History: a vehicle for moral enquiry?

Bede had no qualms about using history to make moral arguments: the distinction is a modern one.

What is history? For me, the discipline of history cannot be defined simply by its object of study – the past is, after all, studied in a wide variety of subjects including English Literature, geography and music. The physicists who recently made a breakthrough in studying the universe are also studying the past. History, I would suggest, can better be defined by the questions it asks of the past, and the means by which it goes about answering them, as I argued in this blog post last year.

I tend to think about this quite a lot, but I was recently challenged on two occasions to decide whether something counted as history. Two weeks ago, following the ongoing coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the BBC held a debate on whether or not Britain was right to go to war in 1914. Last week, in a meeting about assessing history in primary schools, I found myself discussing whether ‘Was Charles I a good king?’ counted as a historical question. In both of these cases I would answer in the negative. These are not historical questions, but rather moral questions explored using examples from the past.

Historical questions

So what is the difference? Historical questions can, I think, be summarised fairly neatly as the following:

  • Why did something happen?
  • What were the consequences of something?
  • How and in what ways did things change?
  • What lines of continuity persisted across time?
  • How similar were people at a particular time?

In addition, we might add historiographical or methodological questions to these:

  • Does the evidence support a particular conclusion?
  • How and why has the past been interpreted differently?

The vast majority of historical questions do, I think, fall within these categories. Answering the following questions would, on this model, all count as history.

  • Why did the English Civil War begin in 1642? (causes)
  • How was Europe changed by the French Revolution? (consequences)
  • To what extent did England change after the Norman Conquest? (change – notice how this is different to the previous question)
  • How stable was the power of the Church in the middle ages? (continuity)
  • Were ordinary Germans complicit in the Holocaust? (similarity and difference)

As I glance through the pages of the history books on my shelves at home, these are, almost invariably, the kinds of questions that historians answer. Some will instantly note that I have not given the question ‘what happened?’ This, for me, is an important distinction that I have written about before. Knowing what happened and when – in short, having a grip on chronology – is a vital, necessary condition of doing history. In constructing accounts of the past and calling upon chronology, however, we address the kinds of questions I have outlined above, often in intricate ways.

Moral questions

My knowledge of moral philosophy is weaker than my knowledge of history, but I would suggest that moral questions are about what is right, what ought to be done and whether or not someone, or something, is good. As Hume famously taught us, these questions cannot be answered empirically for it is not possible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.[1] Numerous approaches to answering moral questions have of course been developed. For those with religious beliefs, divine revelation provides moral guidance. Kant’s categorical imperative is similarly universal, demanding that we act towards someone else only if would treat all people in the same way. Utilitarians argue that we should act in ways which cause the greatest good, or the least harm. Virtue ethicists start by asking what the purpose of something or someone is, and then define how good that person is by the extent to which they succeed in achieving that end.

All of these approaches could be used to answer the questions:

  • What Charles I a good king?
  • Was it right to go to war in 1914?

In doing so, however, we have to draw on moral arguments. We might, for example, define what the purpose of a king is, and then set out to determine whether or not Charles I was successful in pursuing those ends. Alternatively, we might ask whether war in 1914 was the least bad choice that could have been made (further complicated by the fact that we do actually know what happened). Importantly, however, we are seeking here to answer these questions using the tools of moral philosophy, and not of history. In this sense, the past becomes a stage on which to rehearse moral arguments.

These are, however, not historical problems. It would be a bit like asking ‘How did Krakatoa erupt in 1883?’ and claiming this to be a historical rather than a geological and physical question. We can, of course, ask historical questions about this bit of the past: what were the consequences (for humans) of the explosion of Krakatoa? Similarly, we might ask whether people in the 1640s believed Charles I to be a good king. This is a question about similarity and difference. Alternatively, we might ask what Germany’s role was in bringing abut the First World War, an important causal question. These questions, however, are quite distinct from those about whether or not someone was ‘good’ and whether something was ‘right’.

