Saturday, February 17, 2007

Moral Judgements on History

I've been thinking about this post for some time, and I feel that now is the right time to publish it. I can't avoid it much longer. Within the next few months I shall have to write the last chapter of my biography of Henry Brown Richardson, my great grandfather. For most of the book, I have tried to remain neutral and factual as an historian should. But soon I will have to get personal and make some moral judgements.

My dilemna: shall I judge Henry only in accordance with the moral standards of his time and his community? Or must I go on and try to make judgements acording to our own current appreciation of absolute good and evil?

I have just read a blog in favor of the first alternative at Blog 4 History. Chris Wehner has written a very cogent argument in favor of judging historical actors in relation to the standards of their times. And he is partially right. His conclusion just didn't set well with me, though:
I think any kind of a desire to “judge” certain parts of the past places one on a slippery slope. To me, the fact that Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others owned slaves does not transcend their contribution to our nation. We must understand historical context and not seek moral judgment.
I guess I'm just "contrary" because Chris's well-written essay decided me in the other direction.
Here is the comment I posted:
If you wanted to provoke debate, you certainly picked the right topic. I am about to write a piece for my own new blog, Lessons from History ( This question is one that is constantly on my mind these days. I am writing a biography of my great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, a Yankee who fought for the South, and I will soon have to write a concluding chapter in which I cannot avoid making moral judgements. This is mainly in connection with his quarter century career as Chief Engineer for the State of Louisiana, during which he held a statewide responsibility for levee construction and maintenance. As you must know, levee work in those days was largely handled by convict labor - mostly black men - and working conditions were such that the average life span of the workers was seven years after they were sentenced to prison. Of course, my ancestor was not directly responsible for working conditions, since the State prison function was sub-contracted to the notorious Major Samuel James, who made a fortune renting out cheap labor. But he could have done something to mitigate this evil. (Government was already screwing its citizens by sub-contracting government functions, but that’s another story.)

Now I know from extensive research that my great grandfather was essentially a good man, but in the absence of proof to the contrary I must assume that he accommodated himself to this evil practice and I must include this negative item in my overall judgement. Nor am I going to say that Thomas Jefferson was an evil man (especially since he was my first cousin umpteen times removed) simply because he held slaves and fathered at least one child with a female slave, but he did do a few evil things.

I think you made the right decision in avoiding the trial format to evaluate the Hiroshima-Nagasaki decisions. I also agree that we must strive to understand historical context. But at the same time we must not avoid the responsibility of making a moral judgement. As an educator, I have thought that striving for such a judgement was particularly important, even if our own social context may render such a judgement imperfect. If we don’t attempt such a moral judgement, we confine ourselves to the REAL SLIPPERY SLOPE of relativism.

(I have corrected the syntax of my last sentence above from that which I posted on Chris's site.) I'd like to know what you readers think. Your comments could be a great help to me. I have not spent much time during my life in studying philosophy, so this question is dizzying my poor old head. Read Chris's blog before commenting, because I have stacked the deck in my favor on this page.

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