Morality’s role in the work of a historian is a long-debated and messy topic. Scholars have cautioned against the practice of making “moral judgements” in both history writing and teaching. David Hackett Fischer suggests that in committing a “moralistic fallacy,” history becomes the handmaid of moral philosophy and present-day biases. Herbert Butterfield warns against making “pseudomoral judgments,” which often masquerade as moral ones, becoming “mixed and muddy affairs, part prejudice, part political animosity, with a dash of ethical flavoring wildly tossed into the concoction.” In essence, history becomes skewed by a moral perspective.

Although there is a significant amount of truth to these assertions, there appears to be a problem in the other direction as well – leaving morality out of history. Removing moral intent from the narrative leaves it utterly bleak, and detaches it from the inherent substance to which humans can most closely relate. Morality, after all, is the defining feature of humanity. It is what binds together people in the present with those in the past. A history devoid of morality risks falling into fatalism, dehumanization, and “leaving an unbridged gulf between the subject and the reader.”

Even self-proclaimed “secular” historians, devoid of any religious belief system, have realized the problems of detaching morality from history. In the wake of Watergate in the 1970s, historians became concerned that their removal of morality from historical narratives was partially to blame for the “eroding” moral quality of America’s most educated citizens. Gordon Wright reflects,

For a long time, of course historians comforted themselves with the thought that dispassionate value-free history would somehow secrete its own moral lessons, or would at least ensure that those who study it would be led somewhat automatically to sensible and judicious conclusions.

Despite agreeing with the intent of this approach, Wright cannot help but note that it “somehow leaves one vaguely unsatisfied.” He conjectures:

There are dangers built into all stances toward the teaching and writing of history, including the stance called perfect neutrality. … What too many of us have hesitated to do, I believe, is to take that final step – to risk a conclusion, to make a judgment, to advance and defend our view of how things were, and why, and what this meant to people of the time, and what it means to people of today. … 

…Perhaps it is a buried aspect of that old liberal heritage, so much maligned in our day; or perhaps it is a surviving spark of an evangelical upbringing. It has not yet driven me to the point of urging that we resurrect the label “moral science” as a category within which our profession might find its proper place. But it does impel me to think that 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 reestablishing the role of history as one- and not the least-of what we might fairly call the moral arts. 

Wright’s conclusion, while enlightening, is nevertheless vague. How shall historians and educators approach this “precarious balance?” Perhaps the most convincing answer comes from one of Wright’s predecessors, John Higham. In 1962, Higham wrote an article for The American Historical Review in which he expounded upon the role of the historian as a moral critic. Although controversial, Higham’s words are a welcome perspective that needs further consideration by modern historians – especially those who profess a religious faith. He contends that there is an important difference between making a moral judgment and being a moral critic, writing,

Let us beware of the easy temptations of moral judgment in essaying, the difficult adventure of moral criticism. Let us operate on any subject with a conviction of its dignity and worth. Let us grant to every actor in a moral drama the fullest measure of his particular integrity; let us not destroy the drama by hastening to condemn or to absolve. The serious historian may not wrap himself in judicial robes and pass sentence from on high; he is too much involved in both the prosecution and the defense. He is not a judge of the dead, but rather a participant in their affairs, and their only trustworthy intermediary.

To Higham, historians have a responsibility in laying bare the moral complexity of historical events and figures. Moral judgements are derived from moral standards – and rightly so – as any Christian will affirm. However, the problem with moral judgements is not that they are too overpowering, but that they are not deep enough. He notes,

But to try to lay down exact criteria is, I think, to misconceive our opportunity and to narrow our prospect. The historian is not called to establish a hierarchy of values, but rather to explore a spectrum of human potentialities and achievements. While maintaining his own integrity, while preserving the detachment that time and distance afford, he must participate in variety, allowing his subjects as much as possible to criticize one another. … 

... In the simplest sense, the historian commits to moral criticism all the resources of his human condition. He derives from moral criticism an enlarged and disciplined sensitivity to what men ought to have done, what they might have done, and what they achieved. His history becomes an intensive, concrete reflection upon life, freed from academic primness, and offering itself as one of the noblest, if also one of the most difficult and imperfect, of the arts.

If Higham’s advocacy of moral criticism is correct, then it has large implications not only for writing history, but also teaching it. If morality is indeed a bridge between historical actors and present-day learners, perhaps a more concerted focus in this area will enhance student engagement. One need only to look at the current state of American society to find that morality is just as important and relevant as it has ever been. By becoming a true “moral critic” of history – examining all causes, perspectives, contexts, and worldviews – students will have a broader and firmer foundation from which they can base their own morality. Perhaps, as Wright concludes, people will begin to “consider moral insight as something they can gain by skilled and patient historical study, not merely as something they cannot keep out of it.”


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