I should point out here that I have no problem with using past examples to explore moral arguments. Indeed, in school, I think it is absolutely right that in an appropriate lesson (my local school calls it ‘philosophy, religion and ethics’) pupils might well consider the question ‘Was Britain right to go to war in 1914?’ It matters to me, however, that they can see why this is a moral question, and not a historical question. Take your pick, Marx, Hitler or Mao: there have been too many times in the past when a moral argument about how society ought to be has been surreptitiously advanced under the auspices of history.

[1] This maxim has unsurprisingly been challenged, though I think the general thrust of it is correct.

11 Comments on History: a vehicle for moral enquiry?

  1. I think you are right when you say that we must clearly define between an historical and a moral question. However I also think it is key that history occasionally addresses some of these moral questions, even if only to see the range of possible answers – I am not sure where else it might come in on he curriculum in a really grounded way.

    Interestingly your view contrasts quite a lot with a number of models of history education – I am thinking particularly of Peter Seixas of the Historical Thinking Project, who argues that the moral dimension is a conceptual aspect of history in the same way as cause and consequence. Would be interested to know your take on this (much of his work is avaiable via the HTP website). I know there are also a number of other schools for whom the moral dimension is also key.

    I suppose the big issue is that of an event such as he Holocaust. Should it be an issue of historical study or of moral condemnation. There is a wonderful section of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ which discusses this issue – a difficult call to make I always feel.

  2. Michael Fordham // 17 March 2014 at 20:15 // Reply

    Thanks Alex – astute as ever! Yes, I think my view here is in the minority in the wider history education scene. I was at Euroclio in Germany last year, and the general view of school history outside of the UK is that it is a moral enterprise. I think the same is true of history generally. Interestingly, Seixas’ early work has influenced me greatly (particularly his 1992 paper on history as a discipline) but I do not agree with everything in the HTP – in some ways it seems destined to repeat some of the problems of the SHP. As for Bennett, it’s a favourite and moral questions abound: I particularly like the scene that compares the Holocaust to the dissolution of the monasteries. It nicely makes the distinction between history and moral philosophy as disciplines. In practice, of course, pupils always ask the moral questions, but my response was always to highlight that this *was* a moral question, and perhaps to direct it towards their RE teacher (which was sometimes me…) in the same way that I might defer a question about the eruption of Krakatoa or the spread of plague to a physics or biology teacher.

    • On the whole I am in agreement with you here. I think that the Holocaust for example has often been taught quite badly in schools, especially when it descends into an endeavour for an emotional response, which can in many cases ignore some of most important aspects of the process. For example, it is far better history to explore reasons why there is a debate over the role of Hitler in the Holocaust, and can lead to some very probing questions about the complicity of ordinary people in the atrocities.

      I am currently trying to write a piece on the nature of history teaching: its aims and purposes. This international aspect has been very revealing – not least as it has forced me to step outside an academic-history cage I had unwittingly put myself in. That said, now that I am outside the cage – I am fairly sure it was the right choice after all…close the door behind me!!

      Just a quick link to Seixas’ thoughts on the ‘ethical dimensions’ of history: http://historicalthinking.ca/concept/ethical-dimensions

  3. Not entirely won over, Michael. Here’s why. a) I think the question “Was it right for Britain to go to war in 1914” is so close to “Given Britain’s position etc, was Britain justified in going to war in 1914?” that most people would not see the difference. The first is, as you rightly say, a moral question and the second closer to an empathetical viewpoint, but in practice most people elide the two and I wouldn’t necessarily quibble over this. b) I think that providing such a limited range of historical questions leads to the assumption even EH Carr warned against, of assuming that the historian is on some sort of raised ground above events, merely commenting and analysing in a totally dispassionate manner. Now, not only is this to have too elevated an idea of ourselves and our own role, but it is not in fact what we see in practice. So Simon Schama is quite clear that he loathes the bloodshed of the French Revolution, and he doesn’t just describe its causation and consequences. EP Thompson took sides passionately alongside the working people of England, whose story he told so vividly. I have yet to meet a historian of Chartism or the Women’s Suffrage movement who didn’t think their cause just and right – morally so, not just justified in the long term by events.

