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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Moral Judgment and Historical Understanding

  • Author(s): Tsai, George Tsan
  • Advisor(s): Sluga, Hans
  • Wallace, R. Jay
  • et al.

Philosophers, historians, and social scientists often suppose that our moral judgments are insulated from our historical understanding, and vice versa. That is, they generally assume that while our moral judgments appraise social and historical facts, they do not constrain our predictions and explanations of those facts; conversely, our historical accounts describe and explain social phenomena, including ethical phenomena, but they are separate from our evaluations of those phenomena. I challenge both of these assumptions, in arguing that our historical understanding is wrapped up in certain inextricable ways with our moral outlook. More specifically, I contend that some of our moral judgments presuppose assumptions about history and the social world; and also that our social and historical accounts can be informed by our views about morality. In short, our moral and historical views are interdependent.

These general claims are defended through an investigation of three cases of interaction between our moral judgments and historical understanding. In the first case, I explore how assumptions about the causal dependence of present moral practices on past activities have implications for retrospective evaluations of those past activities. More specifically, I grapple with the possibility and evaluative implications of there being large-scale past activities that are both unjust but also necessary causal conditions for the historical emergence of modern liberalism. In the second case, I examine how the presupposition of universal validity in our moral outlook constrains our explanations of the historically distant. More specifically, I consider whether, and how, liberal universalism, the widely-held view that liberal values are universally valid, can provide a plausible "theory of error" to account for the non-liberal tendencies of past societies. In the final case, I reflect on how assumptions about the cultural or normative distance between other social worlds and our own inform our character assessments. More specifically, I try to make sense of why our character assessment of someone who did something morally wrong is influenced by where we locate the wrongdoer in history.

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