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Historians and Moral Evaluations

Richard T. Vann
History and Theory
Vol. 43, No. 4, Theme Issue 43: Historians and Ethics (Dec., 2004), pp. 3-30
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590633
Page Count: 28
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Historians and Moral Evaluations
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Abstract

The reappearance of the question of moral judgments by historians makes a reappraisal of the issues timely. Almost all that has been written on the subject addresses only the propriety of moral judgments (or morally charged language) in the written texts historians produce. However, historians have to make moral choices when selecting a subject upon which to write; and they make a tacit moral commitment to write and teach honestly. Historians usually dislike making explicit moral evaluations, and have little or no training in how to do so. They can argue it's not their job; they are only finders of fact. Historians holding a determinist view of actions do not think it appropriate to blame people for doing what they couldn't help doing; for those believing there is an overall pattern to history, individual morality is beside the point. Finally, since earlier cultures had values different from ours, it seems unjust to hold them to contemporary standards. This essay modifies or rejects these arguments. Some historians have manifested ambivalence, acknowledging it is difficult or impossible to avoid making moral evaluations (and sometimes appropriate to make them). Ordinary-language philosophers, noting that historiography has no specialized vocabulary, see it as saturated by the values inherent in everyday speech and thought. I argue that the historicist argument about the inevitably time-bound limitation of all values is exaggerated. Historians who believe in the religious grounding of values (like Lord Acton) obviously disagree with it; but even on a secular level, morals are often confused with mores. If historians inevitably make moral evaluations, they should examine what philosophical ethicists-virtue ethicists, deontologists, and consequentialists-have said about how to make them; and even if they find no satisfactory grounding for their own moral attitudes, it is a brute fact that they have them. I end with an argument for "strong evaluations"-neither treating them as a troublesome residue in historiography nor, having despaired of finding a solid philosophical ground for moral evaluations, concluding that they are merely matters of taste. I believe historians should embrace the role of moral commentators, but that they should be aware that their evaluations are, like all historical judgments, subject to the criticisms of their colleagues and readers. Historians run little risk of being censorious and self-righteous; the far greater danger is acquiescing in or contributing to moral confusion and timidity.

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