    But above all, I think you are missing one of the most important factors in teaching history to young people, by sucking out all the passion. Factor A plus Factor B etc leads to Event C, which leads to Consequences D,E and F – that may be a bit unfair, but if you follow your line through to its logical conclusion, that’s where we end up. And you then run against the question Tim Lomas identified years ago – the So What? question. If you separate the moral angle and remove it from history, you end up with a study with no obvious point or purpose except as an intellectual exercise.

    You said that historians have no monopoly on studying the past, and of course that’s true. But I don’t think you can leave it at that. The reason I am so wary of other subjects’ forays into the past – yes, English teachers, I mean you – is that they tend to put the moral aspect first and, as often as not, they leave it at that and don’t bother too much with factual accuracy or supporting evidence. Historians take a much more disciplined approach and will (or should!) look carefully at the evidence and, if necessary, might well change their stance in the light of it. But ultimately, none of this precludes a moral judgement, any more than the most objective, forensic examination of the evidence prevents a judge from offering a damning moral judgement when passing sentence.

    I think it’s perfectly all right to ask “Was Britain right to go to war in 1914?” and that it is a valid historical question, though I happily concede that it needs to come at the end, not the beginning of the process.

    Incidentally, I saw a poster today advertising a talk by the Cambridge branch of the SWP called – from memory – “Imperialism, Capitalism – the Truth Behind the First World War”. Something tells me they won’t be refraining from moral judgements there either!

    (Incidentally, I can’t stand The History Boys, which might explain much of the above!)

    • Michael Fordham // 18 March 2014 at 11:30 // Reply

      Thanks for commenting Sean. I think my response comes on two fronts.

      (1) My concern is that we distinguish between the historical and the moral questions, and that pupils recognise the difference between the two. I might be taking quite a hard line in saying that moral questions are not the remit of the history teacher, but I think the hard line is needed as so few seem to make the distinction. I would, in principle, have nothing against a history teacher saying ‘well that’s a moral question, but here’s my view on it’ any more than I would a history teacher saying ‘well that’s a scientific question, and here’s how you answer it’. But it is part of the responsibility of the history teacher to make clear to pupils what the difference is between these questions.

      (2) I also don’t buy the line that distinguishing moral from historical questions leaves answers to the latter as dispassionate. In two of the questions I mentioned (ordinary Germans being complicit in the Holocaust and the causes of the First World War) the debates are highly strung, complex and made with a great deal of passion. Again, my concern is for how this plays out in the classroom: I do not want teachers (and pupils) believing that history becomes interesting only when we switch to answering moral questions.

      It is probably inevitable that moral questions arise in the process of historical study – it matters to me, however, that history teachers distinguish between the two, and ensure that their pupils recognise the difference as well.

      • I think this leads on to another interesting question ie. how far should their be pluraity in approaches to history teaching. Our profession is founded upon the differences between historical stances and approaches. Should we be more open in declaring our particular historical viewpoint (*cough* Annales *cough cough*) before providing students with alternatives. That is to say, would I be able to be more historical if I began by aportioning a large portion of blame to ordianry Germans in the Holocaust, then providing students with alternative interpretations? This way we can really get into the history without my taking a dispassionate role as a narrator of events (which Sean worries about), but also without diverging into morality and ethics. I think the danger of this is of course where you draw the line on which historical approaches would be OK to teach in schools… Is it acceptable to have a Marxist line being given to students? Should this always be counter balanced?

        So much of the subject interest for me comes from the big historicla debates I realsie that I may be blinkered by this somewhat…

        On a side note – have you ever read Richard White’s ‘Remembering Ahanagran?’ – asks similar questions about whether or not popular memory (or even personal memory) counts as history and when it is just ahistorical – a fascinating read!

