- Historic Sites
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
One final observation is appropriate. We should not confuse moral with professional judgment. In the field of his professional competence the scholar has the same obligation as the judge, the teacher, the physician, the architect. The judge who pronounces sentence, the teacher who gives a grade, the physician who diagnoses an illness, the architect who condemns a building, is not indulging in moral but exercising professional judgment. So the historian who, after painstaking study of all available evidence and after cleansing himself of all the perilous stuff which might distort his vision, concludes that Lee was correct in his decision to surrender at Appomattox rather than fight it out in the West, that Roosevelt was not responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the conduct of the Crimean War was characterized by criminal folly, that the violation of Belgian neutrality in 1914 was an error of the first magnitude, that Cavour rather than Garibaldi deserves credit for Italian unification, that Shakespeare and not Bacon wrote Hamlet, and that the Protocols of Zion are forgeries, is performing his professional duty. He may be mistaken—but so may the judge, the teacher, the physician—that is a chance society takes. His judgments may have moral overtones—it is difficult to keep those out, and we have learned to discount them. It is equally exasperating to discover that scholars who may know more about their subjects than anyone in the world are still unwilling to share their interpretations or their conclusions with their readers. We want professional judgments from a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer; and we have a right to professional judgments from a scholar as well.