    I freely admit that Robert E. Lee was a complicated, complex human being, no less complicated or complex than myself. I’m sure he made good, morally laudable decisions, but those are not the decisions for which he is famous. You don’t get a statue 30 years after your death just because you picked some daisies for your mother once when you were 7 years old, as kind and generous and loving as that act may be.

    We tear down those statues not because of who they celebrate, but because of what they celebrate. Dr. King wasn’t famous for having sex with women other than his wife, though he did that. He’s famous for organizing non-violently to oppose white supremacy, and that is a good thing!

    The statues serve good or bad purposes – and thus deserve or fail to deserve a place in the public square – because of what they celebrate, not because of who they celebrate.

    The relevant difference between King & Lee isn’t that one is a hero & one is a villain. The relevant difference is that one is famous for risking his life to oppose white supremacy and one is famous for risking his life to uphold it. And the fact of those choices don’t change with the passage of time, so my judgement of the choices does not need to change no matter how far or recent in the past those choices occurred.

    King’s statues are worthy of keeping because they celebrate the right things, good things, morally laudable things. Lee’s statutes are worthy of being dragged off to some historical society or other where they get little attention and only in the context of, “Look how fucked up our society was when we chose this to celebrate” exhibits.

  35. John Morales says

    In my opinion one can judge whether some historical figure’s ethics conform, are better, or are worse than the prevailing mores of the time; I think Darwin’s were better, to his credit.

  36. consciousness razor says

    I think we can try to understand a person’s actions in relation to their time. If what you’re doing is history, I think it’s about understanding, as opposed to evaluating a person’s moral decisions or trying to make your own decisions based on the things you’ve learned.

    Of course, not everything we’re doing is history in that sense. Also, morally, we don’t need take our present-day judgments and try to water them down somehow, in order to come up with a fake moral evaluation which isn’t to be taken seriously now, about some person’s actions in the past. What is that even supposed to accomplish?

    A specific example: I think the soldiers who (allegedly) killed Archimedes during the Second Punic War totally made an asshole move. I didn’t need to compare that to their contemporaries to make that judgment. And what I don’t need to do is take my anti-murder position and weaken it somehow. I should learn the relevant history to understand the situation as best I can. But if it were the case that this happened more often than it does now, to me that just means there were more murderers then compared to now. So what? What difference is that supposed to make to me or what I consider acceptable? Or, perhaps it was even the case that lots of people then were under the impression that this sort of action is morally acceptable. If that’s so, I still don’t see why that should change how I ought to think about it.

    Or if I ever need to act on that bit of information for some obscure reason, why should that sort of thing affect those decisions which I’m trying to make now? Shouldn’t I be using my own moral judgments and not theirs? if I don’t need theirs to do anything like that, then what is that kind of thing supposed to be for? Understanding, sure. Regarding it as good or acceptable, no.

  37. John Morales says

    cr:

    Regarding it as good or acceptable, no.

    It’s one of those self-defeating philosophical wankeries, like “always try to better yourself” and others like it.
    This one sets you up for failure; in some future time, this cohort of the living will become those who are thus judged, and unless you hold we are the acme of morality, they might well be more moral than we are.

    However, if someone is better (by one’s own moral judgements) than their circumstances, is that not a good thing?

    Under your interpretation, someone can endeavour in good faith to be as good as they know how to be, diligently persevere at it all their lives, and still be judged unworthy.

    Harsh.

  38. chrislawson says

    We know that Darwin would not have told women they belong in the kitchen because he famously encouraged women to engage in science and regularly corresponded with suffragettes and Victorian feminists with positivity.

    Perhaps the best known example is Mary Treat to whom he wrote, “Your observations & experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as far as known to me, which have ever been made.” He encouraged her to publish her findings in scientific journals.

    He corresponded with and supported Lydia Becker’s work on botany.

    He also wrote that he thought women who sought higher education should be encouraged to do so: “I should regret that any girl who wished to learn physiology should be checked.”

