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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

What Moral Standards Should We Apply to Historical Figures? (Guest Post by Tarunabh Khaitan)

[Introductory note: Below is a guest post by Tarun Khaitan, Professor of Public Law and Legal Theory at Oxford, Law Professor at Melbourne University, a Global Visiting Professor at NYU this last term, and author of A Theory of Discrimination Law. Tarun’s post is, in part, a response to my earlier blog post on the question of morally evaluating historical figures, especially in regard to decisions about erecting or taking down statues and other commemorations].

Edward Colston. Seventeenth-century English philanthropist and parliamentarian. Commemorated in several landmarks in his native city: Colston Tower, Colston Hall, Colston Street, Colston Avenue. Several schools bearing his name. His public statute was pulled down and unceremoniously dumped in Bristol harbour this Sunday during protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Colston made most of his money in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. On the same day, Winston Churchill’s statue was graffitied ‘is a racist’, probably because of his hostility towards Indians and his adamant refusal to change the British policy of diverting food stocks from Bengal to Europe, even as between two and three million Bengalis starved to death in the 1943 famine.

What we should do with public statues of such complex figures requires a call on a multitude of issues. One such issue is this: how should we judge historical figures like Colston or Churchill? Or Cecil Rhodes, British imperialist in South Africa, whose ill-gotten fortune has funded a world-class education for thousands—including many like me, who would have had no chance of getting an Oxford education otherwise. What moral standards should we apply to judge historical figures? That is the question I seek to address in this post.

Two caveats before I attempt a response:

(i) Moral evaluation of a person in relation to particular acts is not the same thing as the moral evaluation of that person’s entire life and character. Good people do bad things and think evil thoughts. Bad people do good things. I have argued elsewhere that ‘A life’s overall success is to be judged across its entire span, and not in relation to a particular moment in time or in the context of any particular event(s)’ and ‘holistically from the point of view of the person whose life it is, in light of the resources and opportunities available to her.’ This post is only concerned with the narrow question of judging historical persons for specific actions they took or beliefs they had. A holistic, overall, judgment may be kinder or harsher to them, depending on what else they did or believed.

(ii) Whether a public statue should be allowed to stay, removed, or re-contextualised requires a complex all-things-considered judgment. The moral quality of a person portrayed, and those of her actions, is surely relevant to that judgment. So is the expressive meaning of that statue and its manner of display in our times. And any lingering effects of the actions of the person in question. And many other factors besides. This post does not say anything about which statues should remain and which ones should go, if any.

Back to my question then: how should we judge the actions of historical figures?

One starting point most of us could all agree upon: it is unfair to blame someone for a wrong they committed in moral ignorance. Just as we excuse crimes committed by small children or people with certain types of mental disability, the suggestion is that applying our standards to historical figures without making any allowance for their moral culpability is unfair.

But being fair when judging is not the same thing as refusing to judge entirely. Those who demand that we withhold our judgment of historical figures are often trying to rationalize the denial of racist legacies that linger today. They are also frequently hypocritical—they only demand that we refrain from adverse judgment. Praising powerful historical figures, as Churchill is often praised, is frequently not seen as problematic.

Between these two extreme positions of making no allowances for moral ignorance and not judging at all, Professor Rick Hills of NYU Law School argues that we should judge historical figures by the moral temper of their times (‘historical relativism’). Washington’s slave-ownership, on this view, should be judged harshly by us only if most people around him would have viewed slave-ownership as immoral. On this view, if our moral standards broadly accord with those of our herd, we are off the hook.

Before I criticise this view, let us be clear about one thing: Professor Hills is only discussing how one should judge wrongdoers, not the wrong itself. He is absolutely not arguing that slavery was ever morally permissible, let alone in eighteenth-century America. A five-year old who fires a gun to kill it not at fault, despite having committed a wrong. The right question to ask, then, is this: do Colston, Rhodes, Churchill, or Washington have an excuse for their racist actions/views?

Being slow to judge is a virtue. Generosity and deliberation are key requirements for sound judgment; so is a willingness to subject oneself to the same standards as one demands of others. But Professor Hills is too generous to the accused. Sharing the moral standards of our herd can, at best, mitigate the harshness of our judgment. It cannot absolve us of blame. Ordinary Germans who were complicit in Nazi atrocities were not permitted the defence that they were mere moral sheep, following their herd, and rightly so.

Rather than asking whether they acted in accordance with the moral beliefs of their herd, the correct test we should apply to determine whether to blame historical figures for their racism is this: was the morally correct view discursively accessible to them? It is irrelevant what most people around Colston believed in relation to slave-trade. What matters is whether Colston had the opportunity to be confronted by the view that race-based slavery (or, for that matter, any form of human slavery) was wrong. This moral confrontation could arise in any form—in a conversation with a friend, through an article in a newspaper, on a pamphlet shoved into your hands, in a passage in a religious text, via an angry denunciation by a slave he was selling.

