Ethics & History

HISTORY.  As a philosophical concept history can be understood in two ways. The first tries to make sense of the possible meaning that can be found in the broad sweep of time, this is often known as ‘speculative’ history. This can then be understood in two forms, either one which focuses on creation and so sees all human history as part of the inevitable working out of God’s plan for creation. This principle of speculative history runs throughout the philosophy of much idealism, particularly that of Hegel. The second form of speculative history argues, from The Fall, that human experience is inextricably broken and fallen from God’s plan. This model is perhaps best typified by the ‘Two Cities’ of St Augustine of Hippo.

The second broad conception of history generally rejects the speculative claim that there is a discernible truth, or meta-narrative, to human creation. Instead this ‘critical’ approach to history looks at history as a series of subjective human accounts of past events. This approach has some similarities with the latter form of speculative history in that it questions the motivations and virtue of humans as historical actors. This critical approach can be traced back to skeptical Enlightenment accounts of religious experience, for instance Hume’s attack on miracles. Recently this critical history has been central to the post-modern credulity to meta-narratives which marks out the writings of writers like Foucault.

So what does ethics have to do with history?

Ethics and history interact with one another in two ways: first, one can study the history of
ethics, examining the ways that ethical / moral thought has changed over time. For example,  ways of evaluating and thinking about the ethical nature of slavery have changed substantially, and the reasons for these changes prove incredibly interesting objects of study. Second, one can study the ethics of history, or the way history is studied and presented to the public. Here are some examples of the kind of question this method would raise:

  • Which historical events should be taught in schools? There is a tendency to conceal or soften those events that point to the wrongdoing of one’s own culture. What does concealing the past do to the present? CLICK HERE to read about a debate over the content of American History textbooks.
  • Should monuments that catalogue horrific past events, e.g. death camps, be preserved, even publicly exhibited?
  • How do our modern interpretations of historical events distort historical reality, (what really happened)?
  • What are the repercussions of focusing on specific events and disregarding others? Foran extreme example, what are the ethical implications of dwelling on the statement “the Jews killed Jesus?”
  • Whose account of history should we trust, or take as authoritative? Should we trust a European historian’s account of the history of a non-European society? What kinds of biases or prejudices might influence such an account?
  • Do we bear a responsibility to the dead to share their life stories accurately? Is it wrong to glorify historical figures who committed atrocities?
  • Was racism / sexism / classism immoral back when it was the cultural norm?

CLICK HERE for an article by Phyllis Hall regarding the ethical obligations of teachers of history


Also see the American Historical Society’s statement of Professional Conduct for a look into the ethical dimensions of studying history