    Unfortunately we have no correspondence from Darwin on the subject of women’s suffrage. We do know that he asked his name to be removed from a petition that we think was about suffrage (https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-8814.xml) but nobody is sure exactly what the petition in question was, and it appears more that Darwin did not want himself to be put forward as the sole petitioner rather than that he disagreed (“I have never closely attended to the subject it would be simply absurd in me to allow a the petition bearing my sole signature to be presented, & therefore I must request you to erase my name unless you obtain additional signatures.”), and indeed his motivation was “solely my general belief that women are not treated treated with full justice in this [country].”

    Now, this is not to defend Darwin (my general knee-jerk response because I am sick and tired of creationists lying about him to smear evolutionary theory), because he most definitely believed that men were intellectually superior to women due to evolutionary pressure of sexual selection, and he refused to change his mind even when challenged by Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill’s polemics on sexual equality, going so far as to dismiss JS as “feminine”.

    And although he personally believed in women’s education, his very public dismissal of female intellectual abilities fed straight into Victorian social and political beliefs that were blocking universal suffrage and education. It’s one thing to defend his contemporarily nuanced view (“women are inferior to men intellectually but they are still capable of good science and should be encouraged to study”), but it’s not much of a defence when we can see that he wrote at length about female inferiority as undeniably true due to fundamental processes of nature in his second most famous book, Descent of Man, while only encouraging women scientists in private correspondence.

    And finally, with regard to the “he was of his time” argument, I observe that John Stuart Mill was also of that time and yet a fervent believer in sexual equality. He and Harriet’s most famous work On Liberty was published the same year as Origin of Species, and John’s followup (solo work because Harriet had died) The Subjection of Women was from 1861. Mill went on to serve as President of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and Mill was the second MP to advocate women’s suffrage; the first was Henry Hunt way back in 1832. If these two powerful men of the English establishment, steeped in the values of their time, can see the moral imperative of women’s equality, then it is definitely a failing of Darwin that he did not see it — and in fact read and strenuously rejected the Mills’ moral arguments.

  39. Dunc says

    If there is no objective morality, then there is no yardstick to draw an ethical distinction between a mugger and the victim of a mugging.

    No, this is rubbish. You don’t need to be able to demonstrate that your values have some objective basis in order to argue that they are worth having.

  40. John Morales says

    chrislawson, here’s the thing.

    You claim he both
    (1) “wrote at length about female inferiority as undeniably true due to fundamental processes of nature”; and
    (2) “it is definitely a failing of Darwin that he did not see it.”

    If he didn’t see it, it can’t be a moral failure, it can only be an intellectual failure.

  41. kathleenzielinski says

    Crip Dyke, 37, and Dunc, 42, respectfully, you are missing the point.

    I agree with you that slavery is evil. The slaveholders disagree; they think slavery is morally righteous, good, and the way things should be. The only way to determine which of us is right is to have some objective standard. Otherwise, morality is just a matter of personal opinion, and they are as entitled to their opinion as we are to ours.

    So Crip Dyke, when you say that Robert E. Lee’s statue is being removed because he did bad things, again, I agree with you, but that leaves unanswered the question: Bad according to whom? Who says that your concept of badness is better than Robert E. Lee’s standard of badness? Lee no doubt thought he was on the side of the angels. So did Hitler.

    So, by what standard do we claim that their values were wrong and ours were right?

  42. consciousness razor says

    John Morales:

    This one sets you up for failure;

    No need to set it up, when it’s already done. I have failed at stuff before. You? I don’t have many big regrets, fortunately, but I’m not convinced that I shouldn’t be able to have any.

    in some future time, this cohort of the living will become those who are thus judged, and unless you hold we are the acme of morality, they might well be more moral than we are.

    Yes. I do not believe that is impossible, because I see no contradiction. And?

    Under your interpretation, someone can endeavour in good faith to be as good as they know how to be, diligently persevere at it all their lives, and still be judged unworthy.

    Harsh.

    If I know all of those things about a person, none of what I said prevents me from admiring that about them. Like I said, understanding what this person was about and what situation(s) they found themselves in is certainly important. I’m still stuck with my own beliefs (not theirs), about what I think is correct.

