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. Continue reading