Should Historians Make Moral Judgements?

Written by John Plowright

We live in an age in which moral judgments about historical actors are commonplace, as shown most recently by the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol; by the protests of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa and Oxford; and by the renaming of Hume Tower in Edinburgh. People as citizens are obviously at liberty to moralize about the past but what should be the attitude and practise of academic historians?

The case against historians making moral judgments is three-pronged.

Firstly, such judgments are bound to be anachronistic, given that our moral values change. Moral relativism means that even in the course of my lifetime attitudes towards the wearing of fur, for example, which were once dominated by considerations of fashion, are now more likely to be coloured by reflections of a moral nature. It seems to be the case that the present always looks disapprovingly upon the past, although this seems rather justified when considering that Auschwitz and Hiroshima once lay in the future.

Secondly, History should be a discipline in which one recreates, to the best of one’s ability and the available evidence, an accurate image of the past as it actually was and for its own sake. Imposing our values on it may be unavoidable at a subconscious and linguistic level but for posterity to be constantly tut-tutting about its forebears flies in the face of the nature of History as a scholarly endeavour.

Thirdly, such making of moral judgments on past actors is profoundly unfair as the historian in such instances acts as detective, jury and (almost certainly hanging) judge.

The case in favour of historians making moral judgments is similarly three-pronged.

First, whatever the moral relativist may assert, there are universal moral values and it is, or should be, part of the role of the historian, or at least the historian of ideas, to distinguish between those transient values (such as the ‘Victorian values’ lauded by Mrs Thatcher) and eternal verities.

Secondly, History provides an ideal vehicle for moral instruction of the young, which is partly why epithets such as “Bad King John” and “Good Queen Bess” arose in the first place. Church attendance is not what it was, so perhaps the National Curriculum can at least ensure a modicum of moral teaching.

Finally, History is about human beings, the distinguishing characteristic of which is the capacity to act as a moral agent, so that any account of the past which ignores or denies this moral dimension removes the most important element from History. Whatever your attitude towards Cecil Rhodes might be, it makes much more sense to judge him as a man than as a representative of some abstract impersonal force such as ‘monopoly capitalism’.

Paradoxically, even the historian most averse to the making of explicit moral judgments about the past is, in one sense, wedded to morality, for there’s no point in their attempting to tell the truth about the past unless they accept a moral obligation to truth telling.

John Plowright is a retired teacher, having taught history at Repton School. He often writes articles for the publications of his former pupils on a range of issues, from religion to the Victorians

Cover photo courtesy of Desmond Bowles on flickr.com

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