Blog De L'Acp | Cpa Blog

  • 10 Dec 2018 by Trudy Govier

    Recently I was surprised at the comments when an ethics discussion group turned to the topic of residential schools.  Present were concerned and liberal-minded women who took the view that the wrongs committed at the schools were understandable and not really blameworthy because of attitudes prevalent when the schools were founded and run, in the latter nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.  In this group, the prevailing view was that when the schools were established and operated, ‘everyone’ thought that indigenous peoples needed to be Christianized and ‘civilized;’ and in any event harsh physical punishment for children was normal regardless of race.  It would be unreasonable to hold people of the past to moral account because they failed to live by present values.  Thoughts normal for us now were not to be expected then.  Perhaps they were simply unthinkable.


    On this account, we should not judge past agents and policies by present standards.  To do so is to commit the fallacy of ‘presentism,’ which is the mistake of thinking that present day values are applicable to the agents and actions of past times. In the context of a culture of the past, certain attitudes prevailed and, it is presumed, judgments that past should be made according to the standards of that time. This is a form of relativism applied to time instead of space. Bernard Williams called it the relativism of historical distance.


    But I think there are reasons to question time relativism. For one thing, agents in a past context did not agree.  If we think, for example, about the travels of Columbus to America, the attitudes of adventurers, European royalty, sailors, philosophers, and theologians did not all coincide. The same holds for dueling and also for several central philosophical examples.  Aristotle approved of slavery. Did he do this because it was approved within his culture and he could not think otherwise?  Hardly so:  when Aristotle wrote in defense of slavery it was in response to others who had criticized the practice.  Another striking case is Kant’s attitude to women.  Kant did not think women had the intellectual capacities of men and argued that they should restrict their activities accordingly.  But Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, a friend of Kant and fellow citizen of Kant’s hometown of Konigsberg, was the first Prussian feminist. Hippel, who described and decried the ways in which men had oppressed women, defended the knowledge-seeking Eve as a heroine of the Enlightenment. It is not plausible to understand his thoughts as impossible in the eighteenth century Prussia. Kant could have recognized the intellectual capacities of women:  the point is, he reflected on the matter and did not.


    Returning to the matter of Canadian residential schools, we can find in the report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission a number of references to problems and serious difficulties: a substantial death rate, run-aways, failures in  efforts to integrate, malnutrition and poor health, even sexual abuse. (That, presumably, was not thought to be a morally legitimate practice at the time.)  It was possible to think critical thoughts about practices in these schools and we know that, because some people did.


     Some years back Michele Moody-Adams had an even simpler argument to back up the possibility of dissenting from the standards of one’s time and culture. She cited the presence in languages of a negative particle, in English, NOT, arguing that if one can think ‘X’, then one can think ‘not-X.’ Against the moral norms of their day, some people did.


    The question, then,  is not whether it was and is possible to think against prevailing moral norms, but what follows from this possibility.  One might argue that though such critical thought was possible, it was not normal.  One might say, well such critics were unusual for their time, and it is not reasonable to expect people to be unusual. (Obviously, not everyone can be unusual.) Now when we are speaking of philosophers and intellectuals of the past, this sort of argument strikes me as very weak. After all, these people were unusual; many had strikingly original ideas about such fundamental topics as potentiality, soul, space, time, and causality. It is not plausible to think that they would have been incapable of maverick thoughts about race or gender.


    As to policy and practice regarding residential schools, supporters were not, in the main, theorists. They were workers, educational administrators, and politicians.  Among them were people who spotted harms and failures; they registered damage to children and families; some judged fault.  Most such judgments were not taken seriously. Why not? We can posit likely causes: diverted attention, self-interest, failure of courage, self-deception, lack of power.  Moody-Adams used the term “affected ignorance.”  Probably the explanation is to be found in a combination of these factors; to seek out such an account would seem an important topic for historical research. It is an over-simplification to say that objections were not thinkable because people were somehow ‘blinded’ by their (supposedly uniform) culture and rendered incapable of critical analysis.


