Author: Steven D. Hales

As Statues Fall, What’s the Best Way to Evaluate History’s Heroes?

The United States is in the midst of an orgy of literal iconoclasm, with activists and local officials toppling the statues of not only Confederate generals, but even Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. And Princeton University has scrubbed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Are these long-overdue corrections in the name of social justice, or simply ideologically driven acts of anti-historical vandalism? The answer depends on how we judge the moral actions of figures from the past, a question that in turn requires us to consider the nature of morality itself. One possibility is that morality is dependent on local circumstances and facts about social order and organization. Ethical codes and rules of accepted behavior are the organic outcomes of cultural terroir, and wither when transplanted into unsuitable societies. The laid-back free love mores of the Trobriand Islanders were never going to be suitable for the warriors of Sparta. There is no one absolutely true morality any more than there is one absolutely proper style of painting—photorealism …

The Futility of Guilt-Based Advocacy

We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. If we don’t try, or don’t try hard enough, we should feel culpable, and we have a concomitant moral responsibility to shame our lazy neighbors who refuse to make an effort. That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution. Even professional ethicists are largely getting this wrong. I recently attended an international ethics conference, and the overwhelming take-away was the realization that philosophical ethics remains obsessed with individuals—trolley cases, what you should do, how you should act, who you should become. It is not appreciated that all the really serious moral issues of our time are collective action problems, and have nothing to do with you in the sense …