    If they also believed the Earth is flat, I’m still thinking here and now that it’s round. If you want me to say that the flat Earthers of the past who tried very hard yet made a wrong turn should get a participation medal for their efforts, then (1) that would be silly because they’re dead, and (2) that doesn’t sound like an invitation to write flat Earth apologetics in their memory but simply to acknowledge that they tried and failed. So what do you want me to do, exactly?

    I don’t know what you mean by “unworthy.” I think that the things we should morally evaluate are actions and that taking a person (over their entire life) to be “virtuous” or not is confused.

    And it’s hard to see how it makes any difference whether I have “harsh” thoughts about things they did. For one thing, I could say as much about some friends and family, although I still love and respect them. But it certainly doesn’t matter much, when the person is long dead, and I never had a relationship with them at all.

  43. Dunc says

    kathleenzielinski, @44: No, I perfectly understand your point, I just don’t think you understand mine.

    So Crip Dyke, when you say that Robert E. Lee’s statue is being removed because he did bad things, again, I agree with you, but that leaves unanswered the question: Bad according to whom? Who says that your concept of badness is better than Robert E. Lee’s standard of badness?

    Bad according to us. We say our concept of badness is better than Robert E. Lee’s. Robert E. We can’t prove it, but we can assemble a number of powerful arguments – however, those arguments are all ultimately based on one or more axioms which cannot be proved.

    As for Lee, he doesn’t get to have an opinion any more, because he’s dead. Dead people don’t tend to have much in the way of opinions, and certainly none that the living are bound to respect.

    Yes, morality is ultimately “just a matter of opinion”. We resolve these disagreements the way we resolve other important disagreements – we argue, we attempt to persuade each other, and if necessary, we fight – to the death if that’s what it takes and we consider the matter important enough. The winners get to set the standards until somebody else comes along and contests them again. It’s not the most satisfactory arrangement, I’ll grant you, but it’s all there is. As the saying goes, “there’s no justice, there’s just us.”

  44. KG says

    Yes, morality is ultimately “just a matter of opinion” – Dunc@46

    No, it isn’t. Nor is it a matter of objective fact. The basic error is in thinking those are the only two possibilities. Moral judgements can be rationally criticised and defended – like esthetic judgements (is this a good novel/painting/etc.) but unlike, for example, preferences for flavours of ice cream. They can be criticised on the grounds of inconsistency, ambiguity, incompleteness, intended or unintended consequences – like legal judgements, recommendations for products or travel directions. Nor do we generally start with axioms in developing moral systems, or base our moral judgments on such axioms; rather, we (individually) start with what we find in place around us as we grow up, and either accept it, or criticise and try to change it. In the latter case, we are generally motivated by perceived unfairness – initially to ourselves, later, for some of us, to others – and there’s evidence such perceptions have an innate basis.

  45. kathleenzielinski says

    Dunc, “bad according to us,” but what makes us any more authoritative on the subject than Robert E. Lee and his fellow confederates?

    KG, I agree more with you than I do with Dunc, but I think there is still the issue that if you are going to criticize or defend, you still need an objective basis for doing so. Not everyone agrees with you that unfairness is a bad thing, and people have written books offering moral arguments for the Holocaust. If there were a situation in which blatant racism somehow had some social benefit, what would you say to the person who argued that the social benefit trumps the individual injustice?

    And again, I think we all agree on the bottom line that racism is bad; my point is that our agreement isn’t worth much without some objective standard to point to.

  46. stroppy says

    Leaving aside comparisons of the relative magnitudes of immorality of Lee to Darwin, those Confederate statues continue to fulfill their purpose, which to glorify exploitation and to terrorize. Saying that they need to go is an understatement.

    Putting a bust of Darwin on your desk or whatever to celebrate his prodigious dedication and contribution to science and ultimately to a better society, I think, is something else, and is not in any way to justify his failings in other areas of his life.

  47. PaulBC says

    Hmm. Maybe we could use that telephone booth to send a lot of 21st century babblers back the 19th, where they’d be happier.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that without the internet, widespread availability of indoor plumbing, Cheetos, and ready access to porn without skulking about in red light districts, most of these babblers would be a good less happy than they are right now, even with the dreaded “cancel culture” hanging over their heads.

