The history of morals and moral history

Via A Corner of Tenth Century Europe I see that Nat Taylor (who I do not otherwise know) has been asking whether historians should be more willing to pass moral judgements. My short answer (as, among other things, a historian of morality) is ‘No’.

My longer answer starts from the assumption that we’re talking here about the times we’re writing/analysis/teaching history and not writing/analysis/teaching morality. I discuss or write about moral issues a certain amount, including on this blog, and I’m quite happy using historical examples. As well as making the subject more vivid, such examples are particularly useful for reminding people that moral views aren’t unchangeable: that, for instance, it was not self-evident for several millennia that all men are created equal, and that the Catholic church has not always held to the same line on contraception.

If you’re writing or teaching history, however, giving your moral opinions on a historical event is only occasionally justified. More often than not it’s either irritating or positively harmful to your analysis. I think giving your moral views on a particular historical topic is justified only when either there is considerable moral controversy among historians about a subject (so I think it would make sense if you were talking about the Allied bombing of Dresden or Charlemagne’s first Saxon capitulary), so people know where you stand, or where you feel the need to challenge a previous moral consensus on a topic (as feminist historians have done about misogynistic sources that scholars had previously simply accepted).

However, all too often, moral comments by historians can turn into grandstanding. It is rarely necessary to point out that slavery and genocide are bad and that tolerance and peaceful protest are good. It’s like medieval writers going on about how they are in favour of justice and against oppressing the poor or earnest Victorian historians pointing out that Charlemagne having concubines was immoral. It tells you nothing useful, only that the historian wants to show that they are virtuous, and such moralising is tedious and irritating to read.

There is also a potential danger to your historical analysis if you spend too much time thinking about the moral aspects of particular acts/policies. It may lead you into the fallacy that acts/policies succeeded because they were moral or failed because they were immoral (or if you are a certain kind of historian, succeeded because they were immoral or failed because they were moral). The morality of an act or policy and its success are independent of each other. Sometimes the wicked flourish like a green bay tree, sometimes they don’t. And equally, a focus on morality can get in your way when you’re considering motivation. It’s all too easy to start thinking that because an act/policy was bad therefore those who devised/carried it out were bad, and to imagine that you’re carrying out historical analysis when you’re merely going round in circles. Historical study even of such an event as the Holocaust needs to go beyond saying ‘this was immoral’ or even ‘this was immoral because’ to say ‘why did this happen?’ Otherwise we risk ending up being nothing more than givers of secular sermons and lose the real point of what history has to offer.


One thought on “The history of morals and moral history

  1. Ave;
    By way of introduction, I followed your link from ObiWi, and am delighted to have fallen into a den of medievalists.
    Having grown up in a severely circumscribed community, 50’s-60’s evangelicalism, I discovered the medieval world when I stepped outside and into art school. Discovering Anglo-Catholicism augmented its fascination.
    My familiarity with matters theological as visceral issues, and my internalization of Biblical imagery made the medieval context more immediately apparent to me than is likely to be true for those without such a background.
    Particularly with reference to iconography, the significance of right hand v left hand in Biblical imagery served me as a master key for understanding medieval art: It has often seemed to me odd that it comes into play so seldom in analysis of art from the period when it is so clearly a definitive tool for understanding. Its outstanding instantiation apart from depictions of the Final Judgment is the Ghent Altarpiece.
    My grasp of things is far less through scholarly study than a layperson’s interest; colorful but vaguely formed.
    Again, thus;
    while I’ve enjoyed friendships with a variety of historians over the years and enjoy splashing in history’s puddles, my strongest admiration is stirred by studies that explore the world by digging beneath, searching for starting points, foundational assumptions, in what might described as an existential manner.
    C. S. Lewis’s Introduction to Milton is a popular example; but for me the best embodiment of the approach is Chales Williams’ Descent of the Dove. Williams’ distinctive gift was a humane empathy for minds distant in culture and time.

    Approaching such minds with respect and cautious deference, Williams brings to his reader images of both unaccustomed brilliance and dreadful darkness; he is writing as one exploring an unfamiliar perspective explicitly defined by spiritual concerns. But above all he offers the reader a persuasive glimpse into unimagined vistas of diverse visions of the world. It is an adaptation of the reading mind to an alien context rather than imposition of presumptions upon that context. Acknowledging the bottomless pit into which such an approach can fall, it seems to me essential for accurate, more-fully-fleshed understanding.
    Of course it’s a contentious point whether such an effort can escape delusional projection; for myself, it seems, again, essential to accuracy.
    All this is, I hope, to your point. Williams establishes the moral framework active in the thoughts and actions being examined, and so encourages his reader to step inside rather than standing at a distance.
    Most of this will serve to describe familiar forms of historiography. I bring it to your table because its treatment of moral questions enlarges rather than confines them. This is perhaps the nub of issues of moral judgment. It does not set the historian up as moral arbiter but as advocate in an ongoing search for appropriate understanding. The historian in such a model does not stand above but rather alongside the actors in the drama and listens with scrupulous empathy before speaking.
    The target of your criticism I take to be those who stand above, and assume superiority to, their subjects; those whose approach is in itself a corruption of while being a pretension to moral authority. Historicism savaging history as it were.

    I hope that however excursive and poorly informed, this serves as a useful offering.

    Thanks kindly.


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