top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Should We Judge Those In The Past By The Standards Of The Present?

Editors Note: This essay was originally written for John Locke Institute Essay Competition


David Hume, in an infamous footnote in ‘Of National Characters’, explicitly stated that human races exist and that non-whites are strictly inferior to whites. This is clearly extraordinarily problematic by modern moral standards. Judgement of Hume’s views on race were a leading factor behind the University of Edinburgh’s renaming of the former Hume Tower into the more mundane ’40 George Square’. The question remains open, however, whether this judgement was appropriate. While Hume’s views were abominable, they were not especially problematic by the standards of the society in which he lived. It remains unclear whether we should judge his actions by modern or contemporary standards.

In this blog post, I consider whether we should apply modern moral norms to criticisms of historical figures.

Whether we should criticise those in the past by the standards of today can be subdivided into two further questions:

  1. Does there exist an objective moral standard that is binding for those in the past to a similar (or the same) degree as those in the present?

  2. Should we judge those in the past for failing to live up to this moral standard?

Together, these two questions provide the basis for discussions of whether it is correct to apply our moral norms to past societies, even if one risks being anachronistic in the process.

The case against temporal ethical relativism

When evaluating whether an objective timeless moral ethic can be created, it is necessary to differentiate between morals and mores. Vann makes the distinction that morals, under an objective framework, have a timeless force that stands irrespective of the society in which they are considered. On the other hand, mores are societally determined and represent societal faux pas rather than active ethical failings. Public nudity, for instance, would be problematic under current societal mores, but would not be immoral. There is nothing intrinsically ethically wrong with public nudity - it is simply frowned upon in most instances due to current societal customs. In this essay, I only consider the application of morals to make judgements on those in the past.

Many academics suggest that a system of objective timeless cross-cultural morality cannot exist due to how culture fundamentally affects our moral sensibilities. Bernard Williams proposes a theory of ‘relativism of distance’ whereby it is actively impossible to morally appraise actions from a sufficiently distant period of time, as we cannot truly judge moral viewpoints unless they are held by a society that we are a part of. This is allegedly because, to consider a moral position to the fullest extent, it must be societally ingrained within our psyches. Were Williams to be correct about this statement, his philosophy would consequently suggest that we cannot meaningfully judge those in the past. We would simply lack the capacity to make such value judgements.

However, there are a few reasons to doubt the extent to which Williams’s argument is applicable. Firstly, we do have substantial ability to consider the moral norms of a society without being a part of it. Williams’s proposed difficulty in understanding foreign arguments hardly seems absolute. With a well-developed historical understanding, it is possible to research and comprehend arguments made within a distant historical society and thus analyse the first principles and argumentation of culturally foreign arguments to evaluate their validity, even if our society does not actively support them. If no such capacity were possible, then moral innovation would not be possible, as one would be rigidly fastened to the established dogma of their society.

Secondly, and more importantly, it remains the case that several intuitively beneficial first principles, such as the satisfaction of pleasure and preferences, likely are not dependent upon time. Even if we cannot consider previous societal values to the fullest extent, in most cases our modern values will be more fully developed, due to moral progression and an ever-evolving moral-epistemic capacity.

Rather than morality merely being arbitrarily dependent upon societal norms, Chomsky’s suggestion that there is an objective morality into which we as a society penetrate deeper over time seems feasible. As a society, we can see how previous moral reasoning was lacking and act accordingly. The longevity of certain moral doctrines, such as the Epicurean and Benthamite appeal to pleasure and the Aristotelian focus on virtue, is evidence that we do consider and accept or reject previous and present moral paradigms when constructing our own modern morality, and, generally, simply reject those that we consider morally lacking.

This ability to reject views from another time that we consider wrong is particularly evident in cases where previous moral positions are based on fallacious scientific footing (for instance, slavery within the United States was frequently justified using pseudoscience relating to race). Just as we can quite clearly suggest that those who believed for millennia the Earth is flat were misguided, we can suggest that moral arguments that rely upon such flawed scientific reasoning are no longer relevant.

We thus retain significant capacity to criticise past moral views. We can determine that slavery was immoral, for instance, due to the immense suffering and deprivation of autonomy that it led to. Such first principles hardly only carry moral weight in our own society and time. They appear to instead focus on something more fundamental to the human condition.

Criticising those in the past

We can therefore determine that there is likely some form of objective morality that we can use to highlight the shortcomings of our historical predecessors. The exact authority for this morality depends – some would put greater emphasis on deontological moral reasoning, while others turn to consequentialism. Yet, some moral norms can be nearly universally agreed to be wrong, such as, for instance, vehement prejudice towards racial and ethnic minorities, and thus can be meaningfully criticised in the past.

