Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the moral responsibility of the historian

(and other such heavy-duty ponderings...)

I’ve just been on another residential seminar at the university for the paper I’m taking in Advanced Historiography. Basically, this is the study of how historical knowledge is generated and transmitted, and incorporating a soupçon of methodology and a tasty portion of philosophy. This is a required paper for postgraduate students and a number of my classmates were having a good old moan about it, expressing the desire to just do history, without having to think about how and why they’re doing it the particular way they’ve chosen to do it.

To each their own and all that, but I’m actually really enjoying this paper. I’ve discovered some interesting (if sometimes irritatingly pompous) late-nineteenth and early twentieth century writers that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, and I’ve gained a better insight into French culture and politics by engaging with the work of the Annales school. In particular, I’m really enjoying wrestling with poststructuralist approaches history, in both their ‘standard’ and overtly feminist guises.

Poststructuralism’s challenges to the claims empirically grounded knowledge are inherently and deliberately destabilising, so they make many people (including most of my classmates at this seminar) deeply uncomfortable. And, as usually happens when people start questioning the possibility of eliciting objective truths about the past or questioning the politics involved in creating knowledge, it’s not long before the phrase ‘moral relativism’ gets an airing, closely followed by a reference to the David Irving case.

Fear not, I’m not about to get into the ins and outs of that story here. But what interested me when we discussed the case in class were the questions raised about whether historians have some sort of moral responsibility in society (over and above their responsibilities as professional scholars). Lord Acton, Cambridge Regius professor and first editor of the Cambridge Modern History, certainly thought so, advocating “it is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things.” (Incidentally, he was also the guy who said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” in a debate over whether popes and kings should be judged by the same standards as us mere mortals.)

The question of the historian’s moral role is one I find somewhat difficult to resolve myself. For a start, it’s much easier to suspend moral judgement and remain neutral when it comes to issues and actions in the distant past – whether or not Richard II betrayed the people after the Peasants' Revolt, for example – than it is when it comes to much more recent historical debates, in which there seems to be much more at stake for those of us living now.

When this discussion came up during our seminar, I was also struck by the question of ‘whose morals?’ At first, there seemed to be an implicit assumption amongst the other students that we all shared a common moral standard, broadly based on a Judeo-Christian belief system. When I pointed out I was not a Christian – indeed, that I didn’t believe in any god – that created a plenty of consternation. It seems to be a widely held belief that if you don’t at some level believe in a god (and in my experience, the assumption generally seems to be a Christian god), you have nothing on which to base your morality. (And as an aside, I find it deeply strange that people feel they’re free to talk to me about going to church, god etc., but if I say I’m an atheist, they get very uncomfortable all of a sudden. It’s a real conversation-stopper.)

I find the idea that you can’t be moral without a god to be bizarre, and frankly, a bit offensive. But then I end up struggling to find some philosophical position from which to argue for a fundamental human morality that doesn’t require god as an enforcer. I tend to end up with three options. The first is that humans are naturally and inherently altruistic (perhaps we could call this the Jean-Jacques Rousseau theory), but frankly, looking at the world around me (and human actions throughout history), I have some trouble really accepting this. The second is what I guess falls into the category of evolutionary theory, whereby we assume that humans, as social animals, can only survive by helping each other more often than we hurt each other. This seems a bit too essentialist to me, and doesn’t leave much room for individual or group agency, or for any higher ideals above purely survival of the species. It also smacks of sociobiology, which I’m keen to avoid like the plague for all sorts of political and practical reasons.

So finally, I’m left with falling back on the values of liberal, secular humanism, but I recognise that these ideals are historical products of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment west. I’m also aware that while on the surface, they may seem
(at least to many of us in the west) flawless in theory, if not in practice, their history means they carry their own problematic meanings and associations.

Eh, I guess I’ll be pondering this for a good long while, and may even resort to reading something like this. (Though the reviews aren't that promising. Any other suggestions most welcome!)

In the meantime, I think I'll leave the last word to Ricky in Trailer Park Boys: “I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optometrist.”

(And if this post made your head hurt, here's some more Rickyisms to alleviate the strain.)


Anonymous said...