  48. PaulBC says

    stroppy@49

    Putting a bust of Darwin on your desk or whatever to celebrate his prodigious dedication and contribution to science and ultimately to a better society, I think, is something else, and is not in any way to justify his failings in other areas of his life.

    I don’t have a huge problem with anyone doing this if they want, but I have found myself increasingly uninterested in tchotchkes of any sort, and that includes busts of people whose work I admire. Let them be immortalized in their work, not a (usually mediocre) reproduction of their countenance.

  49. Dunc says

    KG @47 – I was being somewhat glib on account of not wanting to write an entire treatise on moral philosophy. Yes, you can make rational arguments about moral judgements, but you will not make much headway against someone who either holds radically different fundamental values, or who doesn’t even accept your definition of rationality.

    kathleenzielinski, @48:

    what makes us any more authoritative on the subject than Robert E. Lee and his fellow confederates?

    Absolutely nothing that I can see. Nobody is. We just happen to be the people who are trying to resolve these matters, here, at this present time, and so our opinions are the ones that matter, rather than the opinions of dead people, hypothetical future people, or imaginary space aliens.

  50. KG says

    kathleenzielinski@48,

    Well there is an objective basis for moral judgements, or rather, there are lots of them, some of which I’ve already mentioned. One I didn’t mention above is whether the judgement is in some way based on claims of fact (which is pretty much always the case), and if so, whether these claims of fact are accurate. To take your example of the Holocaust, Nazi ideology was based, quite explicitly and centrally, on the claim that there was a global Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Since there isn’t, and wasn’t, any supposed moral judgments made within the framework of that ideology can be dsimissed forthwith. But if you think morality can’t function without some unarguable grounds on which you can prove to a psychopath that they shouldn’t be a psychopath, but should take the interests and preferences of others into account, that’s too bad, because there aren’t any. That far, I agree with Dunc.

    And again, I think we all agree on the bottom line that racism is bad; my point is that our agreement isn’t worth much without some objective standard to point to.

    The objective standards are that racism causes unnecessary suffering, that it treats comparable cases differently without justification, that it causes hatred and social strife, that it depends for its justification on lies… Now if the defender of racism says: “I concede all that, but I don’t care about any of those things, it works to my advantage” then of course I can’t argue them out of that position. Why should I expect to be able to? But in practice, that’s not how racists present the “case for racism”, is it?

  51. KG says

    Dunc@52,
    It looks like our positions aren’t far apart, except that in practice, I don’t think the situation you posit, arguing with:

    someone who either holds radically different fundamental values, or who doesn’t even accept your definition of rationality

    often arises in practice. If someone is prepared to argue at all, they are implicitly conceding that their claims require justification, and as I’ve said, we don’t in fact build our moral positions from sets of axioms of which we’re prepared to say: “Them’s my axioms – take them or leave them”. We think our “fundamental values” are the right fundamental values, and are prepared to try to persuade others of them – usually, by describing situations in which they apply, arguing that they are consistent in themselves and with facts about the world, warning of the dangers of not respecting them, and so on. We can even sometimes be persuaded that the “fundamental values” we hold are, in fact, the wrong ones.

  52. kathleenzielinski says

    Oh, you’ll probably find an occasional racist who is honest enough to admit that personal self interest is at the root of it, but not many. Mostly what you’ll get are claims that blacks have lower IQs, inferior moral character, are lazy, shiftless, and want to have sex with white women. I did once hear a Christian pastor say that slavery was good for Blacks because it put them in close proximity to Christianity. (The same pastor, by the way, defined anti-Semitism as not accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour; I suppose there’s really nothing to be done with that kind of a mindset except point and laugh.) And my grandfather was opposed to giving women the vote because he was a conservative and figured most women would vote liberal.

    But all that foolishness aside, I do think that even if somebody successfully came up with a genuine utilitarian argument for either racism or the Holocaust, that the answer would be that racism and the Holocaust are still innately immoral. I agree with Hume that pleasure and pain are nature’s ways of showing us how we ought to act, so eradicating pain to the extent possible is in line with how we ought to act. And of course, even had there been a Jewish conspiracy, mistreating people who have it coming makes it easier to mistreat people who don’t have it coming. It’s my objection to the death penalty: The world may be better off for Ted Bundy no longer being here, but killing him accustoms us to the idea that it’s ok to kill people, which in turn makes other types of violence easier.

