Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler. These are some of history’s greatest moral monsters: Leaders whose deeds are widely reviled and condemned. In my experience, people enjoy sitting in moral judgment of the past. It’s a mode of thinking they find it easy to slip into. This makes sense. We are constantly sitting in judgment of our contemporary peers. Why can’t we do the same when we look to our historical peers?
This finds support in the typical mode of historical education. When we are taught history, particularly in school, we are often taught it from a moral perspective. I remember this quite well from my own history education in Ireland. I’m not if it is still the same, but I certainly remember being frequently reminded of the cruelty and oppression visited upon us by our colonial masters (the British). The moralisation wasn’t always explicit, but I often went away from those history lessons with the sense that I was supposed to be morally outraged about what was done to my ancestors.
But is it right to judge the past in this way? I have had arguments about this before. Some of my colleagues think it is wrong to judge the past, particularly the remote past. They believe that the past is — to use a cliché — another country: the moral norms and standards were different back then. It is best not to sit in judgment. It is better simply to try to understand it. What did the people back then think they were doing? What were the moral, political, economic and social forces being brought to bear on their decision-making? We must understand the context, not judge the deeds.
This is a view that has found favour among some philosophers, perhaps most notably Bernard Williams who, in several articles, seemed to support the view that we shouldn’t moralise the past — to do so was, in some sense, a practical and epistemic mistake. In his article ‘Value Pluralism vs Relativism in Bernard Williams’s “Relativism of Distance”’, George Crowder critiques this aspect of Williams’s work. In what follows I want to make sense of the argument between Williams and Crowder.
1. Value Pluralism and Historical Relativism
To start off we need to understand some of the theoretical background to this dispute. Ethical theorists can be divided into two camps. First there are the monists. These are people who think that all ethical values and rules can be reduced to one single ‘master’ rule. Classical utilitarians are perhaps the best example of this in action: they believed that all ethical values were reducible to the psychological states of pleasure and pain. According to monists, ethical decision-making is simple in theory, even if it is difficult in practice. Whenever you are forced to make a choice between two options, you just compare those options along the single ethical metric provided to you by the master rule.
Second, there are the pluralists. These are people who think that there are many discrete ethical values and rules at play. You cannot reduce these discrete values and rules to one single master rule. Freedom is not the same thing as equality, which is not the same thing as fairness, which is not the same thing as well-being. They are all distinct ethical concepts. Sometimes we have to decide between them and trade one value off against another. This does not mean that we compare these values along a single metric. Such a metric is impossible. The discrete values are, to use the technical jargon, incommensurable: not capable of being measured in the same terms. Isaiah Berlin was, perhaps, one of the most famous proponents of ethical pluralism. Bernard Williams also endorsed this idea.
I have a soft spot for pluralism myself, but pluralists face a common enemy: the ethical relativist. According to the relativist, ethical systems of thought are culturally self-contained and cannot be meaningfully compared or contrasted with one another. For example, some cultures favour a highly individualistic ethics; other cultures favour a more communitarian approach. Which culture gets it right? The relativist says you cannot answer that question. There is no single universal standard you can use to assess the relative merits of the different approaches. You can only evaluate ethical systems internally, using their own rules. This might sound innocuous at first glance but then you realise that it means that you cannot easily judge other cultures for systematic human rights abuses, unless you first determine that they share an ethical system with you.
On the face of it, ethical relativism sounds a lot like pluralism. But many pluralists would like to avoid the crude ‘anything goes’ kind of relativism. They want to be able to judge some ethical systems to be worse than others. How can they do this? Crowder argues that they can do it by making a distinction between analytic forms of pluralism and holistic forms of pluralism:
Analytic Pluralism: It is specific values or rules that are plural and discrete (e.g freedom is discrete from equality) not entire ethical systems.
Holistic Pluralism: It is entire ethical systems that are plural and discrete.
Holistic pluralism is the equivalent of relativism but analytic pluralism is not. If you are an analytic pluralist, you can still hold out the hope of rationally choosing between values, e.g. prioritising freedom over equality in some cases, without assuming that it is possible to measure both values in the same terms. To put it another way, you can believe that, on some occasions, there is a ‘decisive reason’ to favour one course of action over another, without this implying that those reasons are reducible to some kind of cardinal ranking of options.
Williams endorsed analytic pluralism in his work, though he did believe that when we choose between different values it always leaves an ethical ‘remainder’ (i.e. an ineliminable ethical taint to our choices). He also felt that there were good reasons to reject holistic pluralism. It assumes, implausibly, that there are bright-lined boundaries between different ethical communities and traditions. In reality, there is often some overlap or sharing of values across traditions. This makes cross-comparison possible.
