Can We Judge History Through a Moral Lens?

05/01/2019

The short answer to this rather nuanced question is, in my opinion, yes but with relevant context. I say opinion because there is no ‘right’ answer, and each person might differ in their response on each separate case. There are a number of factors that feed into this, most important being the context of the time period in question.

We look back at historical figures and events through the eyes of the present day and through the perspective of the society we were born into. From a purely academic perspective, focus should be centred on the facts and not whether something was ‘morally’ right or wrong so as to avoid a biased or potentially warped interpretation of what happened. Once this groundwork is firmly established, with (to borrow E. H. Carr’s term) all knowable facts available, then can people take it upon themselves to discuss the morality of an event or a particular figure.

The first point to make is about justification. To highlight this, and also how opinions may differ between people, World War II is a plentiful example. The majority of people would look back on Nazi Germany and come to the conclusion that it was a horrifying entity that proved just how depraved humanity can be. There was no justification for their actions, it was purely driven by propaganda. Less people, however, are so disgusted by the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In pure numbers the two nations were by no means comparable, but the bombing was no less of a horror in a moral context. Some argue that using those bombs brought about the end of the war much quicker than if they had restrained from doing so, parading this as justification for introducing the world to a weapon that could, today, wipe out the planet. When compared to the prolongation of the war, they saw it as the lesser of two evils. I would reluctantly agree if that was the case, but when you consider that the Japanese intended to surrender before the bombs were dropped, that justification does not stick.

When it comes to justification for certain acts, morality is dependent on your interpretation of the history. While I find the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and their subsequent foray on the Korean Peninsula) as abhorrent morally, others would have no trouble listing the reasons why it was necessary. Who’s right is up for debate, but this is one of the factors that go into viewing history through a moral lens.

The main factor, as mentioned above, is context regarding the time period. An obvious example would be the practice of slavery, something that was rightfully abolished in principle but in some ways still exists today. When you put it in the context of, say, 1800’s America, can you judge people from that time for owning slaves? I would have to say probably not. While slavery itself is condemnable, in the context of the 1800’s it was a relatively normal practice. We can look back from today’s perspective and happily say that we have progressed from such demeaning ideas, but from the historical perspective people who owned slaves were no better or worse than those who didn’t. Another example is sexism. By today’s standards, a large majority of famous historical figures would probably be prime targets of well-deserved ridicule for their views on the rights of women. But when placed in the context of the time period they hailed from such judgement can’t really be passed. As with slavery, we can judge the progress that has been made when you compare it to today, but the people are simply products of the society they were a part of.

When it comes to passing moral judgement on past people and events, it has to be done within the context of that history. Put simply, in a purely historical perspective: solid judgement can be made about what happened (societal progression); interpretative judgement can be made about why it happened (justification, cause and reasoning); and minimal or no judgement can be made about who did it (understanding the role of the individual as a product of their society).

 

Liked this? Read the What Is History?: A Reflection series starting here

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