Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

History's Moral Turn

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

History's Moral Turn

Article excerpt

"Morality is a subject that interests us above all others," wrote David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature (174O).1 While such a concern with morality has long been evident, each generation needs to revisit its presumptions and language about it. Few would, I suspect, doubt that our age is marked by especially deep moral fissures and challenges, especially since earlier presumptions about truth and objectivity have come under sustained and sometimes withering analysis. At present, we seem to be stuck on either/or choices, riveted to a hard wall of morality-hence the vituperative and endless debates on reproductive rights, gay marriage, affirmative action, and capital punishment. In many cases, morality is worn too proudly, as a means of avoiding serious thought. It intrudes everywhere in this manner: from much contested attempts to display the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public spaces to invocations of abstinence for control of sexually transmitted diseases. President George W. Bush has regularly invoked evil as the highest order of moral condemnation against various nations and terrorists.2 Books spin off the presses suggesting how Jesus would act in certain situations. Yet, serious scholars also examine questions such as how we can live "a moral life amidst uncertainty and danger" and why is it that we act inhumanely.3

Historians can play an important role in deepening and directing this moral turn, in moving us away from simplicity to complexity, from rhetorical heat into cool compassion. Moral philosophers naturally involve themselves in the controversial moral issues of the day, and they increasingly use historical examples to illustrate and support their analyses. Their conceptualizations are often deep, but their historical excavations are commonly shallow. Historians are better able to dig out gems of fact in their glittering nuance. Historians can, and are at present beginning, to benefit from acquaintance with how philosophers employ and problematize various concepts-intentionality, virtue, character, moral luck, action, and Just War. Moral history, as I conceive it, is valuable precisely because it troubles issues. The moral turn is less about imposing our moral and political judgments on historical events and figures. It looks at historical agents and events to warn us that human motivation is complex and confusing, open and constrained. Morality becomes a process of thinking rather than a predigested set of answers. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history's moral turn may help create productive confusion, a willingness to recognize that behind all of our moral choicesnot to mention choices made in the past-lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony. Understanding, as Kant once put it, is "burdened by questions."4

In moving to consider history in explicit dialogue with moral issues and philosophical conceptions, historians should be catholic in their approach. The point of the conversation is to arrange a happy marriage between historical narrative and analysis with philosophical methods and questions. Historians need not draw only from the most obvious philosophical sources-Kantian notions of right (as in a duty or obligation) or utilitarianism's emphasis (as a calculation of claims) on the greatest good. Instead, they should follow those philosophers that purposefully steer away from these well-traveled waterways to open us up to a sea of moral questions-how do we think about issues of justice? What does it mean to be concerned with the dignity of others? What is it that makes a life meaningful? Can virtue condition us to face contingency?

Many in the profession, often with good reasons, react negatively when explicit moralizing, or discussion of moral problems, appears in a historical text. Armed with social scientific objectivity and methods, historians since the late nineteenth-century have generally eschewed the language of morals, and they have presumably avoided imposing explicit moral judgments of right and wrong on dead actors and past events. …

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