Moral confrontation is an opportunity to rethink, to revise, and to repent. A person opposed to same-sex marriages in early twentieth century Europe may have had the excuse of unchallenged moral ignorance; not so in early twenty-first century. We may be excused for following our herd’s flawed moral outlook unthinkingly only if there arose no opportunity for us to reflect upon it and revise it. If we hold on to our flawed moral inheritance despite being challenged by morally correct views, we can no longer claim the excuse of moral innocence. Our generation should, consequently, also prepare for being judged harshly in the future for our attitudes and actions in relation to animals and the environment—for we can no longer claim we didn’t know any better.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to know if a historical figure was in fact faced with the correct moral view. At the very least, Rhodes and Churchill would clearly have been confronted about their racism—the anti-colonial movements they sought to suppress would themselves have provided ample opportunities for moral reflection. Colston and Washington too, despite being further removed from us in history, are likely to have had access to counterarguments. Their refusal to revise their views, despite the opportunity to do so, should be an important factor, among others, in deciding how we remember these complex, flawed, and sometimes great historical figures.

In his email rejoinder to a draft of this post, Professor Hills argued that ‘discursive availability’ standard sets the bar for moral criticism too low, and that the ‘herd morality’ standard is more appropriate. He gives the following example:

“A medical doctor who relies on bleeding in the 18th century is not guilty of malpractice even if there are widely publicized tracts suggesting that the four humors of the blood are mythical (there were, by the way). So too, a moralist is not guilty of malpractice for relying on the weight of their fellow humans’ mistaken views to reject outlying arguments that practices like slavery—or, perhaps, the eating of meat—are morally abhorrent.”
The parallel is attractive, but ultimately fails. There is a key difference between truths that are amenable to expert authority and truths that are not. Truths about medicine, the natural world, of the occurrence of an event require specialist knowledge of experts or witnesses. In such cases, unless a person has access to superior expertise or information, it is not only morally permissible but may even be morally required to accept the weight of extant mainstream expert opinion (short of having reasons to suspect the veracity of such opinion). The doctor in the example above is, therefore, fully excusable for relying on bleeding to cure a patient.

Moral truths, on the other hand, are not amenable to determination by any authority. Our notions of personal moral responsibility would become meaningless if they were. It is a defining feature of persons that when faced with moral choices in relation to a given set of non-moral facts, they are capable of choosing correctly without needing expert advice. This is why we should accept the ‘discursive availability’ standard. Being slow to judge requires us to excuse those historical figures who genuinely lacked the opportunity to overcome their moral ignorance. Others should be fair game.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 17, 2020 at 12:11 PM | Permalink


Interesting that the Professor feels comfortable opining on morality without bothering to take an interest in facts. He asserts Washington failed to revise his views regarding slavery when, as is well known, he did so during and after the Revolutionary War due to his exposure to the arguments of his young aides, Lafayette and Laurens, and experience with black soldiers in his army. Though his revised views would certainly not meet the Prof's standards they were unusual by the standards of a Southern aristocrat of that time. But then again, this post was for the purpose of using the Prof's privileged position to assert his political preferences and desired outcomes under the guise of an intellectually honest exercise.

Posted by: MorrisonHotel | Jun 19, 2020 11:27:14 PM

@ Benjamin Lehman:

How about John Adams? He is the one who nominated Washington to command the Continental Army, thereby beginning Washington's rise to national fame.

However, Adams was a a person who did not agree with slavery and understood its evils, and yet elevated a known slaveholder to general of the army for purely political reasons.

Surely, such a man should be excoriated from one end of the country to the other, correct?

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jun 18, 2020 10:01:29 PM

Perhaps there is room for a distinction based on whether the actions for which they are honored are built upon a foundation of wrong-doing.
Because Rhodes and Colston are honored for philanthropy, which was done primarily using funds they acquired in immoral activities, their honors (perhaps) should be revoked.

By contrast, I don't believe Churchill's political career and leadership during World War 2 was based on his mistreatment of Indians ( I could be wrong). Since the activity he is honored for is separable, the honor can be preserved. Like any one else, of course, in history books, his mistreatment of Indians should be fully discussed

Washington, then, may be an edge case, as his slave-holding was not a direct predicate for his leadership during and after the Revolutionary War, but the wealth derived from slave-holding may have been part of what gave him the time to be involved in leadership.

