How History Can Be a Moral Science
James J. Sheehan, October 2005
From the President column of the October 2005 Perspectives
My title pays homage to my teacher, colleague, and friend, the late Gordon Wright, who called his 1975 AHA Presidential Address, "History as a Moral Science."1 After making a few self-deprecating comments on the genre of presidential addresses (salutary reading for anyone in the process of writing one), Wright turned to the question of whether historians should make moral judgments. He had no difficulty finding comments from distinguished historians on both sides of the issue. Lord Acton, for instance, was convinced that a historian must "suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong." All too often, Acton added, historians conceal or justify past evils: "The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge." In his presidential address of 1903, somewhat misleadingly entitled "Ethical Values in History," Henry Charles Lea argued that historians should seek to repress whatever "righteous indignation" might be aroused by their studies. The past should not be used as "a Sunday-school tale for children of larger growth." Ethical values should not be allowed to undermine the scientific search for truth.
Gordon Wright himself took a characteristically moderate, nuanced position:
For some of us at least, our search for truth ought to be quite consciously suffused by a commitment to some deeply held humane values. The effort to keep these two goals in balance may be precarious; but if we can manage it, perhaps we will be on the way to re-establishing the role of history as one, and not the least, of what we might fairly call the moral arts.
My purpose in this essay is not to reopen the question of whether history is a moral science—I am quite content to find myself in Gordon Wright's company on this issue, as on so many others. Rather I want to reflect on how history can best perform its moral function.
I begin with a remark by Judith Shklar, from her wonderful book, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, Mass., 1984, 229–30). In discussing the philosophical value of stories, Shklar writes, "They do not, in fact, tell us how to think, but what to think about, and make us ‘see things as they are'." Shklar is talking about fictional stories, but I think what she says also applies to the true stories that historians try to tell. Our histories do not teach us what moral judgments to make, but they do pose, illustrate, and illuminate moral questions by making us see things as they are. By telling stories about the moral choices men and women must confront and by showing the implications of these choices, history gives us problems to think about.
I suspect that the most morally instructive stories are not about the great catastrophes that are usually mentioned in discussions of history's ethical purposes. After all, one does not need a great deal of historical knowledge in order to recognize that slavery and the Holocaust were moral abominations. Perhaps the most valuable moral lessons can be found in situations where the moral calculus is harder to apply, the difference between right and wrong less obvious, the final balance more elusive. As a moral science, history works best when it stays closest to the contours of ordinary life, where people must face the painful choice between compliance or resistance, greater or lesser evils, inflicting or suffering harm. Among history's moral lessons should be a certain modesty born from the knowledge of how complex "things as they are" often turn out to be.
History takes us to the intersection of principles and practice, the place where ethical ideals uneasily coexist with the necessity of choice. Like historical explanations in general, history's moral lessons are deeply embedded in life's messy specificity. Adding or subtracting a significant detail or shifting the narrative's emphasis can often change the moral analysis in powerful and sometimes unpredictable ways. Only by attempting to get the story as straight as we can, bringing to bear everything we believe to be significant, trying to weigh as many factors as possible, and acknowledging various points of view, can we grapple with what the people we study did and what they might or should have done.
Most moral judgments about the past contain an implicit counterfactual claim: if x had done y, the situation would have been better or worse. And as is always the case in using counterfactuals, the power of counterfactual moral judgments depends on their plausibility, that is, on how close they are to the actual facts of the case. If it is implausible that x might have done y—or even thought of doing so—then the moral charge of the counterfactual is substantially weakened. Moral principles may be unchanging, but their application varies enormously from one situation to another.
I don't agree with Lord Acton that history's most important moral purpose is to hand out sentences so that evil doers don't escape "the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong." In most historical accounts, the prisoner's dock stands empty, the accused no longer available for earthly penalties or exoneration. As a moral science, history may be about someone else's past but its purpose is rooted in our present. That is why Carl Becker's comment, first written in The Dial in 1915 and frequently quoted thereafter, seems like an appropriate way to conclude:
Knowledge of history cannot be … practically applied, and is therefore worthless except to those who have made it, in greater or less degree, a personal possession. The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control not society, but ourselves—a much more important thing.
—James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) is president of the AHA.
1. Gordon Wright, "History as a Moral Science," American Historical Review 81:1 (February 1976). The text of the address is also available on the AHA web site at http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/gwright.htm.