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4. Moral Intuitions and Moral Progress

IV. I Am Not Quite Certain How My Moral Intuitions Are Supposed to Fit Into All This? Should I Trust My "Moral Intuitions" or Do I Have Reason to be Suspicious?

Why might we be suspicious about our immediate, moral intuitions. Well, one reason to be suspicious is that some moral intutions that some people have had about certain forms of conduct in the past, are not the same as the intuitions that people have today.

Consider the accepted assessments of two famous Virginian founders of the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They're pretty nearly as positive as Jefferson's judgments of Washington:

'In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name will triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world. . . ' (from Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia,' as included in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings, The Library of America, 1984, p.190. Jefferson's 'Notes' were originally published in England in 1787)

He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a great man. . . His heart was not warm in its affections; but he exactly calculated every man's value, and gave him a solid esteem proportioned to it....On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. . . (Jefferson's letter of January 2, 1814 to Dr. Walter Jones; see page 1319 of Thomas Jefferson: Writings)

So, we think that Washington was, at the very least, quite a good man. And, even as we also greatly admire Jefferson, we believe that, overall, their conduct was good.

But, a little hard thought makes the lofty assessments puzzling: During all their years of maturity, they had slaves and, in the bargain, they lived lavishly. Now, as historians indicate, it wasn't impossible for them to free their slaves and live less lavishly. About Washington's last two years, Alden writes:

He now owned 277 slaves, far more than could be usefully employed at Mount Vernon. It was possible for him, by selling many that he did not need, both to secure cash and to reduce his expenses, but he could not bring himself to resort to such a sale, certain to bring unhappiness to the slaves. He even considered the possibility of developing another plantation where the blacks not needed at Mount Vernon could be located. He also was concerned with arrangements for property when he should die. In the late summer of 1798 he had been seriously ill with a fever and had lost twenty pounds. He had rapidly regained weight and was to all appearances in very good health. Nevertheless, he was conscious that his death would come at no distant time. He drew up his will. Martha was to enjoy the use of the bulk of his estate. After her death Bushrod Washington was to have Mount Vernon, and the remainder of the estate except for special bequests was to be divided among his relatives and those of Martha, with one most important exception. He was determined to free his slaves. His personal servant, Billy Lee, was to be freed immediately upon Washington's death. His blacks and those belonging to Martha had intermarried, and he could not legally set loose her blacks during her lifetime. Accordingly, he arranged for all of their slaves to be freed at her death. His executors must provide for the aged blacks, and the young were to be supported and taught to read and write. He stipulated that certain shares of stock should be used to help finance schools . . . (John R. Alden, George Washington, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984, pp. 302-303)

But, of course, much of that conduct is very questionable. Why didn't Washington free some of his solely owned slaves well before his death, like Billy Lee, for one? Apparently, by selling some few stocks, our first President could have provided well for them. Evidently, there's no morally satisfactory answer. And, even if George had to convince Martha by threatening her, with divorce or worse, why didn't he see to it that, long before either died, all their slaves were freed and supported? Again, no very decent answer.

In various ways, Jefferson's life differed from Washington's, but not in any ways that excuse him. For, he also could have freed his slaves without any serious suffering. To be sure, had either done that, he wouldn't have enjoyed such a lavish Virginian life. But, morally, so what? Until their deaths, both freely remained slaveholders. When that fact's combined with our positive assessments, there's this puzzle about the Old Virginians: How can someone who keeps behaving like that, year after year, be a decent person, or be someone whose total behavior is even all right? Apparently, in our moral assessments, there's a questionable double-standard at work: For those Virginians, slaveholding won't disqualify their total conduct from having high moral status. But, for us, no such assessment's available.

That's puzzling; but, the puzzle can instruct. So, next, let's note some historical differences. By contrast with our society today, in old Virginia things were like this: First, it was a common practice to hold slaves. Second, as far as many engaged in the practice were concerned slaveholding wasn't a morally terrible thing. Third, through interaction with folks who behaved and thought like they did, for Old Virginians social pressure made it psychologically very hard to choose to become slaveless.

On first reflection many think those three differences do much to explain the puzzling disparity. While that thought's initially plausible, it's very misleading. To show how it's misleading, it's helpful look at a puzzle that's an expansion of the puzzle of the Old Virginians, the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians. After a short Historical Preamble, I'll do some Stage Setting, and, then, we'll confront the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians itself.

