Research: Moral Judgements in Past History

By Tom Yuan.

Research: Humanities


To judge is to form, give, or have as an opinion, or to decide about something or someone.1 There does not exist a unified classification of judgments, but generally, judgments include factual judgments (deciding whether something is factually accurate, or in other words, accept when something is true, reject while something is false2) and moral judgments (deciding whether something is righteous). By analyzing the prompt, it can be inferred that "judge" is referring to those value-laden judgments such as moral judgments, since factual judgment is, by definition, not dependent on a specific era's standards. Given the normative nature of the question, a universal answer that would be agreed by everyone is not attainable. Therefore, to answer the question, a specific approach (in this case, history) shall be utilized. Based on the nature of doing history, I argue that due to the limitations of our perspectives and understanding, moral judgments are problematic in doing history, which is why we, assuming a historical angle, should focus on the factual parts of history instead of carrying out value-laden judgments on the things happened in the past.


There are mainly two fundamental flaws in making a moral judgment about the past,


i. The varied moral standard across time

ii. The inaccuracy and prejudice in carrying out moral judgments due to our limited understanding and perspectives


I will divide the essay into two parts and explicate the two flaws respectively.

Part I


According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Morality can be used either in a descriptive sense—"descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group" or in a normative sense—"refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people."3 Philosophers including Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Aquinas had contended that "moral requirements are based on standards of rationality".4 The key elements in these explanations of morality are "people" and "rationality". The concept of rationality derives from the consciousness of people, and people possess the nature of change, that is, people’s opinions and ideologies will alter over time. Hence, morality, which is based on the standard of rationality, subjects to different interpretations across time.


Consider the French Revolution. The rationality of the republican form of government was frequently doubted by numerous contemporary European scholars and politicians (including French) at that time when the roots of monarchism were sound and republicanism was a brand-new idea. Edmund Burke had criticized the French Revolution by asserting the disastrous outcomes of overturning the systems of the past, deeming the National Assembly to be irrational, and most importantly, condemning freedom to be a trigger of political and social problems.5 Similarly, Joseph de Maistre, after experienced the turmoils of the revolution, took a stance in opposition to it and advocated for restoring the conservative values.6 However, from a modern perspective based on natural rights, republicanism is indeed a "moral" and "rational" form of governance since it protects the natural rights of citizens and rejects the absolute power of monarchs. The things recognized to be immoral and irrational in the past are judged to be appropriate by the standard of today, and vice versa.


In the late 20th century, Francis Fukuyama had argued that liberal democracy would be the ultimate form of human government.7 Following this logic, is it possible for us to evolve an ultimate, unified form of moral standard so that it would be proper to judge using this standard? History might produce a moral standard that is long-lasting, but one can never proclaim that it is the "ultimate" form of morality. Historian Arnold J. Toynbee had formulated a model for civilization, in which he contended that the cycle of civilization will end up with disintegration.8 The same idea shall be applied to moral standards as well: moral standards experience a cycle, and will end up either perished or be replaced. History is continuous—implying an infinite time scale, so one should recognize the possibility of the change of moral standard. Thus, an enduring moral standard does not equal the ultimate form of morality, for current moral standards are always possible to expire or be replaced in the future.


Based on the information above, it is evident that the idea of morality can be interpreted differently according to the time period, and there does not exist an "ultimate" form of morality. It is this characteristic of moral standard that makes moral judgment flawed in terms of history, for today’s standards might become historically obsolete by the standards of tomorrow. Judging things that happened in the past using today’s moral standard is to assume that we are at the vantage point of history at which we have enough confidence to say that our morality is the ultimate form of morality. Doing this contradicts the nature of the historical study—history is the study of past events and patterns; therefore, historians should realize the pattern of change in moral standards.


Part II


The inaccuracy and prejudice in judgments due to our limited understandings and perspectives is a broad topic; only two significant cases will be discussed in this essay. First, historical events, especially those that happened prior to the digital revolution, can only be accessed through archives; considering the innate limitations of those documents (e.g. partially lost due to conflicts, does not include full information), historians shall notice that the moral judgments made based on such information is flawed and inaccurate, since it is based on a partial, incomplete, and sometimes, false understanding of history.


