Morality and Time: Some Puzzles

Prof David Archard, Queen’s University Belfast School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy; QUB Centre for Children’s Rightsdave_archard

Morality and time stand in an awkward relation to one another. It seems obvious that we are morally responsible for what we did and also for what we will do. Thus we are rightly blamed (or praised) for our immediate past actions and we, rightly, ought to think about how we can make a difference in the near future. Yet if – as philosophy has done – you look harder at the relation between morality and time there are really intriguing, and extremely puzzling, complications.

Consider, first, the question of how far back or forward you might choose to go. Popular history loves the kind of thinking exemplified in the ‘for want of a nail’ rhyme. This is intended to illustrate how small actions can have a huge impact when spelled out across a chain of causes. Yet we can also use these kinds of example to explore causal chains that extend across long periods of time, and do so in terms both of what actually happened and what might have happened. Had the blacksmith not shoed the horse, then the horse, rider, battle, and empire shoeinghorsewould have been lost…..and we would now be the enslaved citizens of a Russian Pan-European state (or whatever). Yet it seems odd to blame the errant blacksmith (were he not to have adequately shoed the horse) for our current sufferings. The oddity lies not just in the apparent triviality of his failure, but also in its remoteness from what is happening now.

Consider how it goes in the other temporal direction. I know that what I do here and now today can make a difference to the shape of an immediate tomorrow. Our moral thinking easily accommodates this fact. Yet it is also true that what I now do here and now may make a difference – eventually and perhaps in some significant fashion – to what the world will look like in a thousand or ten thousand years. Perhaps – and this is the kind of scenario beloved of sci-fi time travelling stories – I am the unwitting agent of future global salvation (or destruction). Yet how can I know this? How much of the future am I responsible for? This is not a trivial question. Those suffering now from the floods and storms of the last few weeks can rightly point the finger of blame at the many apparently minor actions and failures of hundreds of individuals in the not too distant past. But what we all do now may be devastating for future generations even if they are, as of now, a long way distant.

Hence a first huge question: what is the temporal scope of moral responsibility?Past and Future - Two-Way Street Sign How far back in time and how far forward should we go to fix the terms of moral praise and blame?

A second question is this: we think that those now suffering from the past actions of wrongdoers are owed something. If I was robbed last week I am owed restitution of my stolen goods and also some form of reparation for the fact that I was robbed, such as the official punishment of any convicted thief. Now obviously a version of the first puzzle presses. How far back should we go to secure such moral compensation? Moreover, some past moral wrongdoers have died unpunished. Should we seek restitution from those who are not the original agents of wrong but who benefited in some way from the wrong? The Guardian reported last summer on the pioneering research of Catherine Hall and her colleagues at UCL on the legacies of the slave trade in Britain. One fascinating line of inquiry has been into tracing and identifying the contemporary beneficiaries of the payments made 180 years ago to slave owners and traders in the immediate wake of the abolition of the trade. David Cameron, George Orwell, Graham Greene and the TV chef Ainsley Harriott are amongst those descended from compensated slave-owners. Do those alive owe something now to the contemporary descendants of those who suffered as a result of slavery?

But there is another aspect to this second puzzle. We tend to assume that those who are the victims of wrongdoing are worse off as a result. If I am robbed I have less money. Yet some clearly wrongful acts can benefit their ‘victims’ in the sense of making them worse off. Philosophers love the kind of example in which Smith steals the airline ticket of Jones only for Smith to die and Jones to thereby avoid her own death when the plane crashes. But such fanciful examples illustrate the critical point at issue, and this can be explored in terms of real history. Thus some historians – Niall Ferguson is a notorious example – argue that colonial rule may have benefitted those who were colonized, and that this can be demonstrated by counterfactual speculative history of the ‘What, in the absence of the Romans, would we have done for ourselves?’ variety.

Such historical writing is intended to show that some practices should not in fact, as is conventionally the case, be condemned. Yet they may also serve to show that undoubtedly wrongful past actions – usurpation, invasion, imposed foreign rule, brutal governance – can rebound to the longer term benefit of those who are wronged.

Hence the second big question: how do we compensate past wrongdoing whose agents have long disappeared and should we do so when in fact it has produced good results overall?