When I was a young adult I accepted the premise that morality is relative and that the concept of right and wrong was subject to the specific tenets of any given culture. This is a popular concept in contemporary American society and I believed in it implicitly, often invoking it in debates when people would criticize the actions of people outside of their own in-group. The remonstration “Morality is subjective” had the ring of righteous judgment to it and it made me feel wise to say it. Ultimately it turned out to be a flawed argument for reasons that I will explain below.
The idea that morality is subject to the particulars of time and culture run into trouble when we examine the evils of race based slavery in the United States. If we accept the idea that something that is wrong in today’s time and culture could be morally good or at least neutral in the past then it follows that we would deny that our rights and obligations proceed from human nature which of course does not change from time periods that are too small to encompass vast evolutionary changes in homo sapiens. The Founding Fathers knew this when they posited that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, the term “creator” being a pseudonym for human nature. The fact that the founders of this country tolerated and in some cases participated in race-based slavery does not negate this fact as many people of that time labored under the misconception that the black and white races were different enough that they amounted to different levels of humanity, as if they were in fact different species. On this question they were factually incorrect, a mistake which begat the entire host of wrong conclusions that naturally followed from this premise. Similarly they were wrong about in the belief that the differences in gender justified disparate treatment between men and women, a mistake that has been highlighted by science, time, and the evolution of our culture.
The important thing to remember in this is that the evolution of time and culture did not change the nature of right and wrong, it is rather that our present knowledge has made clear the mistakes of the past. Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony did not wave a magic wand that turned women and the American descendants of Africans into fully human beings deserving of dignity and inherent rights, they always were, it is simply the case that it often takes significant personalities to impress these ideas on the general public. Put another way, human beings cannot properly be said to gain rights, it is more the case that society is convinced to stop violating them.