22 June 2017
As suggested by the name of this blog, I take the view that the role of history is not to judge, but to try to understand the past ‘how it really was’. What right have we to judge the actions of people who lived in times that we, with the privilege of hindsight, in the relative prosperity of early twenty-first Western Europe, are fortunate never to have directly experienced ourselves?
But I also take the view (as discussed in an earlier post on History & Policy) that history can help us understand, and so help resolve, some of the problems that we face in the present. Although it is not for us to judge if people were right or wrong in the past, we need a sense of morality, together with an accurate understanding of what happened in the past, to help determine what we should do in the present and future.
This, of course, is to enter the domain of ethics, rather than history, so I have outlined below some ethical principles for assessing the relevance of the past to the present. These principles are expressed in my own words, as a form of personal morality, on the basis that as rational human beings, we can work out what is right for ourselves without having to resort to external authority, religious belief, custom or tradition. But at the same time the principles assume that everyone is different, and we can all work out our own personal morality, in our own way, for ourselves.
The principles owe a great deal to the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, according to which we should always act in accordance with what we, as individuals, should logically and rationally desire to be a universal law that applies equally to everyone.
The first four fundamental principles, in the spirit of the US Declaration of Independence, I take to be self-evident:
1) Liberty of the individual – to strive for personal fulfilment and the pursuit of happiness
As human beings we have instincts, wishes and desires, to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but we can also learn from experience. Everyone should be free to fulfil their desires, whatever they may be, and obtain the means to do so by their own efforts, subject to the three points below.
2) Empathy and respect for others (equality)
We are not all the same. Other people’s desires may be different from mine and are not necessarily better or worse than mine, just because they are different.
3) Cooperation for mutual advantage (fraternity or fellowship)
As social beings, we cannot live alone and we cannot fulfil our wishes and desires without help from others. Everyone should be free to receive help from and offer help to others, provided they do not exploit other people, or abuse any power they may have, to compel them to do so.
4) Freedom to resist exploitation and the abuse of power
If anyone attempts to exploit or abuse any power they may have, to prevent me from fulfilling my desires, or to force me to help them fulfil their desires, I should be free to choose whether to submit, or to resist any force they may apply. The same applies to everyone else. We should be free to decide for ourselves whether to submit or to resist, in any given set of circumstances.
These four fundamental (and in my view self-evident) principles have four further consequences, based on our individual and collective knowledge and experience:
Rule of law
The ethical principles outlined in the first four paragraphs above can best be preserved, so that we can collectively fulfil our desires without exploitation or the abuse of power, and resolve conflicts without the use of force, through (as Kant and many other ethical philosophers have proposed) creating universal rules (i.e. laws and customs), which apply to everyone equally.
Mutual agreements, creating duties and obligations
Although not everyone is able to think and act rationally, in my experience the great majority of people do, so it is possible to create an environment in which we can achieve many (if not all) of our desires and resolve conflicts through mutual agreements, which create duties and obligations. Such agreements may be explicit and enforceable by law, or informal customs and social conventions, such as being polite and considerate to others. These duties and obligations limit our ability to fulfil our own desires, and oblige us to help others fulfil their desires. Cooperation is better than conflict.
The inevitability of conflict and the use of force
My desires may conflict with other people’s desires. There will always be someone, or some group of people, who are stronger and more powerful than I am, so I may not succeed in forcing, or even persuading, other people to do what I want. Similarly, if I use force to resist exploitation or the abuse of power by others, this will make it more difficult both for them and for me to achieve our desires, regardless of which of us is stronger. If everyone acted rationally, it should be possible to resolve conflicts without the use of force. But the use of force may be necessary, in certain circumstances, to prevent the abuse of power, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, and to enforce universal rules, that apply to everyone equally.
Ethical realism and the creation of institutions to enforce the rule of law
I also know from my experience that people (including myself) do not always act rationally and agreements may be broken. Universal rules are not absolute. As the conditions in which we live change, rules may need to be modified so they continue to preserve the four fundamental principles and help to resolve conflict. Institutions and social structures may need to be created to make, modify and enforce the rules, but no set of institutions is ideal. There is no ideal state or society. Universal rules and institutions established to enforce them need to change as circumstances and conditions change over time.
There is therefore no absolute morality, which brings me back to the point that the role of the historian is not to judge, but to understand what people did in the past, in very different circumstances, and draw appropriate conclusions and learn what we can from this. History, in other words, is a dialogue between the past and present, for the benefit of the future. You could say that we need history to understand the past, and a sound sense of morality to understand the relevance of the past to the present, and help us all decide what needs to be done in the future.