Does Moral Ignorance Excuse?

Suppose, first, they weren’t morally ignorant; suppose that Edward Colston or John Hawkins knew that slavery was wrong. Perhaps it’s obvious to any competent adult that slavery is wrong, and they simply ignored what they well knew. Perhaps they were wilfully ignorant. This is perhaps the most common view about the beliefs of really serious wrongdoers in the past. But this view runs straight into the problem of explaining how they could act in a way that they recognized was so awful.
All in all, it’s hard to make sense of the situation where ‘ordinary’ past wrongdoers aren’t excused our blame. Either they’re genuinely and non-culpably ignorant, which seems excusing, or its mysterious why they acted contrary to their moral knowledge, or we lack standing to blame them.
Of course, slave owners, and those who supported them, were engaged in morally horrendous activities. Of course we should condemn what they did. That seems adequate grounds to tear down the statues. We don’t need to blame them as well.
Written by Neil Levy
Everyone agrees that ignorance of fact can excuse. If I take your suitcase thinking it was mine, and my belief that it was mine was faultless (perhaps the coach driver handed it to me, saying “this is yours”, and it looked exactly like mine), I seem excused of blame for taking it. But philosophers and ordinary people have been reluctant to excuse people on the basis of their moral ignorance. Think, for example, about recent debates concerning memorials to people we now recognize as deeply racist. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to demand that such memorials be removed on the grounds that it’s inappropriate to laud bad people, but the demand is often combined with blame directed at the racist (conversely, those who defend the memorials often think it’s sufficient to deflect blame on the grounds that the person was “a man of his time”).
One possibility is that they were worse people than we are. On this view, moral improvement between then and now has consisted not in the acquisition of new moral knowledge, but in becoming better people. Of course, there are plenty of terrible people around now – people we think would engage in awful conduct given the opportunity – but we can’t explain slavery and genocidal colonisation by reference to a small subset of awful people in the past. There are examples of especially bad people in the past engaging in especially bad behavior – Christopher Columbus appears to have been seen by his contemporaries as barbarous – but we’re concerned with ‘ordinary’ awful actions – the actions of people seen by their contemporaries as worthy of statues. If we’re to suppose that being worse people explains the behavior, we must suppose that most were worse than we are.
Suppose we’re not better than them. Then we seem committed to the following depressing conclusion: if we could get away with exploiting people as directly and awfully as they did, we would. It’s only watching eyes and condemnation and perhaps a lack of opportunity that prevents us from behaving as they did. If that’s right, though, then our standing to condemn them is considerably weakened. In general, X can’t blame Y for acting badly when X would have acted just as badly had they the chance to do so. So even if they’re morally responsible, we’re in no position to hold them morally responsible, and those who want to blame them have no right.
In this post, I want to draw attention to some undiscussed problems that arise when we blame those who acted horrendously in the past, at a time when acting in that way was widely accepted. The problems I want to focus on arise when we ask how could people act like that? There are three possibilities: they acted like that because they could; because they were worse people than us; or due to factors outside their control. On each option, it’s hard to see how they deserve blame, or at least deserve our blame.
The problem with this is that it is either mysterious or excusing. The obvious explanations of moral improvement all look pretty exculpating. If we’ve become better people due to relative affluence or due to better communication or due to an institutional environment in which trust is warranted, we’ve become better due to facts for which we’re not responsible. This looks exculpatory, because we’ve explained the badness of past people by reference to facts that neither they nor we are responsible for (facts the significance of which they might not even have been able to see). On the other hand, if there’s no explanation of why we’re better people than they are, if it’s just a brute fact, that’s very mysterious, and our theories shouldn’t appeal to the existence of mysteries.