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C H A P T E R F I F T E E N History, Fetishism, and Moral Change J O N A T H A N R É E One of the most intriguing questions about morality, it seems to me, is what happens when it changes. What happens, for example, when the subordination of women to men, or their exclusion from higher education or the professions, ceases to seem innocuous or natural and starts to be regarded as a grotesque abuse? Or when corporal punishment goes out of style, and homosexuality comes to be tolerated or even respected, or when cruelty to animals arouses indignation rather than indifference, and recklessness with natural resources becomes a badge not of magnificence but of monstrous irresponsibility? There is of course room for disagreement about such changes of moral opinion. But no one, I think, would maintain that they are devoid of any discussible intellectual content. No one would claim that—like, say, changing fashions in moustaches or skirt lengths—they simply reflect the unaccountable gyrations of taste. There may be zigzags and reverses from time to time, but it seems probable that moral change, over the long term, involves something like a process of learning, or an expansion of horizons , or even—to use a curiously dated word—something you might call progress. It seems timely, therefore, to turn back to Kant’s celebrated treatment of the question “whether the human race is continually improving.” Kant 376 was concerned, not with progress in a technical, social, or economic sense, but specifically with what he called the “moral tendency of the human race.” He had been heartened by the extent of popular support for the French Revolution in the 1790s, but even without such empirical corroboration he was convinced that the “moral tendency” of humanity was, like human knowledge as a whole, destined by its very nature to carry on improving till there was no room for further improvement: humanity was imbued, he thought, with a transcendental impulse to refine and clarify its moral opinions as time goes by—to hold itself to higher moral standards , or to grow in what might be called moral intelligence.1 Kant’s faith in moral progress had a powerful attraction for many nineteenth-century thinkers, and its progeny include the positivism of Auguste Comte and various branches of Hegelianism. But their cheerful progressivism is not likely to be promoted with much vigor or conviction any more. If you were to exhibit any signs of moral optimism today you would probably be mocked as the dupe of political boosterism or moral grade inflation, and your friends would try to reeducate you by reciting a catalogue of ferocious wars, futile revolutions, and murderous regimes, topped off with sagacious remarks about the destructiveness and deceitfulness of human nature. The old proverb about pride applies to moral optimism as well, or so you would be told: hope comes before a fall. But pessimists too can be guilty of narcissistic self-deception and bad faith. If you want to be admired for moral perspicacity, all you need do is cultivate a habit of grumbling indignation and dismay: if you can find vice where all around you see nothing but virtue, or degeneracy where they see improvement, or corruption where they see probity, you can become an acclaimed Person of Principle at no cost to yourself, while everyone else will be made to look like a tiresome Trimmer, an exasperating Pollyanna, or an impermeable Pangloss. “Men are fond of murmuring,” as Voltaire once put it (and he knew about such things); “There is a pleasure in complaining ,” and “We delight in viewing only evil and exaggerating it.”2 As a matter of fact, moral optimism is not as dead as you might think: the idea that there is some kind of logic or rationality behind moral change often floats to the surface of contemporary common sense without occasioning much comment. When people want to protest against horrifying contemporary practices—torture, say, or forced marriage, human trafficking , or racial violence—they are likely to condemn them as “Victorian,” History, Fetishism, and Moral Change 377 “medieval,” “primitive,” or “antiquated,” while expressing astonishment that they should still be countenanced in the twenty-first century. The notion that the epochs of past time can function as terms of moral opprobrium , or that the present date constitutes some kind of moral standard, testifies to a touchingly stubborn faith in something like Kant’s a priori...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780268088668
Related ISBN
9780268037376
MARC Record
OCLC
849947046
Pages
544
Launched on MUSE
2013-08-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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