“It was the times” is an argument that says people in the past were not as evil and terrible as they seem to us because they lived in a different time when moral ideas were less advanced. We are judging them by the ideas of our own time, not theirs, which is unfair.
For example, most American high school history books downplay the racism of famous white people, so when people find out, say, that Abraham Lincoln said this:
I will say then that I am not, nor even have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races– that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; … there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
At first they are shocked but then many will say, “Well, he was a man of his times – so it is not as bad as it seems. Everyone thought like that back then. It was the times!”
The same argument is used to excuse owning black slaves: the practice of keeping slaves goes back thousands of years, but our ideas about how terrible it is do not.
And so on.
To a degree it makes sense. For example, the ancient Greeks left baby girls in the woods to be eaten by wolves. That might seem shocking, but at the time they had neither safe abortion nor the Christian ideas by which to judge it as wrong and condemn it.
But the argument can be taken too far. It can be used to excuse great evils, to avoid facing up to an ugly past.
A good example is Jim Crow, the laws and customs in the American South that kept the races apart and blacks down from 1877 to 1967, featuring such practices as lynching and Klan terror.
As seen from 1810 it was revolutionary – the slaves were freed! As seen from 2010 it was cruel and immoral and profoundly racist. But seen from 1910 it was just the way things were – it was the times!
“It was the times” excuses the way things were no matter how evil. It allows historians in 2900, for example, to look back at the millions killed in the 1900s by Stalin, Hitler and Mao and say “it was the times!” When evil becomes commonplace it is still evil. Just because everyone does it does not make it right.
Nor do moral ideas advance as much as people seem to think. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ said to do unto others as you would have others do unto you – the Golden Rule. A simple idea known throughout the West down through the ages – and one that is enough to condemn racism, slavery, Hitler and all the rest.