History And Morality

Every once in a while, when controversy over historical issues and events which are frowned upon today are debated, people in some quarters express sentiments to the effect of: don’t judge people of a different era by the standards of today’s morality.  Such sentiments might sound innocent and moderate, but upon deeper examnation, the implications of such could be troubling.

An implication could be that no absolute moral standards exist through time. If a more humane future with even greater human flourishing is the goal, pertinent lessons must learnt from the past if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided and timeless wisdom’s are to be gained. But the problem is that such sentiments have the potential to downplay areas which might not be the easiest to debate but which could hold a trove of wisdom if rationally discussed.

Don’t get me wrong, the issue of what constitutes absolute moral standards and how these standards come about has no answer. Even text such as religious text which many take as absolute in the standards they set have all kinds of translations and have had different interpretations used for different ends through history. Furthermore, history is not as binary as some will try to present it and in many ways is not immune to innate biases of those who write it.

As much as the future is not known with even 25% certainty, the ability to purposefully work towards affecting future outcomes – directly or indirectly – is what distinguishes humans. Contrary to what some deterministic thought might teach, humans are not helpless creatures stuck in a historically determined trap which are governed by some mystical scientific laws of history when have a tendency towards some end. Humans have the ability to choose the path they decide to take and change course when needed. Key to being able to do this is the ability to learn from the past. But  an obstacle towards being able to do this is the sentiment discussed here.