The Dangers of Moral Absolutism

by Martín Saps

A consensus has emerged among today’s youth that history tells the story of our culture’s oppression of less powerful groups. Accordingly, it is our job, as those who are finally enlightened and aware of these misdeeds, to condemn and lament these actions. This group has taken to judging the past from the moral standpoint of the present. In this way, the rhetoric goes, we can learn from the past and become more conscious of our previous wrongdoings.

But what if moral absolutism, the belief that history can be judged by a universal set of principles, is actually providing us with an incomplete picture of history? Indeed, that is the case. By judging history by our current standards, we fail to adequately understand historical value systems and, more largely, the way people in the past’s actions reflected their conditions. Rather than attempting to understand this, we simply label them “bad people”; once society has demonized these people, we are able to ignore the causes of their actions and neglect to understand the societal context that these ideas were developed in.

A moral absolutist would regard Ancient Athenian Slavery as “wrong”; but were the Athenians to blame for simply following the norms of their age? Slaves formed the bedrock of society in the ancient world, and not possessing slaves would have made one comparatively weaker. Should the Athenians have simply renounced all of their slaves, completely undermining their social structure because of a conception of morality that would have probably been seen as a joke [in that age]? Similarly, slavery in the American South was not wrong because the practice of enslavement is universally unjust [even though from our perspective it may be], it was wrong because it lasted well past its time and created a stratified society that oppressed an entire race of people. If we study historical events out of context, we not only put unfair expectations on people in the past, we neglect to understand the complexities of their situation altogether.

History is a battle between ideologies with the winning side setting the moral tone; it is thus unfair to blame figures for subscribing to philosophies that were ultimately rejected. European colonialism in the 1800’s is often seen to exemplify European oppression and exploitation, and in most respects it probably did. But most Americans do not criticize England’s colonization of the North American Eastern Seaboard, an event that is also an example of European oppression and exploitation. Why? Because our society emerged from that colonization. This is just one example of how the philosophy that becomes more accepted is not necessarily closer to an absolute moral objective. 

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Consequently, it is unfair to judge people for subscribing to an ideology that, despite being considered perfectly legitimate and morally just in its time, happened to be on the wrong side of history. Certainly if society one day prioritizes complete economic equality, will all of us be frowned upon for allowing poverty and “wage slavery” to exist?

It is important to learn from history so as to not commit the mistakes that we once did. Slavery in the American South was an abhorred institution. But instead of merely throwing aside all slave owners and labeling them as awful human beings, we should attempt to understand why they thought and acted as they did. Understanding historical context is crucial because it allows us to understand how contemporary systems may be flawed as well. By understanding how disgraced ideas were perceived in their time, we can detect parallels in our own society and progressively work toward a better future.

Martín Saps is a Uruguayan-American studying Politics with minors in History and Philosophy at Bates College. He is a member of the Rugby Team and the Debate Team. Martin hopes to pursue a career in magazine writing and has published in both English and Spanish on topics ranging from the Islamic State’s presence in Bangladesh to Affirmative Action. He loves writing because it gives him the opportunity to share his perspective on politics and current events with readers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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