  53. Dunc says

    KG, @54: In my experience, even if you can demonstrate to somebody that their arguments for their moral positions are are fundamentally flawed, they’re far more likely to change their arguments than their positions. Most of the time, I’m deeply unconvinced that most people either know or care what their fundamental values really are. They believe what they believe, and if those beliefs are (as they so often turn out to be) a ramshackle, inconsistent, and internally contradictory hodge-podge of knee-jerk reactions and unexamined prejudices, well, that’s just the way it is. I’m not entirely convinced that I’m any better, either.

  54. consciousness razor says

    KG, #53:

    Now if the defender of racism says: “I concede all that, but I don’t care about any of those things, it works to my advantage” then of course I can’t argue them out of that position. Why should I expect to be able to? But in practice, that’s not how racists present the “case for racism”, is it?

    Imagine a similar dialogue with someone who believes the Earth is flat. They may be quite incorrigible as well. If they benefit (monetarily or otherwise) from peddling that crap, they can also reply to you, “I don’t care. It works to my advantage to have these standards.”

    Nothing about this situation is literally forcing them to be moved by the fact that we think we’ve got “compelling” claims that their standards are junk or that the whole thing is bullshit. If what this person cares more about is the money or what have you, then in what sense is that supposed to make a relevant difference? So let’s say that you can’t argue them out of it. Also, we may not have very good reasons to expect it to happen. Then what is that supposed to imply?

    Presumably, nobody can explain why this sort of topic (an uncontroversially objective matter of fact) must be one about which anyone can be convinced, no matter how seemingly incorrigible or stubborn they may be, no matter what conflicts of interests they may have, etc. That’s just not how certain people seem to work, whether or not it’s in regard to a moral/political question. So I don’t think we have a good reason to believe that this is what distinguishes objective claims from non-objective ones. What you describe can happen even in disputes about objective facts, so it’s not clear what we’re supposed to take away from it.

  55. stroppy says

    @56 I would guess that your heuristics are more skilled than a lot of other people’s.

    …….

    We’re social critters with oversized brains. My current preferred definition of reason: logic plus compassion.

  56. kathleenzielinski says

    Dunc, No. 56, I think that’s most of us on most issues. I think people are mostly born liberal, or born conservative, and that a person’s world view has far more to do with personality and temperament than with any objective argument. Which is why while it may be fun to argue about politics and religion, but only rarely does anyone change their fundamental presuppositions.

  57. stroppy says

    @59
    I think we’re more social than that and are also shaped by both the skills we’re taught and the mix of stuff we’re exposed to. I for one, do not see or think about the world in the same way I did decades ago.

    Civics matter. Otherwise every day is Groundhog Day, no?

  58. KG says

    consciousness razor@57,

    I didn’t say that the fact that I can’t argue someone out of a position is the means of distinguishing objective from non-objective claims, so your comment is simply irrelevant. Of course anyone can say in response to anything, in effect, “La, la, la, can’t hear you!”. But the claim that the earth is flat cannot be rationally maintained. A refusal to take the interests and preferences of others into account can be, because it implies no factual claim whatever.

  59. KG says

    I agree with Hume that pleasure and pain are nature’s ways of showing us how we ought to act, so eradicating pain to the extent possible is in line with how we ought to act. – kathleenzielinski@55

    OK, I’m in possession of a quark bomb. If denotated, it will instantly vapourise the earth, ending all pain (as far as we know) forever. Should I detonate it?

  60. mikereid says

    Crip Dyke @ #25: “Giving someone “a pass” would seem to me to bad for all of us. But if you simply mean, “I do not label them a villain”, well, fine. But you’re doing the right thing (withholding the “villain” label) for the wrong reason.”

    — To clarify: Yes, by “giving a pass” I mean not condemn or vilify them. Perhaps that was a poor choice of words on my part. I’m not sure what you mean by “you’re doing the right thing (withholding the “villain” label) for the wrong reason”, but I stand by my post. Most historians would agree that we should judge historical persons by the values and standards of their time, not of ours, but that does not mean that there aren’t some standards of morality that are intrinsic to humanity and a transgression of those would warrant condemnation in any era (e.g., the actions of the NAZIs, Stalin, and many others.).

