Broadly considered, morality encompasses all beliefs and practices associated with our concerns about humans and human conduct, along with all that we conceive or do to improve ourselves or others, all that we conceive or do to improve the world, and all that we conceive or do under the feeling that we must, should, or ought to, for any reason. It specifically includes all that we conceive and do, or don’t do, either for or against what we think of as base, bad, evil, wicked, wrong, immoral, unjust, or cruel, by any name, whether in ourselves or in the world. It also includes our assessments of humans and their effects on the world, including assessments of human actions and human efforts, whether in gardening, governing, writing, dance, or sport. At this broadest level of description, almost all thought either is, or is importantly impacted by, moral thought. Given its emphasis on controlled or directed change, morality is implicated in every aspect, or almost every aspect, of our thinking about time.
Theory and Morality
Because it is otherwise too broad and unwieldy, most theorists restrict their conception of morality so that it encompasses only traditional practices and beliefs that are specifically concerned with human conduct toward persons. But even under this severe limitation, it still names a feature so general and pervasive that one cannot help but think of morality as fundamental to our lives, for nearly every greeting, parting, and discussion exhibits easily identifiable, traditional practices concerned with the well being of persons.
In the most remote reaches of theory, traditional expectations about conduct toward persons are encountered at every level. For example, in the sciences, where we expect to help one another find true statements, we also expect to be able to trust researchers to be honest about their findings. Intentional violations of these expectations about the conduct of colleagues have traditionally been severely dealt with. These dimensions of science as a moral enterprise are complemented by another, in which science is motivated by moral beliefs, such as the belief that science benefits humanity, or that its practice improves one’s character. In the austere world of epistemology, morality is found in an ethics of belief formation, which proposes that it is wrong to form beliefs on the basis of inadequate evidence, not because the beliefs formed that way will be unreliable but because forming them that way is unethical.
Morality is also found in questions about the normativity, that is, the compulsory quality, of rules, rule-bound inference, and rational thought. Attempts to reduce epistemology to morality continue to receive many a hearing. Ethics, the branch of philosophy concerned with morality, has often been aided in its studies by metaphysics, the branch concerned with descriptions of reality. Together, they have produced centuries-long discussions about the nature and conceptual status of the self, obligation, value, evaluative judgment, pain, pleasure, envy, sympathy, privacy, freedom, conscience, justice, rights, acts, sin, redemption, and dozens of other morally charged items.
Questions about the spatial and temporal standing of these items are perennial sources of philosophical and theological lucubration. Is obligation extended in space? How, if at all, is it extended in time? Is the will temporally limited? Is sympathy? Is justice? The aging self and responsibility pose many a conundrum. At what point, if any, am I no longer liable for any one of the most minor moral lapses of my youth? And in what sense, if any, could I be responsible already for something I do in the future? If God is omniscient, and thus already knows what I will do tomorrow and every day after that, then am I really free? Doesn’t an omniscient God entail a universe without free will and therefore without moral responsibility?
Among the more daunting problems arising for moral theorists who think about time is the problem of moral change. It is challenging merely to say what moral change is a change of. Shall we think in terms of changes in an individual’s moral thinking, or that of a society? In both of these directions further questions await. Is it an alternation in conception? Rules? Judgment? Sentiment? Brain structure?
Consider a child who has moved from tolerance for the dismemberment of live grasshoppers to intolerance for it. An answer to the question of what has changed will determine how we explain it. If we think that he has altered his judgment, we might then imagine that he has learned a new rule, so that the set of moral rules he understands has grown by one. We might then hope to explain that acquisition environmentally. Perhaps an adult told him it was wrong or cruel. However, he might have long understood the rule that it is wrong to harm small creatures, but only recently began to conceive of grasshoppers as small rather than large creatures. In that case, his rule set remains the same, and the alteration of his judgment is based on a new way of classifying creatures. Thus, what needs to be explained is not a rule acquisition, but a new application of an old concept.
However, it is possible that his conceptions and rules have remained the same and the change we see is something else, such as a change in sentiment or taste. In that case, we might seek to explain his new attitude in developmental terms. Perhaps he has acquired sympathy for grasshoppers, or grown averse to the sight of struggling animals. This kind of change might then be explained in physiological terms, so that the child appears to acquire new attitudes because his brain is becoming more sophisticated. In this scenario, one will be tempted to conclude that moral changes in the child are not changes of judgment per se, but changes in something prior to and more fundamental than judgments that are in turn reflected in altered judgments.
The development of moral understanding in the individual might be studied by psychologists or biologists, while philosophers and historians are more likely to take an interest in social and cultural levels of description. At this more general level, the difficulties found in the individual case are multiplied and complicated, because a change at this level might involve more factors.
One may tackle the problem of collective moral change by tying the object of study to traditional judgments. At any given point in human history, there is a prevailing or traditional evaluation of typical, widely recognized practices, such as war, slavery, usury, monogamy, homosexuality, and cremation. At any other significantly distant point in human history, the prevailing traditional views of these same practices are likely to be very different as compared to those at the first. When the difference is plainly due to geography, or to a long temporal distance, we can speak of differing moral traditions. We can then restrict ourselves to speaking of moral change only when the difference is found in the same tradition at different times, and we can say that changes in prevailing traditional views are the moral changes we seek to study and explain. Although this is a simple and elegant first move, many difficulties await.