Historical Preamble: When slavery prevailed in Virginia, it was also prevalent even in various distant parts of the world. In Brazil, for example, it continued for decades after it ended in the South of the United States. In Volume 2 of The World Book Encyclopedia, the 1988 edition, for example, there's an article "Brazil," by J. H. Galloway of the University of Toronto. He ends the section on "The Age of Pedro II," with these words: 'In 1888, a law abolished slavery in Brazil and freed about 750,000 slaves. Most of them had worked on plantations, and Brazil's powerful slaveowners became angry at Pedro when they were not paid for their slaves. In 1889, Brazilian military officers supported by the plantation owners forced Pedro to give up his throne. He died in Paris two years later. In 1922, his body was brought back to Brazil. Brazilians still honor Pedro II as a national hero.' By contrast, in still other parts of the world, like Australia, there never was any slavery. According to the article "Australia" in same Encyclopedia, Australia's white settlers treated her Aborigines very much as the whites who settled in what's now the U.S. treated this country's Native Americans. While very bad behavior, that wasn't slaveholding. End of Preamble.

Onto the Stage Setting: Imagine an entire contemporary society where, year after year, many still engage in slaveholding. Imagine, too, that this contemporary society is Peter Singer's native land, Australia. The Stage is Set.

Suppose the early Australian settlers enslaved the island's Aborigines and, even today, many wealthy Australians have slaves working on their vast ranches and farms. Still, insofar as it's possible with folks kept as slaves, these masters treat them well, providing, for example, better facilities and accommodations than at all but the finest resorts. Now, among the very most benevolent masters are one Paul Singer and one Mary Singer, each a first cousin of Peter. ( Of course, Peter himself doesn't keep any slaves and does all he can to end slavery.) Because they've discussed his views with him for years, Paul and Mary agree with Peter about all manner of issues their behavior might address, except for the matter of slavery. And, even on that score, his cousins' beliefs aren't all that different from Peter's. For, they believe what, at least at last, Washington and Jefferson believed: While slavery's certainly bad, it might not be all that horribly bad. What's more, we'll suppose that, apart from their slaveholding, Paul and Mary conduct themselves in a way that's even better than the morally good way Peter behaves. For example, working extremely hard and living very modestly, each year Paul gives almost all of the huge income from his organic fruit orchards toward the saving of many children in the Third World, and toward lessening other serious suffering. So, what we're supposing amounts to this: Apart from slaveholding, Peter Singer's cousins' conduct is much better than almost anyone's.

So (now) what's our intuitive assessment of their total behavior? As most respond, it's rather bad. But, a couple of questions show this negative judgment to be very puzzling: Why do we judge the imaginary Australians' conduct negatively, but judge the old Virginians' positively? And, even if we can find an explanatorily adequate answer, what adequate moral justification can there be for such a disparity?

As for the first question, it's clear there's a lot that needs explaining: In regards to the matter of slavery, Paul's and Mary's extremely benevolent conduct is at least somewhat better than Washington's and Jefferson's behavior. As regards other matters, since the Australians' conduct is morally so marvelous, it's also at least somewhat better than the Old Virginians'. But, those are all the matters there are! So, the conduct of our imaginary Australians is better than the behavior of our old Virginians.

When starting to explain, we might first note this: With the old Virginians, there were other societies then also heavily involved in slaveholding. But, with the imaginary Australians, theirs is the only society where there's still slavery. Is that a good way to start? Hardly. Just ponder this apt enlargement of the hypothetical example: In addition to Australia's large society, several others, like Brazil's, persisted in slavery right up to the present time. To this expanded case, mostpeople respond just as negatively.

The Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians accentuates what's disturbing in the Puzzle of the Old Virginians. But what's going on in these cases? Without telling too long a story, here's one attempt at a short answer:

To begin, it's worth noting that, in our moral judgments, we're greatly influenced by 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' With regard to certain morally bad forms of behavior, (we have the idea that) humanity has morally progressed beyond its being even the least bit normal for anyone to engage in behavior of those forms. Of course, slaveholding is one of these morally surpassed forms. And, much earlier still, we progressed beyond its being at all normal to support entertainments where people try to kill each other, as with the gladiators of ancient Rome. Here's a suggestion about that Idea's influence: Once a very bad form of behavior is (taken by us to be) surpassed, we'll give negative assessments to the total conduct of those (taken to be) engaged in behavior of that form after what's actually (taken to be) the time of the surpassing, (unless they break with the form, soon enough, and then don't resume such bad behavior). By contrast, when someone's engagement in a bygone form is all before that actual time, we're open to giving his or her total conduct a positive assessment. It's this pervasive double-faced tendency that explains both our strangely disparate responses to many actual cases, as with the Puzzle of the Old Virginians, and our strange reactions to many hypothetical cases, as with the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians.

Both to make the suggestion's content clearer and to provide it with support, another far-fetched example serves well: For all of the 18th and much of the 19th century, to entertain themselves and other white folks, certain Virginian masters occasionally made one of their slaves fight to the death with the slave of another wealthy slaveholder. As we'll suppose, while Washington took care never even to so much as attend any such ghastly event, Jefferson was one of these "Neo-Roman" practitioners and, as the odds had it, some of his slaves were killed in these "backyard spectacles." To this case, we make the definite moral response that Washington's total conduct would have been good and Jefferson's bad.

Many believe, at least in certain respects, there's been some moral progress. And, some of it satisfies 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' But, the influence of that 'Idea' is far stronger, perhaps, than it should be: Mainly owing to that, we underrate the total conduct of people who, as we suppose, engage in behavior of a form that's been surpassed; just so, we underrated Paul's and Mary's (hypothetical) total behavior. And, as regards the whole of their conduct, we overrate those who, before it was surpassed, did engage in such bad behavior; just so, we overrate Washington's and Jefferson's (actual) total conduct. And, closely related to both of those distortional tendencies, perhaps a third involves us in closely related errors.

Perhaps, right now, we're engaging in conduct that, though it's of certain morally horrible forms, is still quite normal behavior. Then, since these bad forms haven't been surpassed, we may be overrating our own behavior. Now, perhaps our (distant) descendants will make so much moral progress that, at some future time, humanity will surpass some of these bad behavioral forms. But, if 'The Idea of Moral Progress' has much the same influence then as now, which we may very well suppose, even they will overrate us. Let's pursue that thought.

Here's a form of behavior that, though we're now heavily engaged in it, might well be thought terrible by our descendants and, for that reason, might be morally surpassed by them: letting distant innocents needlessly die by, say, our not sending money to UNICEF. So, even if it never actually happens, i.e., that our descendants come to think this way, we may instructively suppose that, centuries hence, humanity's made just such progress as this: Whenever well-off folks learn of people in great need, they promptly move to meet the need, almost no matter what the financial cost. So, at this late date, the basic needs of almost all the world's people will be met almost all the time. Still, once in a while, a great natural disaster may befall many folks in what is, then as now, one of the world's most dangerous areas, like the cyclone prone coast of Bangladesh. Whether through demanding to be taxed more by their governments, or through contributing to non-governmental organizations, or whatever, very many millions of the world's more fortunate folks make sure such beleaguered people don't ever undergo more serious suffering than a big cyclone causally necessitates. What's more, should any of these descendants find themselves facing such preventable suffering as now actually obtains, they'd devote almost all their energy, and resources, toward lessening the suffering. To do any less would be as unthinkable for them. say, as having slaves is unthinkable (now) to us. Finally, in making moral judgments, they'll be just as affected as we by 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' Just as we overrate Washington and Jefferson, cutting them slack in the matter of slaveholding, they'll overrate you and me, cutting us slack in the matter of allowing children in need to die.

From this discussion, two lessons emerge, one pretty specific, the other far more general. Specifically, as we've seen one distortional tendency evoke misleading responses, both to hypothetical examples and even to actual cases, it won't be surprising to see with regard to a number of considerations in our list of (1) through (20) supposed differences between the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, the operation of others. More generally, this thought puts the whole enterprise of making sense of our reposnses to the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope in an appropriately humbling perspective: However much we increase our awareness of morality, it may hardly ever seem that our currently very consequential conduct is even mildly wrong. (Adapted from Unger)

Girls Playing, Guatamala

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February 14, 1998
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