It seems clear that, when our societal standards are the same or similar to those of another, we retain the ability to judge an individual for their actions, and thus in many cases can and should designate blame. Without such an ability, no individual action could ever be meaningfully criticised or evaluated. This would in turn lead to an inability to create any non-subjective normative ethical system, which should be rejected due to its deprivation of the capacity to judge even the most heinous of moral tenets.

While we have established that we can apply timeless moral standards to criticise past actions and can criticise the actions of individuals in the present by our own standards, the question of whether we should criticise individuals from earlier times for not conforming to our modern conceptions of morality requires further consideration.

Fricker’s concept of the relativism of blame provides a strong starting point for the consideration of this question. It is broadly uncontroversial to suggest that somebody should only be blamed for X if they could have reasonably refrained from X. This is a reframing of the Kantian statement ‘ought implies can’.

In a society in which widely held paradigms of truth converge upon a particular viewpoint, it is extremely difficult to refute a particular widely held opinion. To do so, one would have to go against the moral tide of society, and risk being repudiated and scorned by compatriots. Thus, in a society where moral tenet X is widely considered the moral truth, only moral pioneers would adequately be able to dispute tenet X.

It is unreasonable to expect that a given individual will be such a pioneer unless they specifically are notable for a focus in the particular moral field involved. No individual, no matter how great, can be a reformer in every aspect of life. This is especially true since knowledge acquisition often involves pragmatic trust in societal conceptions of truth. For instance, I believe radio waves exist in spite of never having verified their existence. It is thus unnecessarily demanding to expect that a person would not hold moral viewpoint X if it is widely considered to be true by all, or nearly all, at the time.

This represents an example of non-culpable ignorance where, due to the limited moral epistemic capacity of one’s time, one should not be held responsible for their ignorance of certain moral tenets.

This would in turn suggest that we should not judge an individual for failing to live up to our modern moral standards in cases where their historical societal conventions would mean that a particular viewpoint or action would necessitate them being a moral pioneer and going against societal morality to hold such a viewpoint. While it may be preferable for them not to have held problematic opinion X, they can hardly be blamed for holding it. Much as we should not blame individuals for believing in outdated scientific views of their time, even if it would be preferable that they held a modern viewpoint, we should not judge individuals who, due to their limited moral-epistemic capacity, believed in an outdated moral viewpoint. This would thus limit our ability to criticise those in the past by the standards of today significantly.

This means that, for instance, in a past society that considered homosexuality immoral, while homophobia clearly would remain morally reprehensible, individuals within the society should not necessarily be condemned for holding homophobic views. Hume should not be judged excessively for his problematic views of race, even if it would be very strongly preferable for him to not hold such views.

However, this conclusion consequently also suggests that, in cases where an individual could reasonably have refrained from a particular action, it is entirely reasonable to criticise them. For instance, when judging the actions of pro-slavery Confederate Robert E Lee, we can reasonably blame him for failing to live up to our moral standards suggesting that slavery is immoral. Since slavery was often repudiated in his time, even in the American South, he had the epistemic capacity to choose a less reprehensible viewpoint, but instead actively chose to devote his life towards the end of furthering racial inequality.

This ability to judge individuals in some cases for their failure to live up to modern moral norms consequently has implications for censure and removal of statues or plaques, suggesting that individuals who held problematic viewpoints, as long as they were not widely disputed in their time, should not be 'cancelled' or erased from history.

How will historians in the future judge us?

It seems inevitable that, in future decades and centuries, historians will judge some particular aspects of our current moral norms to be particularly immoral. The exact moral tenets by which we will be judged are unclear. Fricker plausibly speculates that future societies may criticise our current treatment of animals (BBC, 2013). It also seems feasible that our treatment of the environment, allowance of poverty and treatment of certain minorities may be castigated by future societies.

There is little to no way to quantitatively evaluate which, if any, of our society’s moral norms will be criticised by future societies. Whatever way we are considered immoral, however, it is worth noting that future societies will likely consider their own moral norms when judging our society and the individuals within it. This, however, is not necessarily problematic. It is likely that several actions and social structures that are commonly considered normal or justifiable within our society today are indeed positively immoral. While it would be wrong for future historians to judge individuals within our society for failing to be moral pioneers, we should hardly be able to excuse every immoral action that we commit on the basis of distance. If we have a reasonable chance of grasping the immorality of particular actions and refraining from them, we can be meaningfully criticised if we do not refrain from them. It is thus reasonable to judge those in the past by applying our own standards, as long as the actions for which individuals are judged could reasonably not have been taken.

bottom of page