Is Morality Relative to Time and Place?

We are a band of brothers and native to the soil
Fighting for our Liberty, With treasure, blood and toil
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far …
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!

Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

The "Bonnie Blue Flag" ofthe Confederacy

Today’s topic is more or less an expansion on an interesting discussion spawned by my recent blog describing the experiences of my Great-Great Grandfather during the Civil War.

I have spent many hours pouring over my genealogy and I have taken great pride in those members of my family who fought for The Confederacy. 

Not because I believe they were right, but because I firmly believe that they thought they were right.

As I have honored my Southern heritage and studied my family history, it has occurred to me many times that my ancestors were in all likelihood, racists.  To believe otherwise is to deny some pretty heavy probabilities.

Racism was endemic not only in the South, but throughout most of the country at one time and I suppose a valid argument could be made that it still is. 

But, we fought a terrible war a long time ago, based mainly on the perceived “right” of one man to own another human being.  We called the issue “State’s Rights” and basically that’s accurate, but among the many minor rights being contested, the really big one was, of course … slavery.

Here’s where the question of moral relativism comes in. 

I firmly believe that there is no way one can rationalize that slavery itself, or the defense of slavery was ever morally correct. 

Anyone who believes that now, or ever believed it was just plain wrong.

So I am left with this quandary. 

What am I to think about my ancestors who lived … and in some cases died defending a cause that by today’s standards would not be morally defensible?

How am I to account for the choices made by my family members who took up the Confederate cause and fought with great valor and determination for what they believed?

Of course, the most prevalent argument today is that there is no defense.  They were wrong and they should have known it.

But, in 1860, owning slaves was a legal “right” according to the Constitution.  The law protected the institution of slavery and it had become an economic necessity not easily done away with.  Even those who wished it gone, had no easy solution to the problem that had built up gradually for over two centuries. 

Given these facts, aren’t we compelled to at least consider allowing latitude for the perspective of the era in which people were living.

And can’t we admit that given time, people in a society do frequently become more enlightened in their attitudes and more liberal in their judgement as circumstances change.

After all, slavery was abolished, the Constitution was amended and today only a very few people even attempt to justify the attitudes that were prevalent in 1860.

Inevitably,  a certain percentage will always cling to the past, whether it is the white person who still insists that black people are inferior despite all evidence to the contrary … or the black person who continues to be suspicious of the general motivations of white society, even though it took an enormous number of white votes to elect Barak Obama to the Presidency.

The vast majority of the white population of this country, North and South was openly racist in the 19th century. It’s a documented fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was not at all popular with the soldiers fighting to perserve the Union.  The “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln, did not believe the black man the equal of the white.  Only a tiny minority of fanatical abolitionists of New England supported the concept of black equality in that era.

Thankfully, this attitude has almost completely reversed itself in the 150+ years since.  Now only the most fanatical fringe elements of society espouse white supremacy.

I want to believe that my ancestors would still fight and die for what they believed in and would defend what they held dear, but I also believe that were they alive today, they would not defend the right to enslave other human beings.

Am I being naive?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

History documents that people DO change given the opportunity and that their attitudes largely reflect the environment they are exposed to as they grow up and the beliefs of those who raise them.

— Judson

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About Judson

Late bloomer ... aspiring writer and musician.
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7 Responses to Is Morality Relative to Time and Place?

  1. brohammas says:

    Why don’t we look at this from another perspective. The one of the slaves.
    If you were a slave, meaning your work was the source of someone else’s profit, you were sold away from your parents, you were sold away from your wife and children, your daughter was oft raped by white men (VERY common) with no consequence, and if you dissobeyed or tried to escape you could be beaten to death and the perpetrator would suffer no consequence.
    Would you be justified in killing your master to gain the freedom of yourself and your family?

    If you say, “no”, just remember that as far as the law is enforced, it is legal for this master to kill you.

    In what time period would this slave, who is a human, ever fight to uphold this institution?

