Judging the Past Based on Current Morality and Considering Today’s Moral Blind Spots

We need to start a Frelinghuysen Award.
Sen. Frelinghuysen

How are we to judge the actions of our ancestors in light of “modern morality”? And what obligation do we carry for the moral failings of our ancestors and cultural predecessors?

These are difficult question and ones that emerge when discussing how to address the grave injustices done to Native American peoples by white explorers, settlers, and the United States government.

A 2013 BBC magazine article headlined: Should we judge people of past eras for moral failings? wrestles with these broad moral questions. It teases apart the issues of “blame” and “responsibility.”

The article quotes philosopher Miranda Fricker, who says the test for blameworthiness is whether the person could have known any different. “It’s unfair to blame people for failing to be moral pioneers, she says. “The attitude of blame presupposes that the person was in a position to have done better.”

Let’s use that statement as a jumping off point to look at U.S. history. It seems one key question to explore would be: “Did people involved in the Native American genocide in the 19th Century know better?” It is important to hold up the voices of the moral pioneers who spoke out against the injustices of their day and who tried to chart a different course. That brings us to U.S. Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey.

Frelinghuysen is not a name many will remember from history class, but he was a strong and courageous voice of conscience against President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in the brutal forced removal of Native Americans in the Southeast United States to lands west of the Mississippi River, in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

During the Senate debate on the Indian Removal Act, Frelinghuysen gave an extended floor speech. He opened with the following:

God, in his providence, planted these tribes on this Western continent, so far as we know, before Great Britain herself had a political existence. I believe, sir, it is not now seriously denied that the Indians are men, endowed with kindred faculties and powers with ourselves; that they have a place in human sympathy, and are justly entitled to a share in the common bounties of a benignant Providence. And, with this conceded, I ask in what code of the law of nations, or by what process of abstract deduction, their rights have been extinguished?

And later …

Do the obligations of justice change with the color of the skin? Is it one of the prerogatives of the white man, that he may disregard the dictates of moral principles, when an Indian shall be concerned? No, sir.

Frelinghuysen was one of the voices that challenged the norms of his day. Leaders were at least put on notice that there was a choice.

Blame vs. Responsibility

Moving on from the issue of blame, a second question arises: Given that we do know better now, what is our responsibility today? How do we make amends for the moral mistakes of the past, such as the boarding school policies instituted against indigenous peoples and the taking of lands?

The BBC article quotes Fricker:

An apology is an incredibly important act that our institutions should increasingly become capable of — people who have been wronged by the state are owed an apology by the state, even if the individuals in government are different from those at the time.

And we are in the Era of Apology. In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Harper issued an apology for the Indian Residential Schools. In 2009, President Obama and the U.S. Congress issued an apology to Native American peoples (but it was buried in a Defense Appropriations bill and given no public attention.) And just last year, Pope Francis apologized for the church’s sins against indigenous peoples.

The argument could be extended beyond the need for apology. People living today might not be blameworthy for the decisions of predecessors, but they certainly have benefited from past immoral acts. And Native peoples have suffered, and continue to suffer — economically, emotionally, and physically.

The next question, then, is how do we go beyond apologies and begin to make repairs? That is where we are currently stuck.

The BBC article offers this chilling reflection. Just as we can look back and judge the morally flawed actions of our 19th Century ancestors, so people of the 23rd Century will look back on our day and see our detects. The article suggests our current moral blind spots could be our treatment of the environment and our tolerance of poverty.

Another moral blind spot the article does not mention is our inability to take seriously our responsibility to make amends for past racism.

The article concludes:

What else might our descendants condemn us for? If enough of us know the answer to that today, we really have no excuse but to act on it today.

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