The Ethics Of… Judging our Ancestors

For those not following the news this week the Victorian parliament took the unexpected step of apologising to homosexuals who were prosecuted under old laws. To quote the article, ‘Until 1980, homosexuality was an offence in Victoria, and men could be sentenced for up to 15 years in prison for sex with other men, under offences including buggery, gross indecency, indecent assault on a male, and loitering or soliciting for homosexual purposes.

Needless to say these laws are now seen as unbelievably unjust and have long since been overturned. But for the Victorian government to come out 36 years down the line and apologise for them ever existing raises some interesting questions – questions which the shrieking hordes of internet commenters took about 0.23 seconds to get furious about.

Walter homophobe comment

If anyone feels like accusing me of cherry-picking this quote, feel free to go read the comments section yourself. I strongly recommend getting drunk first.

Peel back the desperate homophobia Walter is slinging around up there and (amazingly) you find two fairly serious arguments:

  1. Why should we today have to apologise for the evils of the past?
  2. Who are we to judge the values and decisions of our ancestors?

These two arguments come up a lot whenever topics like this come up, whether that be sexism, racism, slavery, the holocaust or any great injustice that happened in the past.

The first of these questions I’ve answered before: short answer ‘Because we benefit from them’, long answer ‘Read the damn article’. The second point though? That’s a slightly more interesting question. Today with the wealth of social and biological research we have available to us, not mention with the significantly higher standard of education, access to information and general enlightenment going on, we know that homosexuality is not a deviant or unethical behaviour – in fact given that more than 1500 species of animals have been shown to practice homosexuality, it’s not even unnatural.

But who are we to judge previous generations who thought otherwise? Sure now we know they were wrong, but we can only make that judgement based on all that excellent knowledge we have – knowledge they lacked 50+ years ago.

For ethics to be in any way useful to us, then it must be based on evidence; anything else would just devolve into opinions, biases and conflict. But as everyone other than economists know, perfect knowledge is impossible because our understanding of reality is limited by our senses, our memories and our ability to process information logically – three things that we know for absolute certain are fallible.

Case in point: you didn’t see the UV rays, and you either didn’t remember to put sunscreen on, or idiotically decided not to bother.

So how can we make ethical decisions when it’s impossible to be certain about anything? Well since inaction can be equally problematic as acting, we make decisions the only way we can: with the best information available to us at the time. And isn’t that exactly what previous generations were doing?

Consider sexism; the idea that women are physically and intellectually inferior to men and should focus on the jobs they are good at, ie. childrearing, housework, teaching, nursing and nothing else. Thanks to the emergence of feminism and female employment during the world wars, we now know these ideas for the simplistic set of assumptions that they are, but up until both of those things happened, how would we know any better? These were the roles that women had filled for hundreds, if not thousands of years; why on earth would be challenge them? And while there may have been the odd exception, the fact that women were more emotional and physically weaker than men was self-evident – just give one a shove and see for yourself!

Racism, and the institutions like slavery that were built on it, weren’t much different; it’s all very well to say that the African or the Australian Aborigine is a ‘person’, but when you compare their barbaric tribes to the technologically advanced civilizations of the white man, surely it’s clear that they must be significantly lesser humans, deserving of significantly lesser rights? Surely life as a slave to a civilized master is the best such a savage can hope for? Better that than leaving them to suffer in their own primitive societies, doomed to ignorance and ultimately extinction. irony here is indescribable.

As with sexism we now know these racist ideas to be complete bullshit. Science has taught us that no race is more or less capable than any other of intelligence, achievement or barbarity; in fact biology has shown the very concept of ‘race’ is a fallacy in itself. Certainly different cultures were are significantly different stages of development when Europeans first encountered them, but anthropology shows this was a factor of the resources each region had available, rather than any difference in intelligence or resourcefulness. Dump any ‘race’ in Australia with stone-age knowledge and technology and they would have stayed at stone-age knowledge and technology, because the continent lacked the domesticable animals and fertile soils necessary to discover agriculture.

But for our 18th and 19th century forebears who (ironically) were ignorant of these truths, less developed peoples would have appeared simply that; less developed. Not a big jump in logic to assume that this lack of development must indicate a lack of ability to develop, and if a whole nation of people are incompetent, then surely the best way to deal with them is like any other group of incompetents – tear them away from their ignorant superstitions, force them into schools to make them as smart as possible, give them a dose of western civilization, and take over their lives to whatever degree necessary to ensure they serve some purpose in this world.