2. The Case for Historical Relativism
Williams’s position on the pluralism-relativism debate sounds reasonable. But then it raises something of a puzzle. Why does Williams reject relativism when it comes to cross cultural comparison but endorse it when assessing the past, particularly the remote past? As Crowder observes in his article, Williams doesn’t stake out a clear and consistent position on this point. Nevertheless, there are some discernible arguments at play.
For starters, it is worth noting that Williams’s historical relativism (or ‘relativism of distance’ to use his term) applies primarily to the remote past and not to the recent past. This makes a certain amount of sense. It makes sense to continue to morally condemn the actions of the Nazis, certainly while some of them are still alive and while their tradition continues to have some ideological pull. Why? Because doing so allows us to blame and punish those that are still alive and attempt to change the behaviour of those who might still be influenced by those beliefs. In other words, in this case, judging the past still has moral relevance for the present and the near-future.
But it makes much less sense to do this when dealing with the remote past. The moral worldd inhabited by the Ancient Greeks or the Medieval Knights are dead to us. We cannot meaningfully hold them to account for their actions. Furthermore, our present moral world is so different from theirs — so bound up with new moral ideas and norms — that we cannot properly evaluate what they were doing. Our moral judgments of their actions are, in a sense, like a naive form of fantasy role-playing. They have no relevance for our modern lives.
It might even be worse than that. In our eagerness to morally judge the past we might actually prevent ourselves from fully understanding it. We might, for example, be so quick to morally condemn the imperialistic bluster of Alexander the Great that we fail to understand why he acted the way he did. What was the political and economic significance of his warmongering? Why was it valued in the culture at the time? Why was glory and honour in battle a significant concern for so many? Approaching history with righteous indignation may prevent us from getting the answers to these questions.
3. The Problems with Historical Relativism
I think we can agree that we should try to understand the past. This may well mean that we must first get ‘inside’ the moral systems that were operative in the past and not rush to judge those systems based on our current norms and practices. Still, there are lots of problems with Williams’s proposed relativism of distance. Crowder discusses several of them in his article. On my reading, there are three main objections to it.
First, embracing historical relativism would force us to hold onto some counterintuitive and inconsistent views. For example, why should chronological distance be so important when it comes to ethical assessment? Why treat it any differently to cultural or geographic distance? It could be that some, contemporary, ethical cultures are so different from our own that we struggle to judge them in the same way that we struggle to judge the norms of ancient Sparta. It could also be that some historical ethical cultures are quite similar to our own and so it makes sense to judge them. Furthermore, even if we accept that chronological distance matters we can rightly wonder where the cut off line should be. There are no bright lines in the past either.
Second, it is not correct to assume that sitting in judgment of the past has no practical relevance in the present. It is true that we cannot hold people to account if they are long deceased, but that’s not the only practically important thing we can do through moral assessment of the past. We can use this practice to gain greater self-understanding, both at an individual level and a community level. For example, when the Jewish community adopted the slogan of ‘never again’ in relation to the Holocaust they weren’t just blaming the Nazis for what they did. They were using the horror of the Holocaust to assist with the process of moral education and developed. They were saying that we shouldn’t ever let ourselves or our societies slip back into that horror ever again. We could do this by both understanding and morally rejecting the ideology that allowed it to happen.
It seems pretty obvious to me that we are always doing this with the past: it is a constant source of moral guidance in the present. Crowder argues that this sometimes results in a two-way evaluation: we evaluate the past from the present and we evaluate the present using the past. We see how we might have improved from the past and how we might have disimproved. It’s true that mining history for its moral lessons can sometimes distort the process of historical understanding but this just means we need to be careful when moralising the past.
Finally, it is implausible to suggest that there are no shared moral traditions or norms across time, even long stretches of time. To state the obvious example: religious traditions are highly moralised and continue to exert considerable influence over contemporary moral theories. We still live with Christian, Islamic and Buddhist moral values and concepts, to at least some extent. Thus we can call upon these values to morally assess the past. It is not a completely alien world. Indeed, Williams’s own work seems to support this claim. In books like Shame and Necessity Williams showed how the moral concepts used by the Ancient, pre-Socratic Greeks were more sophisticated than we tend to think and still had resonance today. But if that is right then a strong form historical relativism is not sustainable: we can engage in a meaningful moral dialogue with the past.
In conclusion then, unless we are willing to embrace a more radical form of moral relativism, the suggestion that we should not moralise the past is implausible. This doesn’t mean that sitting in moral judgment of the past is straightforward or that it can’t hinder proper understanding of the past. It just means that it can be a epistemically meaningful and practically important practice.