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Seminars in Moral Philosophy Week 3 HT08

Event Name Seminars in Moral Philosophy Week 3 HT08
Start Date 28th Jan 2008 4:30pm
End Date 28th Jan 2008 6:30pm
Duration 2 hours

Miranda Fricker (Birkbeck), ‘The Relativity of Blame’ to be held in the Lecture Room, 10 Merton Street, Oxford - Seminars in Moral Philosophy webpage


‘Must I think of myself as visiting in judgement all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical or political thought?’

Bernard Williams, ‘Human Rights and Relativism’,

In The Beginning Was The Deed

Williams’ own answer to this question is that one should abandon universalism—abandon the idea that one’s moral judgements apply across historical distance—and embrace instead the ‘relativism of distance’. I will explore a different answer. The move to relativism is diagnosed as depending crucially upon the assumption that if we bring our own ethical outlook to bear in judgement of historically distant others, then wherever they do things of which we now disapprove, blame is in order. My suggestion will be that this is not so.

If we start by exploiting the ready distinction between judging actions and judging agents, we can easily make negative judgements about past practices that we regard as immoral, without thereby committing ourselves to blaming the agents. This applies if we regard their historical position as one in which they could not be expected to have made the moral discrimination we are now in a historical position make. But this can seem unsatisfying, because it seems that the kind of judgement we are making—of practices alone—has no moral bite. The fact that withholding blame from past agents seems to leave us with no moral comment to make about them as individual agents can send philosophers back to the over-ambitious species of universalism that would daub history with blame. But it should not; and need not. If we introduce a distinction between ‘routine’ moral discriminations (routine deployments of the moral conceptual resources of one’s culture) and ‘exceptional’ moral discriminations (more innovative, imaginative moral conceptual moves), then we can regard at least some historically distant others as at moral fault in failing to make exceptional moves, when those moves are just around the historical corner. We may see them as complacently judging according to mere routine, when a more exceptional insight was becoming historically available to them. In a case like this, we find that they could have done better, and we are disappointed that they didn’t. We don’t blame them (for no one is blameworthy who judges routinely), but we regard their moral epistemic performance and the conduct it underpins as morally disappointing. Through these reflections, we construct a useful form of qualified moral resentment that reaches across historical distance to the individual agent, yet rightly falls short of blame: moral disappointment

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