Don’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind.

What we have here isn’t just ignorance, but a case of social norms: what a community considers to be ‘normal’. And if there’s one thing you should never underestimate when it comes to how people make decisions, it’s what currently passes for ‘normal’. Sure homophobia, sexism and racism were all based heavily on ignorance, but the reason they lasted so very long was simply because they were how things were done. Gays were immoral, women were weak, and non-white people were primitive – that was just taken as read and everybody based their choices around these assumptions.

Even today with our abundance of information, compulsory education and (relatively) objective press, Australians have largely come to accept concentration camps for refugees as acceptable government policy. Despite repeated international condemnation, horrific suffering, and logical holes large enough to fit the Tampa through, 59% of Australians support offshore processing and the rest aren’t angry enough about it for the major political parties to care. And why? Because after 15 years of this shit, it has become normal – for better or worse, it’s just the way things are done.

Considering the overpowering influence of these norms, combined with the VASTLY higher levels of ignorance our ancestors had to deal with, how on earth can we judge them for making such terrible decisions? If all we can reasonably do is work with the best information we have available at the time, then isn’t that exactly what they did? Weren’t these decisions in fact ethical at the time they were made?

Well that all depends on whether you think the holocaust was justified.

Bear with me.

If what we’re saying here is that previous generations can be excused from unethical behaviour due to a combination of ignorance and social norms, then why shouldn’t that standard be extended to the holocaust? Today we tend to simplify the entire event down to ‘The Nazis were evil’, but the truth is a tad more distressing than that. The holocaust was heavily based on a scientific theory known as eugenics – the idea that bad genes could be bred out of humanity. Naturally at the time this meant that non-whites, the disabled, the Jews, homosexuals and anyone else who didn’t fit the ideal of the Aryan superman was on the chopping block; put into ghettos at best and outright ‘purged’ at worst.

It’s a theory modern science has since proven ridiculous, but at the time was all the rage – not just in Germany, but world-wide. The modern idea was actually invented in England and was actually being implemented prior to world war two by the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Sweden and Australia (who believe it or not, kept it up until the 1960’s). Not only was this theory widely accepted scientifically, but it nicely matched the social norms of the day – that anyone who wasn’t a white European male was inferior.

So if the scientific ideas and social norms of the time supported breeding out the ‘inferior’ then the question must be asked: why did everyone get so upset about the holocaust? Sure the Nazis enacted slaughter and brutality of a truly epic scale, but so what? It was just the accepted ideas of the period taken to their logical conclusion. Sure most eugenicists advocated gradually breeding out inferior genes, but why bother with that when you could just wipe them out? It’s effectively the same result, just more efficient.

And yet the people of that period were upset. Hell even Nazi soldiers were horrified by the reality of what their government had been doing.

And yet a few years earlier the same ideas that led to these atrocities were considered ethical. What right did the Allies have then to condemn the holocaust when they themselves supported and practiced the same ideals, albeit less intensely?

Plenty, obviously. Because despite our best efforts to shield our forebears under the excuses of ignorance and social norms, neither of those things excuse them from the unbelievably unethical practices of the past. A quick question for you; if people from the past were so blinded by their circumstances that they couldn’t be expected to question the way things were done, then how did anything ever change? If practices like slavery were considered ethical at the time, then why did so many people of all nations work so hard to abolish?

Because much like sexism, racism, homophobia and Australia’s imprisonment of asylum seekers, the evidence was right there under their noses the entire time – it’s just that most of the people involved chose not to see it. Oh sure, previous generations didn’t have access to the information and education we do today, but happily all it takes is a functioning sense of empathy to look upon the immense suffering that all these ‘isms’ wrought upon other human beings to realise they something wasn’t right.

‘Yup, absolutely nothing problematic with that’ – person with head firmly up arse.

The horrified faces of those Nazis up there? Those are the faces of men forced to witness the cost of their terrible ideals. Drag your average Australian citizen through one of our detention centres on Nauru and you might see very similar expressions.

