Day By Day

Monday, April 18, 2005

Robert Richards on Moral Judgments in History

Welcome, Pandasthumb readers. While you are here feel free to look around for a while and check out some of my other posts. You might find something that amuses or interests you.

There is a nice synopsis by Usman Ahmed of Robert Richards recent Ryerson Lecture in the Chicago Maroon. Richards' subject was “The Narrative Structure of Moral Judgments in History: Evolution and Nazi Biology” and in his address he makes some very important points regarding the ways in which historians, by imposing a narrative structure on the past, also imbue it with moral judgments that are not always appropriate. Instead of summarizing a summary, I reproduce most of Ahmed's article verbatim. You can read his full text here.

A specialist in evolutionary philosophy, Richards said he had been concerned with the nature of moral judgment for some time. He explained that he was led to the specific topic of evolution and Nazism after reading several historians’ accounts of the connection between evolutionary theory and Nazi war crimes.

“In reading their accounts, they claimed to be offering an objective, value-free assessment of the history of Darwinism, yet seemed implicitly to be making moral judgments,” Richards said. “Their accounts made [Charles] Darwin and [Ernst] Haeckel complicit in the crimes of the Nazis, though both had been dead for decades before the rise of the Nazis.”

Moral judgment in historical writing, Richards claimed, is unavoidable because of the deep grammar of narrative history.

Richards began his argument discussing how time is represented in narrative histories, emphasizing a particular concern of his, which he termed “time of narrative construction.”

Citing Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, Richards argued that in constructing an explanation of the Spartan victory, Thucydides had the benefit of hindsight, which afforded him the opportunity to choose antecedent events “that would be epistemologically tinged with Athenian folly yet to come.

“The historian, by reason of his or her temporal horizon, arranges antecedent events to make their outcome, the central event of interest, something the reader can expect,” Richards said. “In the ideal case, it is something that would be regarded as inevitable given the antecedent events, all the while keeping his actors in the dark until the last minute.”

Such a narration, according to Richards, has a different causal logic from events in nature. The historian’s moral assessments, he argued, are based on the different causal logic of narrative history.

According to Richards, there are two primary ways that a historian assigns moral characterization to an actor in history. “First, we do think that when we morally evaluate an action, we assume the individual could have chosen otherwise,” he said. “There will thus be a tension between the actors represented as regarding the future as open, as full of possibilities, and the historian’s knowledge that the future is really closed.”

Moral assessment is assigned, secondly, in the historian’s construction of the sequence of events that explain a resulting consequence. “The historian will also be making a moral evaluation of the actions of characters—implicitly at least—and will arrange that sequence in which the character’s actions are placed so as either morally to indict the individual, or morally to exculpate the individual, or, what is more frequently the case, to locate the individual’s action in a morally neutral ground,” Richards explained.

Richards elaborated on his claim that historians must make moral judgments in their narrations by discussing the “moral structure of narrative grammar,” noting that virtually every descriptive term employed by historians is normative. The historian, Richards claimed, must employ norms governing intentional behavior, in a moral context, in order to assign motives and intentions to individuals whose actions affect others.

While Richards maintained that the moral judgments are unavoidable in narrative history, he did offer his audiences several principles to govern these moral judgments. First, he said, there is “the supreme principle of assessment,” which should evaluate all actions with the same moral core. Other principles included understanding the intention and beliefs of the actor, and the actor’s motive for acting.

Oh, regarding the moral content of Darwin and Haeckel's writings. Richards absolves Darwin [how could he not?] but reserves judgment on Haeckel.

This is the sort of thing that used to be taught in first year guaduate study historiography courses. It no longer is at most schools, but should be. Richards reminds us that even seemingly objective accounts are, inevitably, moral judgments and warns us that in making such we must try to be fair to the individuals who are the subjects of our scrutiny. Failure to do so is to descend to the level of polemics.


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