Past generations could no more live up to present moral standards than we could live up to those of the distant future

Past generations could no more live up to present moral standards than we could live up to those of the distant future. By John Gordon.

Human beings are not fallen angels; we are risen apes. We did not once live in a paradise; we lived in a state of nature, where, as Thomas Hobbes observed, we existed in a world of “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” where “life was nasty, brutish, and short.”

Today, we have been to the moon and plumbed the depths of the atom. We live far longer lives, often largely free of disease and pain, and at a level of affluence that, for even the poorest, would be unimaginable in any previous age. War and crime are at levels far below any known before the twentieth century. The course of human history, over the long term, has been strongly upward, thanks in part to an increasingly strict and broader moral code. To be sure, in the short term, morality sometimes declines. The current call to judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character is a case in point. …

By our current standards, morality has been improving for centuries. For example, take extreme punishment:

The Romans considered crucifixion so brutal a method that Roman citizens were exempt from it, which is why Saint Paul was beheaded. In the Middle Ages, heretics were burned at the stake. Traitors as late as the seventeenth century were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Executions were also, to modern ways of thinking, astonishingly common. In the early seventeenth century, a traveler from Dresden to Prague, a distance of less than 100 miles, counted more than 140 gallows, where thieves were hanged and murderers broken on the wheel and left to rot.

Only in the late eighteenth century did the idea arise that executions should be swift. The hangman’s knot was developed at this time to ensure that the condemned died almost instantly of a broken neck rather than slowly by strangulation. The guillotine ensured instant decapitation. …


Until modern times, slaves were a major item of commerce in many parts of the world. As much as a third of the population of the ancient world was enslaved, and slaves had no legal rights whatsoever. Slavery died out in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, but it was largely replaced by serfdom, which was not much better. Eastern Europe, however, remained an epicenter of the slave trade. Indeed, so many Eastern Europeans were sold into slavery in the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire, that the very word “slave” comes from the people of that region, the Slavs.

With European expansion into the New World, African slavery rapidly expanded. It had already existed for centuries, with captured slaves being sold on the continent’s east coast to Arab traders for shipment to the Middle East, where slavery persisted the longest. It wasn’t formally abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962.

When George Washington was born in 1732, slavery was legal everywhere in the world. The idea that slavery was morally wrong had begun to develop, mostly among Quakers (though this country’s most famous Quaker, William Penn, himself owned slaves). Most people, when they considered it at all, thought that being born a slave was not a moral issue but a personal misfortune, like a serious birth defect.

The idea that slavery was indeed a moral issue took off only in the 1750s and spread widely and quickly. The first jurisdiction in the world to ban slavery was Vermont, in 1780. In Massachusetts, which, unlike Vermont, had a significant slave population, the state supreme court ruled the following year that the language in the new state constitution’s preamble that “all men are born free and equal” was inconsistent with slavery. The first manumission society in the world was founded in Philadelphia in 1780.

Many Southern planters, such as Washington, were increasingly uncomfortable with slavery as the antislavery movement gathered strength, but they saw no economic way out. Many, including Washington, freed slaves in their wills.

By 1827, slavery was extinct in all the Northern states, and the same might have been true in the South, too, had Eli Whitney’s cotton gin not made cotton, a labor-intensive crop, hugely profitable. Because of cotton — by far, the country’s largest export by the mid-nineteenth century — it would take the greatest war in American history to rid the United States of what all but the self-interested by then saw as a moral abomination.

Do we meet the standards of the future?

People can only live up to the moral values of the world they live in, not of some future world. Columbus has been dead for 514 years, and Washington for 221. They could no more have lived up to the moral values of the twenty-first century than we can live up to those of the twenty-fourth or the twenty-seventh, whatever those prove to be.

Blaming people of the past for failing to uphold moral standards that did not exist in their time is itself a violation of an important moral standard: the prohibition against assigning ex post facto culpability.

Yet the left selectively mines history for grievances with which to motivate its identity groups. Always against white males, of course.