I think that historically we have to accept at least in part the idea that society enforces morality for its own protection and that that constitutes its origin. I mean, how many morals do lone hunter-gatherers actually need? Morality is about how to negotiate your way through interaction. But, I think we can also recognise that this doesn't answer the needs of the self-aware individual completely and for me that's where the old existentialists come in. There isn't a higher purpose, but we can make one for ourselves and that's OK. There's no reason why high ideals that we make ourselves shouldn't be worth holding to. This is a humanist perspective, of course, but with a built-in antidote to nihilism and an association with café society and trenchcoat-wearing loners, so I like it. It has its own issues with cultural relativism—if that's an artifical moral structure how can we critique anyone else's?—and with the Enlightenment origins you mention. But that latter, in itself, is part of a different question about progress. If one's willing to accept that, well, historiography improves (even if only by being `wrong in new ways') then one has to accept that society may have developed and ideas may have replaced other ideas. The real trick is to say 'we do know more than those who went before us' without thinking it means 'we know everything that they knew and more besides'. For all progress there is loss and forgetting. But we can still hope for better.

Extra reading then, might be some Camus. Not sure what though, as I find his actual philosophy very difficult even in French (but worse in translation). Sorry!

Bavardess said...

"There isn't a higher purpose, but we can make one for ourselves and that's OK. There's no reason why high ideals that we make ourselves shouldn't be worth holding to."

This, I like. In this sense, humanist values can serve us well as long as we aren't blind to the nature of their origins - recognising that the high ideals we hold are constructs of post-Enlightenment rationality and liberalism and may be quite different from the high ideals of others. But can we be self-aware, self-reflexive and sensitive to difference (which, I think, are important things we learn through the practise of history), without completely drowning in a sea of cultural relativism? That, I don't know.

On the second part of your proposition, I wonder how much it's a matter of knowing more than those who went before us, or of knowing differently from those who went before us (or went otherwise). (And can you tell I've been re-reading Foucault?)

I haven't read Camus since my senior year of French at high school. I had no idea what he was on about then, of course, but I thought I looked pretty cool. Time to dig out my copy of L'Etranger and break out the Gauloises...

Anonymous said...

But can we be self-aware, self-reflexive and sensitive to difference (which, I think, are important things we learn through the practise of history), without completely drowning in a sea of cultural relativism? That, I don't know.

I struggle with this myself. It's not even just a cultural phenomenon, unless we subdivide cultures quite a lot. Quite a lot of reports from the USA about things like, well, the problems with showing films about Darwin, or global warming denial which is, I guess, just as prevalent elsewhere, strike me as a battle between enlightenment and the lack of it, which could have real consequences that are potentially disastrous. But enough history, especially of anything colonial, leaves one uncomfortable about telling other cultural groups they need to change what they do because we know better then they do...

Anonymous said...

As for Camus, at school I had to read his play Les justes, which is not so great as a play because it descends into talking heads quite a lot, but for that reason it's a quite accessible way into some of his debates.

Bavardess said...

Yes, living in a country in which the recent colonial past is a major thread in contemporary politics makes this whole argument practical as well as philosophical. But then the creationists and global warming deniers make my liberal toleration go right out the window and I want to go all Voltaire on their asses.

I'll try Les Justes and report back.

Belle said...

Great post and discussion! I'm teaching an undergrad historiography seminar at the moment, and really loving the discussion of Western conceptions of history. They haven't moved yet into the morality aspect yet, but helping and watching them struggle with the larger implications of philosophies of history has been a delight.

My question for you and your commenters: when we talk about the moral responsibility for the historian, are we talking individual morality? Or simply (and larger) professional morality? Are they different from each other?

Bavardess said...

Good question, Belle. I think that because history is so intertwined with contemporary politics, and in my experience is so often used (and abused) to drive specific political agendas, the professional historian has to stake out a moral position that is 'public'. But whether this should be (or even can be) separated from individual, 'private' morality, I don't know. I would argue that if your individual morality is based on, say, a strict interpretation of the Bible, then that's something that I personally wouldn't want to see brought into politics (although that seems to be happening more and more, at least with regards to US history and the 'founding fathers' as Christian fundamentalists). But having said that, I'm conscious that that is an argument deriving from my own historically specific subject position of post-enlightenment secular rationalism.

At a practical level, what I have observed in recent years (at least in NZ & Australia) is that if professional historians are reticent about taking a public moral position (for example, on the legacy of colonialism etc.), then other vested interests will have no hesitation in taking over the discourse and bending it to their own ends. I really liked the book 'The History Wars' (Stuart Macintyre & Anna Clark, 2003), which delved into some of these issues as they are playing out in Australian politics and public history.