Posted by: Benjamin Lehman | Jun 18, 2020 9:31:02 AM

What this very interesting essay seems not to address is the purpose for which we are judging historical figures. Among other possibilities, academics might judge historical figures based on: (1) who they would find it interesting to write a book about; (2) who might present a useful moral, political, military, or scientific example or inspiration for today; or (3) of whom they might want to buy a bust or bobblehead to have in their office as a conversation piece.

The purpose of statues is generally to accord public honor, because the contributions of a particular person or group are a good example to the community. Along with other civic exercises like holidays, public education, and street names, statues and buildings are named after people to identify conduct or accomplishments which are extraordinarily good or worthy of emulation. For better or for worse, statutes and buildings are not named to foster discussion of complicated ideas, or educate about history; fortunately, we have books, articles, TV and twitter for that. That is, no one in the United States gets to the office by driving down Jeffrey Dahmer Boulevard, taking a left on Benedict Arnold Street, and pulling into the parking garage of the Stalin Building; it could be a system, maybe, but it isn't. For that reason, statues of people who are honored for what current morality now recognizes as injustices should be removed.

Posted by: Jack Chin | Jun 17, 2020 7:15:14 PM

"Discursive availability," as Professor Khaitan uses the phrase, means that the "correct" moral standard was presented to the person by someone else. But Professor Khaitan says too that moral standards, unlike scientific truths, can be discovered without expertise. A necessary implication of Professor Khaitan's argument seems to be that, in principle, every "correct" moral value that we have now discovered could have been discovered at any previous point in history by someone who worked long and hard enough to see how the moral system would play out. Professor Khaitan would not condemn an early twentieth-century opponent of same-sex marriage, who would supposedly have had the "excuse of unchallenged moral ignorance...." But early twentieth-century opposition to same-sex marriage would not have been "ignorance" in the sense of arising out of not knowing a fact--it would have been based on not having been exposed to a challenge to the conventional view (which seems not to fit under the rubric of "ignorance"). Since moral logic doesn't depend on expertise, according to Professor Khaitan, that challenge could have been self-generated. Anyone who failed to support same-sex marriage in the early twentieth century could, in theory, have worked out the moral logic that would eventually lead to the "correct" result. I don't understand why anyone would be said to have had "no opportunity...to reflect upon [a moral position] and revise it" just because such reflection and revision would have had to occur purely as a matter of private personal moral evolution without the assistance of outside interlocutors.

Posted by: RQA | Jun 17, 2020 5:19:44 PM

This article reflects Tarunabh's confirmation bias. It sounds like he thought of a conclusion and then made reasons for it. Although I agree with him in principle, I believe his argument has failed to consider myriad aspects which make people do what they do. If things were so black and white as he suggests then we all would be living in an utopian heaven and very little debate would be required when confronted with the "obvious moral choices". Law and morality are not constant but ever evolving.. That's why law is not stagnant but ever evolving.

Posted by: Sky | Jun 17, 2020 4:51:50 PM

I stopped taking Khaitan's post seriously when the Nazis showed up. Godwin's law.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jun 17, 2020 2:48:12 PM

Comment of mine, has disappeared not posted yet(the second one).Please, be kind to check it out, and post it.

Posted by: El roam | Jun 17, 2020 1:52:29 PM

Interesting issue. Yet, things are not that simple as an apple. The respectable author of the post, claims, that the standard then, would be whether the person had the chance to face the right moral view ( through contacts with friends, article in the newspaper and so forth...). Yet:

This is factual issue, very narrow, very arbitrary by nature. He could also face, on the same issue or subject, counterarguments, without understanding how to prevail between both dialectical views. Then the issue, would stand on capacity to prevail or judge, between competing moral principles, and not purely on simply facing one of them. So, another kind of discretion is needed.

Also, beyond random or arbitrary factual findings about exposure to moral views, there are eternal principles one must be always aware to. Example, what is harm or doing harm. Or, the autonomy of one living creature, whether human being, or whether animal even, that, must be kept intact basically. Here very known ancient one(I quote from the " old testament" book of Genesis, chapter 1) here:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them;male and female he created them.

End of quotation:

So, the autonomous and holiness of one human being, has been always unquestionable basically. Why ? because every human being, is created after the image of God. So, when dealing with slavery, the moral standard, may be, obvious and eternal, in the eyes of too many, during all periods.

Also, the respectable author of the post, doesn't differentiate at all, between, leaders, and ordinary persons. The standards from leaders, is different, much more demanding, like suppose:

That one person has right for privacy. Yet, one public figure, one leader, needs to have other expectations and standards. Why ? since he has assumed such responsibility and privileges, that his privacy, must be reduced to very narrow dimension. For, "with the wine, comes the fine". He must be watched and observed and scrutinized constantly by the public. The public, that he has been chosen by. To serve them, not to hang around.


Posted by: El roam | Jun 17, 2020 1:08:22 PM

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