  61. consciousness razor says

    But the claim that the earth is flat cannot be rationally maintained.

    And you should be capable of rationally maintaining your claims, by giving a good argument for them….

    A refusal to take the interests and preferences of others into account can be, because it implies no factual claim whatever.

    It’s just an assertion, without argument, to say that it’s not true (or not a fact) that they should.

  62. PaulBC says

    KG@62 I’m not sure what Hume had to say about quark bombs (or anything to be honest). My take is that pain and pleasure are indicators and we ought to attend to the root causes.

    On the other they other hand both “we” and “ought” have a degree of subjectivity to them. For all I know, there are extraterrestrials who consider the earth a growing cancer and consider a painless culling to be the only reasonable way forward.

  63. PaulBC says

    me@65 Note: if pain is a flawed indicator, e.g. after traumatic injury or surgery, then you may need to attend to the pain itself. I don’t think it’s all that complicated. People do tend to moralize about it.

  64. consciousness razor says

    For all I know, there are extraterrestrials who consider the earth a growing cancer and consider a painless culling to be the only reasonable way forward.

    But if, for the sake of argument, it’s not true that they should take the interests and preferences of others into account, then what difference does it really make if it’s not painless? And why should they do anything about a growing cancer, which isn’t really a thing, morally speaking? Also, all ways forward can be “rationally maintained,” so long as they don’t hinge on anything “factual” in this restricted sense. (Whether it’s true that they should be so maintained is left as an exercise for the reader.) Also, it’s not true that we should care which decisions they happen to be make, because (arguendo) there is no fact of the matter about any of this.

    Therefore … uhh…. I’ll get back to you about that.

  65. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@67 Well, they could consider the earth to be inhabited by self-aware creatures who suffer a lot more than they need to, but not in a way that’s easily fixable, so they’d be doing a favor in aggregate (from their perspective). Some of the earth inhabitants are also crazy enough to want to build von Neumann replicators (I know you’re not!) and who knows, it could create a real nuisance in a ten thousand years or so. Time to yank this dandelion from the galactic garden (not a really a thing, morally speaking, but perhaps an analogy that my hypothetical ETs would glom onto anyway; I get to choose my own imaginary friends, no?).

    I don’t consider this scenario very likely. I was just taking myself to task for saying “we ought” because honestly I have no idea. I know what I want to do, that’s about it, and for whatever reason I’d like to do it while causing the least nuisance to others (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Trite, but not really a lot worse than many other principles.)

  66. PaulBC says

    CR@64

    And you should be capable of rationally maintaining your claims, by giving a good argument for them….

    Or maybe not. That appears to be an unfounded assumption to me. The impact of a belief comes from how it guides behavior, not how well it is supported by the person who believes it. Granted, it is useful to be able to predict the consequences ahead of time, but the cost of “rationally maintaining” a claim could easily exceed its utility. An ant doesn’t need to understand why it’s following a scent trail, and this works very well in most cases (e.g. nobody has mischievously cause the ants to drop scent markers in a circle).

    I may be missing what your “should” is contingent on here, but it just seems problematic to me. People can believe what they want. They can act on it. They can try to persuade me to adopt the belief, either by rational argument or some other persuasive hijinks. And when it all comes out in the wash, the most anyone can say is that some people have a stronger rational basis than others, and sometimes this even lends greater “utility” to the belief, whatever way you want to define that.

  67. consciousness razor says

    I may be missing what your “should” is contingent on here, but it just seems problematic to me.

    You’re attributing ownership to me, but it was implicit in KG’s comments that it has some value, in at least some cases. I was just making the premise explicit.

    Meanwhile, if you don’t “take the interests and preferences of others into account,” the claim is that it can be rationally maintained (unlike a belief in a flat Earth), and the reason offered for this is that it “implies no factual claim whatever.” But like I said, that’s an unsupported statement. If it should have support, that’s a problem. And claiming “it should have support,” without supporting that additional claim with something else, also puts you on shaky ground (or none).