Take the famous American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as an example. Being the wartime leader of the Los Alamos Laboratory and a crucial member of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s achievements in both developing nuclear weapons and attempting to limit them are well-recognized. If one tries to judge Oppenheimer morally using the information above, under a western liberal moral standard, then the judgment will probably yield a relatively positive answer, since Oppenheimer did not commit significant errors violating the liberal values. However, disputed stories indicate that Oppenheimer, in fact, tried to poison Patrick Blackett, who was Oppenheimer’s head tutor at Cambridge.9 10 If this less well-known incident is taken into consideration, probably the previous judgment will be either directly rejected or largely modified.


Second, the application of moral judgments on the past is biased since it is influenced by the point of view of the judger and the majority. (e.g. 21st century scholars are more likely to judge modern history instead of the events happened a long time ago.) Therefore, it is not historically appropriate because the prejudiced application of moral judgments may sometimes, cause historical events of the same nature to be treated differently. Consider, for instance, several mass genocides committed in human history—The Holocaust and the various massacres of indigenous people during the age of colonization. Hitler’s massacre of Jews, Roma, the disabled, and homosexuals had indeed attracted international attention and criticism. The United Nations passed the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, responding to the Holocaust and the words of Raphael Lemkin11; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in the same year, which was at least in part inspired by the Holocaust. The atrocities of Nazi Germany were widely condemned because they were witnessed by the world’s most powerful societies, namely, European states and the U.S, and those horrors were not relatable with those international judgers—it was Nazi Germany that committed these crimes, not the international judgers nor their relatives. On the contrary, the genocides committed by early European colonizers, such as the annihilation against the Taíno People, received much fewer criticism and attention, even though the brutality of European-origin colonizers was no different from Nazi Germany. Historian David Stannard had argued that the massacres that happened in the Americas were undeniably genocides according to the UN language.12 Therefore, those early European colonizers should be condemned in the same way as Hitler; they should not receive less attention just because their atrocities took place a long time ago, and they were the ancestors of many contemporary European scholars.


Conclusion


To sum, in terms of history, moral judgments are problematic due to the following reasons. First, moral standards will alter through time, historian should take the nature of change into consideration and thus avoid making moral judgments. Second, historians should not assume that they have a complete understanding of history and impartial perspectives (God’s point of view); they should realize their limitations in moral judgments—inaccuracy and prejudice—and subsequently avoid making moral judgments. In light of the flaws of moral judgments, historians should concentrate on factual judgments, serve as the journalists of the past, and attempt to provide a factual image of human history to the public and future scholars as accurately and unprejudiced as possible.


When determining how future historians will judge us, it is crucial to note that both factual judgments and moral judgments on the past are based on records and archives. Given the unpredictability of the future, we cannot determine the extent to which our records are preserved, modified, or destroyed, which is why we cannot determine how our status quo will be portrayed in the future. Therefore, we are incapable of determining how future historians will judge us, neither factually nor morally.


Endnotes


1 “Judge,” Cambridge Dictionary, accessed June 30, 2021, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/judge.

2 Johannes L. Brandl and Mark Textor, “Brentano's Theory of Judgement,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, November 23, 2018), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/brentano-judgement.

3 Bernard Gert and Joshua Gert, “The Definition of Morality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, September 8, 2020), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition.

4 Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton, “Kant's Moral Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, July 7, 2016), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral.

5 Edmund Burke, Reflection on the French Revolution (Cambridge: University Press, 1929).

6 Richard Lebrun and Joseph Maistre, “Considerations on France,” in Considerations on France (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014), pp. 65-77.

7 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

8 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 5 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961).

9 Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” in American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), pp. 46.

10 “Patrick Blackett,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, accessed June 30, 2021, https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/patrick-blackett.

11 John Cooper, “Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention,” in Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 76-87.

12 David E. Stannard, “American Holocaust: the Conquest of the New World,” in American Holocaust: the Conquest of the New World (New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 281.


Bibliography


Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. Essay. In American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 46. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.


Brandl, Johannes L., and Mark Textor. “Brentano's Theory of Judgement.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, November 23, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/brentano-judgement/#PartIIJudgTrut.


Burke, Edmund. Reflection on the French Revolution. Cambridge: University Press, 1929.

Cooper, John. Essay. In Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention, 76–87. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.


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Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant's Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, July 7, 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral.


“Judge.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/judge.


Lebrun, Richard, and Joseph Maistre. Essay. In Considerations on France, 65–77. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014.


“Patrick Blackett.” Atomic Heritage Foundation. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/patrick-blackett.


Stannard, David E. Essay. In American Holocaust: the Conquest of the New World, 281. New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. 5. Vol. 5. 12 vols. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961.