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Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?
By no means, said W. H. Prescott. Absolutely, said Lord Acton. The question remains hard—and intriguing
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
And, in case his readers might think that he had stepped out of his province in thus condemning the Spanish monarch, Motley added a word on the responsibility of the historian: When an humble malefactor is brought before an ordinary court of justice, it is not often, in any age or country, that he escapes the pillory or the gallows because, from his own point of view, his actions, instead of being criminal, have been commendable, and because the multitude and continuity of his offenses prove him to have been sincere. And because anointed monarchs are amenable to no human tribunal, save to that terrible assize which … is called Revolution, it is the more important for the great interests of humanity that before the judgment-seat of History a crown should be no protection to its wearer. There is no plea to the jurisdiction of history, if history be true to itself. …
In a Carlyle or a Motley, moral judgment was a form of self-indulgence. But there was more to it than this; there was high Duty! The clearest and most persuasive statement of the moral function of the historian came from Lord Acton himself. Eight years after his exchange with Canon Creighton, Acton was appointed Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University. In his inaugural address he once again exhorted his listeners—and all students of history—“never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standards of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives. … Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.” “We have the power,” he concluded, “… to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind, that if we lower our standard in history, we cannot uphold it in Church or State.”
All of this constitutes what might be called a moral argument in favor of moral judgment. In this view the moral laws are universal and timeless; murder is always murder and betrayal is always betrayal, cruelty and intolerance are always the same; the historian cannot stand above the moral laws, or stand aside from them, but must acknowledge them and participate in them and apply them. If he does not, he will fail the cause of morality—and of history as well—and forfeit the confidence and respect of his peers.
There is, however, another and perhaps more persuasive argument for moral judgment in history, one that rests not so much on moral as on psychological grounds. It is this: that the historian cannot, in any event, help himself, and that he might as well acknowledge what is inherent and implicit in his condition. He is, after all, a creature of his time, his society, his faith. Even if he resolutely refrains from overt moral judgment, he will surely be guilty of covert judgment: his choice of subject, his selection of facts, his very vocabulary, will betray him. How much better, then, how much fairer and more honest, to acknowledge his position in advance; how much better to call his book—it is Charles A. Beard who makes the point— An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution rather than to fall back on a title like The Making of the Constitution , one which “does not advise the reader at the outset concerning the upshot to be expected.” History is not a science and the historian is not a scientist. “The supreme command,” therefore, “is that he must cast off his servitude to the assumptions of natural science and return to his own subject matter—to history as actuality.”
But the stout champions of moral judgment do not have things all their own way. Not at all. Here comes a whole phalanx of historians with a formidable arsenal of counterarguments.
First, while it is true that history tries to observe something like historical “due process,” it cannot in the nature of the case do so. The past is not there to defend itself. We cannot recall the witnesses, put them on the stand, question and cross-examine them. It is difficult enough to render a moral verdict on anything so recent as, let us say, Hoover’s dispersion of the “Bonus Army,” or the conduct of the Vichy government, or the resort to the atomic weapon at Hiroshima; how much more difficult, then, to sit in judgment on the character of Alcibiades, the justification for the murder of Caesar, the conduct of the Norman invaders of England or of the Spanish conquistadors.
Second, while technical judgment is essential—in the law, in the civil service, in the university, in athletics—if society is to function, such judgment does not pretend to be moral but professional. A university professor who permitted his moral views of a student to dictate his grades, a referee whose decisions were based on moral considerations, even a judge who allowed his private moral convictions to influence his decisions on questions of contracts, wills, liability, or bankruptcy proceedings, would be regarded as not only incompetent but expendable. There are reasonably clear standards for such practical judgments as society requires—laws, rules, tests—but as parents, psychiatrists, and priests so well know, moral judgments present questions of labyrinthine complexity even when all the relevant evidence appears to be available. When it comes to history—the conduct of men or of nations in past centuries—all the relevant evidence is never available, and there are no universal standards. What the historian does when he judges is merely to identify his own “can’t-help-but-believes” with eternal verities. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes succinctly put it, “I prefer champagne to ditch-water, but I see no reason to suppose the cosmos does.”