There is a scene in the movie Lincoln in which Congress is debating the 13th Amendment The debate is passionate, raucous, each side denouncing the other in the strongest moral terms. Then George Yeaman, Representative from Kentucky, takes the floor, and says:
“Although I’m disgusted by slavery, I rise on this sad and solemn day to announce that I’m opposed to the amendment. We must consider what will become of colored folk if four million are in one instant set free…We will be forced to enfranchise the men of the colored race, it would be inhuman not to! Who among us is prepared to give Negroes the vote? And…and! What shall follow upon that? Universal enfranchisement? Votes for women?”
The House erupts in jeers. Even many of those who had been vigorously denouncing slavery laugh and splutter at the ridiculous, outrageous idea of giving women the vote.
That scene in the movie stuck with me because it illustrates a disturbing truth: even the most progressive people of one age will in time be seen as ethically backward. While some who opposed slavery also advocated universal suffrage, many did not, and would actively have prevented the suffrage of women even while fighting for the liberation of the slaves. And it is highly unlikely that even the most radical members of Congress then would be speaking out today in favor of LGBTQ rights. Ethical truths like the emancipation of women – which seem obvious to us today, incontrovertible – were outrageous even to some of the most enlightened thinkers of Lincoln’s time.
The scene is a good reminder that what we consider to be ethical is inherently bound up with our personal experience, and that our experience is a product of the time in which we live and the culture we inhabit. I say this not to support the idea of moral relativism (the idea that our ethical ideas are merely a form of cultural or personal preference), but rather to point out that our ability to see and acknowledge moral truth is bounded. Our experience creates a “moral horizon” – a boundary beyond which it is difficult for us to see, but which others in a different time – and with the benefit of the progress we make – might be able to scout.
I find this idea a useful corrective when I think I’ve got everything figured out. The existence of the moral horizon spurs me to ask of myself “What am I doing today which in 100 years will seem obviously abhorrent? What ethical ideas do I scoff at which will be no-brainers for my grandchildren?”
Perhaps it is my consumption of meat – maybe future humans will look back at their meat-eating ancestors in bafflement and disgust. “James was in the right place on so many issues – but how could he not see eating meat is wrong?”
Perhaps it is our treatment of children. Confining children to “schools” for a huge chunk of their young lives may in the future seem a grotesque infringement of their liberties executed in the name of social expediency.
Perhaps it is my energy consumption. I can imagine a future in which the profligate video-game-playing, flat-screen TV watching, energy guzzling denizens of the early 21st Century are viewed with scorn.
I don’t know – and that’s what’s so unnerving. There may be prophets among us urging us to rethink our ethical priorities who we consider lunatics, unable as we are to see far as they beyond the moral horizon. Untangling ourselves from our parochial perspective to pursue a broader vision of moral truth is extremely difficult, which is one reason so few people become genuine moral leaders. But recognizing the problem enables me to keep the question in my mind, reminding myself to always be skeptical of moral surety, to remember that in every age there have been people who considered themselves on the cutting edge of ethics who are later regarded as laggards.
I believe this commitment is important to Humanists. We must not be content – as our major Humanist organizations sometimes seem to be – with pushing for “safe” reforms which, while they might be on the edges, are safely within the political and social mainstream of our day. Rather, we must seek to be prophetic, to challenge ourselves and society to see beyond our time and culture – to look beyond the moral horizon.