    In defense of time relativism, one might submit that the criticism of past practices is morally arrogant, that we should be humble because some of our own practices will doubtless seem barbaric to future generations. Consider meat eating and fossil fuel consumption as likely examples. Yes, we could be wrong in our judgments. We are surely far from perfect and, non-arrogantly, we should acknowledge that. But if we are wrong, it is not because our moral judgments imposed on us by a monolithic culture and we cannot think otherwise.  We need to think independently and we can if we make the effort. The same is true of agents in the past. Without arrogance, we can judge that a past practice was wrong, that people acted wrongly in engaging in that practice, and that at least some of them were blameworthy for doing so. Yes, Virginia, there were wrongs in the past. And there are present moral challenges in responding to them.







  • 03 Dec 2018 by Adam Morton

    Nearly everyone cares about their future self, seeking benefits and avoiding harms that they will experience later, sometimes much later. (We usually discount so that the far future counts less than the near future. This is controversial.) We also care about our children and later descendents, and about future generations in general. There is not much argument in philosophy about whether these concerns are reasonable, and I am not going to open the issue. There is a debate about how exclusive they are: whether there is a justification for prioritizing one's own children and one's own descendents above those of others. The purpose of this post is not to advance this debate but to argue that it generalizes from individual people and present societies to the whole present species and what might come after it.


    The generalization is based on a line reminiscent of Derek Parfit: what should matter to individual people is not whether later people are literally the same people or not, but rather whether they have various forms of continuity with the individuals in question and further their interests. Assume this, for the sake of argument. (It means that if a future person will be biologically continuous with you but will not retain any of your point of view or strive for any of the things that matter to you, you should suspend superficial prudence and work against the interests of that future person.) Now ask what reasons we have for promoting the interests of future humans. Two core reasons are that they will see the world in much the way that present humans to, and will identify with humans as we are now. The identification is mutual: we think of them as us. It is conceivable that there would be future humans who are opposed to what we consider valuable (perhaps they torture children as an art form) and consider us, their ancestors, as so primitive and deluded that for them we are no kind of us. Then they should be no kind of us to us, either. If they are locked in a rivalry with another species that, although they are no descendents of present day humans, support what we care most about, then if there is anything we can now to that will help that rival species against our descendents we should do it. For what we care most about is what we value rather than what we happen to want, what we want to be wanted by whoever can promote it.


    This is not a science fictional possibility. Genetic engineering and advances in biotechnology make it not only possible but likely that in a very short time by biological standards there will be beings created by present-day humans which will have vastly different capacities than we do now. (I would give it at most a couple of centuries until there are creatures that are as different from us is we are from the Australopithecines.) Will they be us? Will they want what we want? Will we be an us to them? Both yes and no are possible. These questions matter because we can now make conditions easier or harder for these beings to achieve their aspirations. Consider two extreme scenarios.


    First, suppose that we see the evolution of a race of self-centred aggressive ecologically irresponsible creatures having a lot of human DNA. If what I am saying is right we should think twice about giving them opportunities, for example leaving them a planet suitable for their kind of life. We might instead favour some non-human species that will by flourishing wreak havoc on them and their plans. Second, suppose that we foresee the evolution of beings that can accomplish what we value better than we can. (For example, they can care for the planet and for one another much better than we do. Not so difficult.) A complication is that such advanced beings are unlikely to share all our values. They would have thought things through to a depth that eludes us. They might think of us as being on the right track in a bumbling primitive way, and we might think of them as striving for what we would want if only we could think it out well enough. So instead of saying "they want what we want, so more power to them", we should say "their values are developments of our values, so we should allow them to exercise their better judgement". Allowing for this complication, we should prepare the way for these second creatures, making sacrifices if need be to leave them a suitable planet and not restricting their possibilities on and beyond earth more than we need to.


    I built my exposition on an analogy with debates about personal identity. But in fact the issues that we have been led to are more real than those connected with philosophical themes of personal identity. The possible cases that arise there have only a suggestive relation to anything that actually happens in human life. But troubling questions about future species and their relation to present humans are not at all thought-experimental. There will be such future species and we do now have options that should make us think what we should leave behind for them and how we can make their interests easier or harder to achieve.


    (This post is a development of one theme in the final chapter of my recent short book Should we Colonize other Planets?)