I’ve recently finished up and sent out a paper in which I discuss, among other things, twentieth-century philosopher Bernard Williams’ comparisons between ancient Greek culture and morality and the modern western one. An interesting point he makes, and which I believe that present-day philosophers (and others!) should consider more, is that we might not know our own morality as well as we think we do. By this, I don’t mean that people might be hypocrites without realizing (even though this is true as well); I mean that talk about “our common moral beliefs” may be full of mistaken claims.

In his Shame and Necessity, Williams focuses on claims about how the ancient Greeks lived in a “shame culture” whereas we live in a “guilt culture”. The ancient Greeks, people say, cared a lot about not losing face, and worried that they might be “sullied” by some shamefulness that wasn’t their fault. Us modern and enlightened people, on the other hand, believe that we can only be blameworthy for moral wrongs we did ourselves. We can’t just be “sullied” by shame, can’t just have it fall down on us, so to speak.

Williams says that there’s something to that distinction. Moreover, the ancient Greeks entertained various supernatural beliefs connected to their views on shame and the shameful which we don’t share. But the difference has been exaggerated. Imagine that a modern person, by pure mistake, happens to pursue a romantic and sexual relationship with a parent/child/sibling like Oedipus – perhaps because of a baby mix-up at the maternity ward, which lead to at least one of the people involved ending up with the wrong identity. When the whole thing was revealed, a modern person would hardly just shrug it off, content with the thought that what happened wasn’t their fault, so no reason to feel bad about it.

In his Moral Luck, Williams presents his famous thought experiment of the lorry driver who – through no fault of his own, it was a completely unpredictable freak accident – runs over and kills a child. Even though it wasn’t the driver’s fault, Williams says, he must live the rest of his life knowing that he’s killed a child; his situation isn’t comparable to that of a pedestrian who merely happened to see the accident. The pedestrian is shocked and sad too, but it’s a different matter altogether to be the one who killed the child, even if it wasn’t one’s fault.

When we sloppily talk about how we live in a “guilt culture” in which people are considered blameworthy for wrongful actions they had control over and could help performing, but we have left all ideas about shame and guilt that might attach to people even though they couldn’t help what happened behind us, we simply provide a mistaken description of our own culture and morality.

Williams is spot on about all this. Two other areas in which we often hear mistaken claims about “our ordinary common-sense morality” are non-human animals and disabled people.

When it comes to non-human animals, it’s common to talk about how they’re considered to have a very low moral status in our culture, and then cite factory farming, harmful scientific experiments, and tightly controlled pets who aren’t allowed to live out their natural behaviours. It’s also common to make sweeping statements about how the moral status of animals was next to zero a couple of hundred years ago, since there was no animal welfare legislation back then. But if we scrutinize how we really think, feel, talk about and relate to animals, it’s rather a quite messy and contradictory picture that emerges. Yes, we have factory farming and horrible slaughter houses – but whenever animal rights activists break in and film what happens, and post the films on social media, they’re met by an avalanche of comments claiming that this can’t have been filmed in Sweden, or the films must have been faked somehow. (I’m writing this from a Swedish perspective, but it wouldn’t surprise me if similar things happen in many other countries.) This kind of apologetic comments wouldn’t be written by people who believed that what’s shown on the films is morally right.
Dog trainers who promotes punishment based training methods don’t say that it’s okay to punish disobedient dogs because dogs have so little value – on the contrary, they’re often reluctant to even use the word “punishment”. Instead, they talk of the importance of strong leadership, and how this actually makes dogs happier and more harmonious.
Way back in time, we find lots of hagiographies in which the saint’s piety and holiness is shown by, among other things, how willing they are to make sacrifices for the sake of animals. Saint Giles, patron saint of the city of Edinburgh and disabled people everywhere, is said to have been injured for life when he shielded a deer from a hunter’s arrow with his own body. If medieval people had a simple and non-contradictory view on non-human animals as morally worthless, hagiographies like this one becomes incomprehensible.

When it comes to disabled people, it’s incredibly common to talk about how we, in our modern enlightened era, consider all humans of equal value, and believe that disabled people have, for instance, the same right to life as the non-disabled. However, disability activists have often questioned whether this really is the case. For instance, psychology professor Dick Sobsey wrote this important article on the murder of Tracy Latimer, who was killed by her own father. He shut her in the family car, started the engine, and lead the exhaust fumes in to her until she died. The father initially tried to get away with the murder, changed his story multiple times, but eventually claimed that he had carbon-monoxide-poisoned Tracy for her own good, because she had cerebral palsy and suffered so. Despite the fact that even his final story contained many claims that were weird from a purely medical perspective about Tracy’s condition and her suffering, both mainstream media and famous philosophy professor James Rachels bought his story wholesale, and considered it outrageous that he was sentenced to prison when he only wanted what was best for his daughter. This is nothing unique when it comes to murders of disabled people, which Sobsey discusses further in the article.

It’s also common in movies and other media to portray a disabled character’s death as more bittersweet than tragic – as liberation from their hard disabled life rather than a loss. Nowadays, there are also several cases of disabled patients in countries with legalized assisted suicide who testify that clinicians have tried to pressure them into choosing death, like Canadian Roger Foley.

Thus, disabled people and their moral status is another area in which we probably have many mistaken and rose-tinted ideas of what “our ordinary common-sense morality” looks like.