Ignorance and the social norms of the time do indeed explain a lot of the brutality of the past (and present for that matter). But ignorance is only an excuse when it is physically impossible to avoid – not just inconvenient to how we’d like things to be. Like it or not, it is the duty of every human being not just to challenge the way the world is run, but to challenge the ideals that we judge the world by. We look back on every era before us, perplexed that they could ever have thought their way of life fair. Unless we challenge our own assumptions then why do we think future generations will look any differently upon us?

5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Judging our Ancestors

  1. This is really an excellent article (as always). What I really dislike about you is that comments that I want to say as I’m reading get said as I continue reading by you. Which is coincidentally also why I like your posts because we tend to think very much alike!

    “A quick question for you; if people from the past were so blinded by their circumstances that they couldn’t be expected to question the way things were done, then how did anything ever change? If practices like slavery were considered ethical at the time, then why did so many people of all nations work so hard to abolish?”

    And as you brought up, empathy is the answer. It reminds me of a quote from the movie Gandhi as well.

    “GANDHI: Doesn’t the New Testament say, “If your
    enemy strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left”?

    CHARLIE: I think perhaps the phrase was used
    metaphorically . . . I don’t think our Lord meant –

    GANDHI: I’m not so certain. I have thought about it a
    great deal. I suspect he meant you must show courage – be willing to take a blow
    – several blows – to show you will not strike back – nor will you be turned
    aside . . . And when –

    One youth has flicked his cigarette – hard. It lands at
    Gandhi’s feet. He pauses, looking at the youth.

    GANDHI: . . . and when you do that it calls upon
    something in human nature – something that makes his hate for you diminish and his
    respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I – I have seen it work.”

    It is I think very difficult to completely dehumanize another human, whether of different race, gender, sexual orientation etc. I think only a handful of people can really not be impacted by the violence they inflict on others, meaning that science isn’t really all that necessary to realize our actions are wrong, it is more like the punctuation at the end of the sentence at confirms the emotional experience many people have already had. Interestingly Gandhi is a good example of a sort of counter example to your post in the way we exalt people to positions of ultimate progressiveness because of one area of their philosophy that was very progressive. Gandhi was of course fairly racist when it came to blacks and fairly misogynistic by today’s standard. Which begs the question whether it is fair to judge Gandhi based on what we know today? I would say maybe not, but at the same time we shouldn’t idolize the entirety of him. It is difficult for even the most progressive of humans to be far evolved beyond the norms of their time.

    I think the apology is also important in terms of understanding history, which hopefully helps us avoid making the same mistakes in line with the old adage (which sadly not enough people heed). But I think that ignorance is a bit of a cop out because there is also a lot of willful ignorance as well. Certainly white Europeans, at least those in power who were well educated, knew they weren’t the oldest civilization and that early darker skinned civilizations such as the Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, and Ottomans far eclipsed their own progress. Discrimination against homosexuals is a fairly new historically speaking and far from cross-cultural in how they were treated. So science alone isn’t necessary to turns us from ignorant to educated, I believe there was a great deal of knowledge, at least known to some in power with an education, who knew better. Just as there are many religious leaders today who have taken scholarly classes about the Bible in Seminary and know of its dubious origination from a scholarly point of view, but still peddle the literal truth of the Bible as a the word of God. So while there may have been plenty of duped, ignorant, and uneducated people, there were those who sought to exploit, con, and keep hidden, important knowledge.

    • Thanks for the comment Swarn, appreciated as always! Yeah I suspect my style of writing loses some people early on since I tend to entertain the ideas I disagree with first, then rebut them later – tends to make for hard reading for people who don’t know where I’m going with it all. Still, that’s kind of the point of an ethics-based analysis – can’t claim to have an objective position on an issue unless you’ve honestly considered the alternatives.

      The funny thing about this topic is that elsewhere I’ve argued that, since free will is an illusion, context like social norms and ignorance are overwhelmingly powerful in how people make decisions. Yet here I am saying people of previous generations should have challenged their assumptions more. Suppose it’s one of those practice versus principle things – we should all challenge what’s ‘normal’, but that’s a lot easier said than done when you’re part of that ‘normal’.

      • I suspect that’s why society seems to progress, if it could be said to be progressing in any way at a snail’s pace because it’s in a piecemeal fashion.

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