Our exalted Founding Fathers owned slaves. And of course they were founding “fathers” because they didn’t recognize the moral or political equality of women. Our ancestors perpetrated genocides, enslavement, torture, war, rape, forced conversions, mass sterilization, etc. You know the drill. The perennial question is What kind of judgment can we pass on our forebears? How could they have been so evil? Especially since we are keenly aware that our own grandchildren may look back on us with cold condemnation. Debates around this question rarely get anywhere. We want to avoid the cultural relativism that would exonerate our ancestors completely but also remain able to criticize what they got wrong.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker offers a novel way out of this jam. She distinguishes between culpable fault and non-culpable fault. I’ll let her explain it below. A bit of background for her example: Fricker refers to the Talented Mr Ripley, a play in which Marge has critical information that could prove Ripley murdered Mr Greenleaf’s son (and Marge’s philandering lover), but Greenleaf allows himself to be drawn into Ripley’s portrayal of Marge as merely a “hysterical woman”.
In the case of Herbert Greenleaf, we see this historical contingency played out in respect of the absence of a critical awareness of gender prejudice in the society in which his ethical and epistemic second nature were formed. While the Herbert Greenleafs of this world were always at fault in failing to exhibit the virtue, I suggest they were not culpably at fault until the requisite critical consciousness of gender became available to them. As we might put it, they were not culpably at fault until they were in a position to know better. There is no precise answer to the question at what point a Herbert Greenleaf comes to be in a position where he should know better than to neglect the possibility that Marge is right. And this question is surely best construed as a matter of degree, not least because the requisite collective gender consciousness is something that is likely to dawn only gradually. But no doubt a figure such as Herbert Greenleaf would be in that position long before he actually lived up to it by taking on board the gender-critical insights made newly available to him. Thus there will tend to be some period of historical transition in which a Herbert Greenleaf, well-intentioned as he may remain, moves from non-culpable fault to culpable fault. He lacks the virtue of testimonial justice with regard to gender prejudice throughout, but the relevant advance in collective consciousness is needed to render the shortcoming in his epistemic conduct blameworthy. Under the historical circumstances, then, my suggestion is that Greenleaf is not blameworthy for the testimonial injustice he inflicts on Marge.
There are some important points here. Fricker abjures relativism but doesn’t thereby advocate anything like a simplistic moral realism. Phrases like “historical contingency,” “critical consciousness,” and “collective gender consciousness” all point to the idea that the individual requires some kind of social resources or tools in order to understand and practice morality, however objective that morality might be. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect a 19th century man to understand or practice gender equality given his historical context. Mary Wollstonecraft had advanced her arguments in the end of the 18th century that women are educated in a way that undermines their rationality and dignity, but those arguments weren’t yet widely accepted by thought leaders. When John Stuart Mill wrote the Subjection of Women in the middle of the 19th century, he was writing in direct opposition to essentially the entire Western philosophical canon. There were of course radicals who advocated gender equality, but they were, well, radicals. Gender equality is not a simple idea to construct on one’s own when gender norms were so deeply entrenched and there wasn’t even the concept of “gender norm” with which to probe the issue.
Or for an example with a different political valence—this isn’t really a post about feminism—take free trade. It’s intuitive that we want to protect our country from shady foreigners. Buy American. But of course lobbying for protection against trade with foreigners wrongs both native customers and foreign producers, especially poor foreigners whose economic prospects are significantly diminished by being forcibly cut off from lucrative markets. Understanding the moral case for free trade requires concepts from both cosmopolitan ethics (or just universal equality) and the discipline of economics that explains technical concepts like division of labor and comparative advantage. In contexts where these resources aren’t readily available, free trade is going to be a hard sell.
Fricker further distinguishes between routine and exceptional “discursive moves in moral discourse.” Mill’s argument that there should be equality between women and men was an exceptional move. His contemporaries can hardly be morally condemned for failing to grasp this exceptional move. In contrast, Mill’s contemporaries could be condemned for, say, murder or other violence. The moral understanding that violence (absent some overriding justification) is wrong was and is routine.
However, our ancestors aren’t entirely off the hook for things like slavery, Jim Crow, unjust war, etc. And we’re not off the hook with our grandchildren either. Mill’s contemporaries who participated in the subordination of women were wrong after all. And Fricker allows we may justifiably feel some resentment toward those sexists of the past who just didn’t get it. As we move forward in time and the basic arguments of feminism have gone mainstream, that resentment of the masses transforms into condemnation of misogynist holdouts. To the skeptics of feminism in the audience, I’m not being controversial here, and you’re free to insert your own moral example to bring home the point. I’m thinking of misogynists who believe women shouldn’t vote and shouldn’t be given the same education as men. These are exceptional holdouts who mirror the exceptional reformers from before the moral paradigm shift.
Hopefully it’s clear that this is a continuous process. There’s no magic moment when the heavenly trumpets sound and a person goes from merely wrong to condemned. In the historical moment most of us are just doing the best we can in the collective—and internal, for that matter—moral discourse. These moral paradigms can shift rapidly and catch non-culpably wrong people up in the maelstrom. I’m thinking about the folks who participated in the common exclusion of GLBT people in, say, the 80s and 90s and failed to keep up with the rapidly shifting moral understanding of the last couple decades.
Now let’s get to the burning question. With Fricker’s distinction, can we both respect George Washington and condemn Adolf Hitler? It seems that we can. George Washington owned slaves. But so did most people in his landowning class in his time. He was wrong to do so, but he wasn’t exceptionally wrong. His failure to respect the dignity of these human beings by freeing them was in line with the routine moral understanding that slavery was a part of the natural order since biblical times. Indeed, if the stories are true (I haven’t done the research here because it’s not critical to my point), Washington treated his slaves as humanely as was consistent with the existence of slavery, and he provided for their manumission in his will, suggesting he was at least thinking critically about the justice of the peculiar institution. Washington was wrong about slavery, but the man was not evil.
What about Hitler? It seems as though the moral understandings available to Hitler at the time were sufficient to prevent not only genocide of Jews but also aggressive war. The understanding since the Treaty of Westphalia, since the bloodshed of the Napoleonic Wars, and since the horrors of the Great War all pointed to the clear moral evil of aggressive war. Jews meanwhile were citizens who had been participating peacefully and productively in civic life amidst their fellow citizens for centuries. The principles of religious freedom and tolerance were widely available since Europe’s centuries of religious warfare. Hitler and his Nazis were straightforwardly evil.