    As an aside, I have a preference for claims which are supported, but the argument is clearly that it’s not true that such preferences should be taken into account. Instead, it’s somehow something other than a true statement, while also being something that is (evidently) believed by KG, possibly due to a well-supported argument or possibly not.

    Anyway, if you think none of it does in fact a truth value (or that it couldn’t possibly have one), then it’s not clear how I’m supposed to get a coherent argument for anything out of it. Am I supposed to interpret it all as just a bunch of noise? I suppose I can, though maybe I’m not supposed to … but what I want to ask is whether I should. Should I take it seriously as being true? Or should I not do that? Yes or no. Along the way, give me an argument which shows me how to reach that conclusion for myself, because it’s a conclusion that you think I should reach (even if it’s not true), while also being quite adamant about not taking my interests or preferences into account. Or don’t. You’re utterly free to do anything at this point.

  68. PaulBC says

    CR@70

    As an aside, I have a preference for claims which are supported

    I do as well, but I suspect your preference is a lot stronger. It’s certainly nice to be able to claim something with rigor, but it’s only my highest priority in very restricted circumstances.

  69. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC, I honestly can’t tell if we’re on the same page. Let me break it down like this….

    Even when you make non-moral/non-political claims, you are importing (implicitly or explicitly) certain values into the argument, whether or not you realize this or care to admit it.

    Debate that point if you like, but for a realist, it doesn’t pose a special problem. You can simply think it’s false that there are no moral/political claims which are truth-apt (or don’t imply such), because we can sensibly regard them as having a truth value like other kinds of claims. You may need to dispense with some of your presuppositions about what it means for a claim to be true or false, but that may be a relatively small price to pay. And if this sort of analysis helps us learn something we didn’t understand very well before, that’s nice too. For what it’s worth, this type of option is endorsed by a large chunk of the philosophical community, so it’s not a view which is easily dismissed or which is obviously wrong/dumb/naive/etc.

    The alternative seems to be writing something incoherent (and I guess hoping that nobody else cares), perhaps even insisting that the junk you’re writing is not intended to be a factual statement. But also! You definitely are committed to the idea that it matters a great deal how claims are supported (and whether they’re supported at all). It’s not that it actually matters, but for whatever reason you nonetheless think it matters. Presumably. Because that seems to be your motivation for getting into this argument at all.

    If you can make sense of that attitude, put yourself into that frame of mind, or do whatever it is you’re supposed to do … okay. You can pick the second option. I just don’t recommend it.

  70. PaulBC says

    CR@72

    PaulBC, I honestly can’t tell if we’re on the same page.

    Probably not, and it is unlikely to be worth the effort to get there.

    I conceded that I took your statement to KG out of context (“I may be missing what [anyone’s] “should” is contingent on here”). It was more of a segue into my own thoughts that welled up unrequested than a focused reply (which is seriously a lot of what I write). (Shoulds and oughts raise my hackles even if I’m the one stating them.) Sorry if that’s a problem. I do find that in general, and particular on these kinds of blogs, people are just way more concerned about being “right about stuff” than nearly any other place I frequent (unless being right matters for practical reasons, like engineering, medical treatment, or writing a peer-reviewed paper).

    I am in fact capable in restricted domains of making correct, rigorously argued statements that are in line with my audience’s expectations (you can choose to trust me or not on that one). It is just a lot of work, and I’m not “on” all the time. I get the impression from our past interactions that you fancy yourself to be on more of the time than I do in this sense, though that’s just a rough impression and certainly not something I can argue rigorously.

  71. PaulBC says

    CR@72

    Presumably. Because that seems to be your motivation for getting into this argument at all.

    Well you don’t know my motivation, and if you care to take my word for it, it was more of a kneejerk at the word “should”. I have a clear idea in context what I prefer myself or other people to do, but I really don’t have an explicit theoretical framework for it. Yes, there’s an ad hoc framework, but I don’t claim that it is driven by anything more exalted than my emotional and physical comfort.

  72. consciousness razor says

    Well you don’t know my motivation,

    I was discussing two alternative views, and both paragraphs used “you.” It didn’t mean “PaulBC.”