Consider a tradition that formerly disapproved of cremation but now shows a wide tolerance for it. Attempting to explain this change in traditional views will bring our system of thinking face to face with the fact that, as in the earlier case, these differing judgments might reflect a change in something more basic than judgments, such as rules, concepts, or sentiment. In addition, it could be that the alteration in reported judgments reflects a change in social or political conditions, such as an influx of cremation-favoring immigrants or the rise of a cremation-favoring regime. In the first case, demographics can account for the change in prevailing attitudes, while in the second, what we are proposing to treat as moral judgments might be nothing of the sort, because people might privately hold traditional anticremation views while tactfully compromising with the new authorities by publicly expressing only cremation tolerance. This possibility illustrates a difficulty in identifying moral views for study—when does a publicly expressed moral judgment express a moral belief, rather than tact, supererogatory good manners, or a fleeting taste?
Absolutism and Relativism
One means of avoiding all of these problems simply denies that there is any such thing as moral change. Moral absolutism is the thesis that there is only one moral standard that is universal, eternal, and static. Though the standard may remain undiscovered, it is not subject to change. Thus, for example, if slavery is in fact immoral, then it was always immoral, for all persons and at all times, regardless of the fact that it has been widely practiced and tolerated for many centuries and in many lands. For the absolutist, theorists of moral change study only the alterations of fickle human judgment, not morality as it is. That, they believe, never changes, and the problem of moral change is no problem at all, but a mistaken intellectual pursuit.
Ethical relativism, on the other hand, holds that moral standards depend on time and place and thus are subject to change as circumstances change. Morality as the absolutists describe it does not exist. What exists are human contrivances—rules, laws, agreements, conventions, knowledge, and expectations. For the relativist, the existence of morality implies a specific time and place. For the absolutist, it implies no particular human location at all.
Cognitivism and Noncognitivism
If all problems having to do with setting up the study of moral change could be handled, explanations of moral change would encounter further difficulties from the fact that moral beliefs, whether at the individual or cultural level, can be understood in either of two ways that are deeply incompatible.
One way emphasizes rational thought, while the other emphasizes nonrational, historical, or causal processes. The former method implies cognitivism, the view that moral judgments are the kinds of statements that can be either true or false, while the latter goes in the direction of noncognitivism, in which moral judgments, such as “cremation is an acceptable practice,” are the kind of statements that cannot be either true or false. If moral beliefs are cognitive, then a decision to break with a traditional view in favor of a nontraditional one can, at least sometimes, be taken because the nontradi- tional view is or seems true, more plausible, more likely, or more probable on some moral ground. For example, duty might require that cremation be tolerated when duty is conceived as doing what is best for the health of the community, and cremation is discovered to be healthier than its alternatives. Or, where there is oppression of cremation supporters, a sense of justice might demand a more tolerant view of the practice wherever justice is taken to imply equal rights.
Causal and Normative Theories
If they are noncognitive, moral beliefs are held due to causal necessity and not for moral (or any other kind of) reasons. Many theorists account for moral change causally. The Marxist looks for economic forces to explain moral changes, the Freudian looks for psychosexual causes, and the postmodernist seeks underlying hegemonic powers. But all agree that moral beliefs are not held on the basis of moral insight, moral judgment, or morally based rational decisions of any kind.
In contrast to these causal theorists, normative theorists hold that moral changes are, at least in some cases, morally justifiable. If there are justifiable moral changes, it would be because the new attitudes reflect better normative insights or better moral reasoning or cognition. In holding that some moral changes can be morally justified, these views endorse the basic elements of a belief in the possibility of moral progress.
Normative theorists often search for rational grounds for holding to views different from prevailing or traditional moral views. The traditional view is likely to be held by most of the persons native to a given place and time. It is usually beneficial to hold the prevailing view, especially when we have no interests at stake. Nevertheless, rational insights might be capable of creating the conditions for disinterestedly accepting nontraditional moral beliefs. To begin with, one can become aware that norms in one area violate norms accepted in another area, rendering the tradition, which can be thought of as a body of practical knowledge, internally inconsistent. Perhaps the realization that abuse of pets is a felony, while the abuse of livestock is not, creates discomfort and prompts questions.
In addition to inconsistency, general rules might prompt alternative moral views. For example, 19th-century Quakers strove for moral purity and clear conscience. On this basis they refused slave ownership due to its high likelihood of polluting the soul with unnecessary distresses of conscience. Meanwhile, knowledge of history and alternative traditions offer abundant examples of moral attitudes that contrast with those of our local tradition and can form a basis for criticism of it. A process based in this kind of reasoning appears, for example, when the ancient world’s tolerance for homosexuality is employed to criticize less tolerant contemporary attitudes, or when attitudes toward a practice, such as prostitution, in a foreign tradition are appealed to in criticizing local attitudes. In the same way, knowledge of the Quaker attitude toward slavery could supply a moral example for non-Quaker critics of the practice.
Rationally justifiable alterations in traditional moral views might also be caused in part by a change in social conditions. John Langbein has argued that moral attitudes toward judicial torture evolved rapidly toward intolerance only after confessions ceased to be requirements for convictions in the most serious cases. Until this change in the law, moral criticisms of torture could gain little public footing. More recently, Lynn Avery Hunt has argued that the 18th-century appearance of the epistolary novel and the accompanying rise of portraiture allowed large numbers of people to grasp and to empathize with the subjective experiences of people very unlike themselves. On the basis of these new arts, talk of inalienable rights was able to move from the rarefied air of Enlightenment philosophy into the streets and, just as important, into the homes of the powerful.
See also Aristotle; Causality; Change; Cognition; Epistemology; Ethics; Evolution, Social; Globalization; God and Time; Humanism; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Metaphysics; Postmodernism; Progress; Values and Time; Zeitgeist
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