  2. Judson says:

    My entire premise is based on a man fighting for what he believes in. Certainly a person who is enslaved would have an entirely different perspective than one who is not.

    If faced with the situation you describe, my opinion would be that you would do what you thought you had to do. You’d do what you believed was right.

    If murder were your best option, you would very likely choose it.

    You simply would have to create the justification within your own mind.

    Justification for murder would be a matter for one’s conscience.

  3. brohammas says:

    Right, fighting for what he believes in; be it slave holder, poor southerner, or slave. You may say there is honor in standing up for uour beliefs, no matter what those beliefs are, but lets realize that the southern white standing up for his rights to “property” lived face to face every day with those PEOPLE who I described. The southern white man did not simply stand up for an abstract principle seperate from his daily life. No, this southern gent had to meet the black man face to face, know him, and decide that he would rather fight and die than allow this man to enjoy the rights and liberty declared unaliable and divinely gifted.

    Is it any surprise hat it was taboo for a black person to look a white person in the eye? You may say it is honorable to fight for what you believe, but in this instance what a shame that one could know a slave, know them as a person, and THEN choose to believe they are not worthy of humane treatment?
    Is that honorable or reprehensible? and that is just the simple southerner. A plantation owner not only had to deny humanity to another but convince self that his need to be RICH is more important than another humans right to be treated as a human.

    One need not be ashamed of their geneology or past, but a close look at the southern cause, is only accurate if looked at from the perspective of all the people who experienced those times, not just the white ones.

  4. brohammas says:

    Now as to our ability to evolve… of course we have. Public opinion sways forwardm and sometimes back. In fact I believe we are on a slight backward swing in regards to race.
    Are we worse in regards to race relations now than 30 years ago? Heavens no. But consider that just because thinbgs have ben getting better, we cannot assume they will naturally continue to do so, also, if things are in any way bad now, imagine how horrible they were for a black person 100 years ago.

  5. lesliepaints says:

    I am with you on this, Jordan. I think the answer to this comes from the fact that you don’t own slaves. Do you? The times have changed. Besides, from my understanding, the civil war was not fought just because of slavery. There were other divisions between North and South that are raely spoken of. You have a heritage like everyone else and to carry anger forward into future times is carrying negative energy on and on and on. Negative energy solves nothing, only positive. I highly suggest that you read Edward P Jones novel “The Known World”. It was not only the white man who owned slaves. I think if anyone would ever do some investigating, they would find many free African Americans who owned slaves, themselves, at that time. Be proud of your heritage for what you like about them.

  6. educlaytion says:

    I don’t believe that morality is relative since I believe in a transcedent power that established right and wrong long ago. When people tell me that truth is relative, I ask them if THAT statement is relative. If truth is relative then so is that statement which makes it unreliable. If that statement is absolutely true then there’s an absolute for you and the original statement implodes. Either way, saying something is ABSOLUTELY relative is essentially saying nothing.

    As to the specific point you make, it’s true that Southern leadership believed in a cause in a specific time, but they were opposed by many others on moral grounds. For a time, the Supreme Court upheld slavery as a protection of one’s right to own property. Opponents called that thinking garbage since blacks had a higher right to life. In the end, over 600,000 white men died in defense of the moral absolute that people should not be property because of the color of their skin or any other reason. Great post. I can’t stop reading your stuff!

  7. brohammas says:

    @Educlaytion,
    While it is inherently true that Confederates died to protect the right to own another person (as was stated in the articles of succession), it does not naturally follow that those fighting for the north were fighting to end slavery. Many hoped to preserve both the union and slavery. That number also discredits the rather large number of BLACK men who dies fighting for the north, (approx 40,000).
    Now this is not to discredit that many white northerners did die for the noble cause of frreing the slave, but it is being overly sentimental to credit the entire northern army for that cause. That cause was not a written part of thier marching orders. (while it was for the south)

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