  73. PaulBC says

    CR@75 Indeed, we (that is you, consciousness razor, and I, Paul with disambiguating initials) are not on the same page. I should not have interrupted your other discussion.

  74. John Morales says

    Paul,

    (“I may be missing what [anyone’s] “should” is contingent on here”)

    Exactly. That one “should do X” only makes sense if it’s “to achieve Y”.

    Different people, different Y. This is empirical.

  75. says

    @Mikereid

    Most historians would agree that we should judge historical persons by the values and standards of their time, not of ours, but that does not mean that there aren’t some standards of morality that are intrinsic to humanity and a transgression of those would warrant condemnation in any era (e.g., the actions of the NAZIs, Stalin, and many others.).

    Perhaps, but most ethicists with whom I have worked or studied would disagree. The moral standards that we arrive at through our best thought will apply across time periods, just as they will apply across cultures.

    Moreover, any moral system that works cross-culturally also works cross-temporally and vice versa. Unless you take the position that moral systems should so highly contextual that they are not meant to be applied cross-culturally, you cannot consistently take the position that your moral systems are to be applied only to a single (short) period of time, say, a generation or less.

    Would you be willing to say that cocoa plantation owners, who in this moment routinely enslave people in a number of tropical societies where cocoa is an economically important crop, cannot be criticized for enslaving others since anti-slavery is only a relevant moral value in certain cultures?

  76. says

    @kathleenzielinski

    So Crip Dyke, when you say that Robert E. Lee’s statue is being removed because he did bad things, again, I agree with you, but that leaves unanswered the question: Bad according to whom? Who says that your concept of badness is better than Robert E. Lee’s standard of badness? Lee no doubt thought he was on the side of the angels. So did Hitler.
    So, by what standard do we claim that their values were wrong and ours were right?

    I don’t claim that “our” moral values are right. I know very few of your moral values, and already disagree with some. I claim that “my” values are the only values which I have to employ. I can either choose to act on them or not, but if not, then I have no moral guidance at all.

    Therefore, I choose to act morally rather than amorally. I could, of course, make arguments for why I think acting morally is better than acting amorally, but the success of such an argument would depend on whether the person I’m attempting to convince shares with me a definition of “better” which would be applicable (among other definitions). But of course I share a definition of “better” with myself, therefore if I construct a good argument that uses those arguments, it certainly should convince me.

    And it has. I will not give up my moral agency so that you or anyone else can feel secure that historical figures are not being “judged”.

  77. PaulBC says

    Crip Dyke@78

    Perhaps, but most ethicists with whom I have worked or studied would disagree. The moral standards that we arrive at through our best thought will apply across time periods, just as they will apply across cultures.

    I agree, but good luck finding anyone who meets even minimum standards. That applies to the present as well.

    I think it’s worth teasing out a distinction between personal culpability and institutional complicity. E.g., an active slave trader is one kind of person, while someone who calls it the “peculiar institution” but wears slave-produced cotton is another kind of person. And there is still going to be Thoreau engaging in sadly ineffectual “civil disobedience” or John Brown taking up arms for the cause of abolition. The last group is exceedingly rare, but highly ethical people have existed in every historical time period.

    It’s not really necessary to expunge Darwin of the sins of his time to look at his accomplishments for other reasons. His views were almost certainly less prejudiced than average, and his personal behavior to his Guyanese tutor may still say something about character even if he fully internalized historical standards that we would now consider immoral for any age.

    Some Roman citizen no different than me probably enjoyed watching a good gladiator fight now and then even if I would be horrified. Someone in the future may well be horrified at my meat consumption or the extent to which my comfortable lifestyle requires the exploitation of labor elsewhere. I mean, I don’t want to be too glib about it. I would probably be horrified at myself if I took too hard a look, but I choose not to.

  78. says

    It’s not really necessary to expunge Darwin of the sins of his time to look at his accomplishments for other reasons.

    Exactly. His celebrated accomplishments are severable from the choices of his we would most strongly criticize. This is decidedly different from, for instance, Robert E. Lee where his celebrated accomplishments are entirely in the service to a morally reprehensible cause.

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