  4. keith Turvey // 18 March 2014 at 13:41 // Reply

    This a fascinating debate. As a non-historian I cannot offer much but philosophically you seem to be saying that a thorough understanding of the history needs to come first before any moral consideration can be attempted. From an education perspective I’d agree this is useful. However on a more fundamental level if you cannot take the history out of morality I’d argue that you cannot also take the morality out of history. Morality, unlike ethical codes is about absolute right and wrong and it would seem fundamentally wrong to completely separate these, but can see why you would want to ‘distinguish’ between them. Keeping history at a distance from morality for too long surely takes the humanity out of the subject? Or the ‘passion’ as has been mentioned above.

    • Michael Fordham // 18 March 2014 at 15:37 // Reply

      I think a couple of points in response to this. First, I think you’re confusing ‘history’ and ‘the past’ here. The past — that is, what happened before now — certainly plays a role in moral enquiry. In this sense, moral enquiry, history, geology, astrophysics etc. all make use of the past in their separate endeavours. We can of course be looking at ways in which these disciplines might inform one another, but an interdisciplinary approach must by definition start from the fact that there are different disciplines that address different questions about reality.

      On a second point, I’m not sure the argument that moral enquiry is necessarily or only about absolute right and wrong – this might just be semantics, but my understanding is that morality involves the study of a significant amount of grey areas.

      • keith Turvey // 18 March 2014 at 22:07 //

        Thanks for reply Michael. Reading between the lines of your reply I am guessing where we differ is in how we define/perceive the past and history as you suggest. Implied – and forgive if this is a misinterpretation – is some unmediated past that can be held apart from moral judgement for the purposes of academic study. Whilst I agree you can distinguish between the historical and moral I still would find it difficult to see these two as separable domains and at all possible of study in the total absence of the other.

  5. Matt Neal // 18 March 2014 at 14:05 // Reply

    Where matters have been most confused, I suppose, is in intellectual history. Here, it is moral argument which is under discussion – but, crucially, the history of it, not the thing per se. Much debate has focused on the ‘rationality’ of various instances of moral (and other kinds of) argument, as Skinner has noted; whether historians ought to engage in discussion of whether some moral argument or other is rational, and whether it is a judgement other than historical which historians make when they make such a judgement. Skinner suggests that historians should, in fact, consider a moral argument’s rationality, but precisely because its being rational or otherwise is an historical and not a moral question in the first place. And this because what is reasonable to believe is relative to culture (which varies historically).

    ‘When I speak of agents as having rational beliefs, I mean only that their beliefs (what they hold to be true) should be suitable beliefs for them to hold true in the circumstances in which they find themselves.’
    (Visions of Politics Volume I: Regarding Method, p.31)

    – and with respect to ‘some accredited process of reasoning’ (p.31), ‘[an]… attitude towards the process of belief formation itself’ (p.32), which will also be found to be culture-specific and to vary with time.

    Skinner observes that it has been suggested by some that there exist certain desiderata of rationality, which therefore constitute an irreducible core of the concept (and which might seem to make it in consequence only partly, and not entirely, culture-specific). Chief among these desiderata, he suggests, might be said to be consistency and coherency. The problem with this position is twofold. One: ‘consistency’ and ‘coherency’ will themselves be found to be culture-specific, and to vary in meaning with time. Two: a thing either is or is not culture-specific; it cannot partly be so. Which is why Skinner insists on identifying, not ‘consistency’ and ‘coherency’ per se, but – more minimally – ‘an interest in’ those things, as a desideratum of an agent’s rationality. (For example, see p.32.)

    In any case, Skinner does not want to argue that ‘rational belief is its own [historical] explanation.’ There’s much here on the nature of historical and moral explanation, and what distinguishes them, to be discussed. But not that.


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