Ethics and History Education

Ethics is a matter of what is right and wrong, how we should act, and how things ought to be. It underpins and permeates everything we do. We can’t rise above ethics or bracket it out from our thoughts and actions, because to have thoughts and actions is to be ethical. There is something deeply human about ethics: we are ethical creatures.

The centrality of ethics to the human condition has resulted in the study of ethics – normally considered a branch of philosophy – which stretches back millennia. Numerous ethical theories and models have been created which allow us to make sense of and try to answer ethical questions. Some of these – such as utilitarianism – are theories with some popular currency. But if you want a deeper understanding of what these theories involve, you need to study ethics. 

Ethics – like other branches of philosophy – is essentially a ‘meta’ enterprise. You can have a ‘philosophy’ and an ‘ethics’ of anything. This is true of the academic disciplines. The philosophy of science, for example, is a well developed field and in some branches (such as medicine) it is I believe a compulsory part of its study. Medical researchers learn about medical ethics because they are faced with very stark ethical problems on a regular basis. Some researchers go on to specialise in medical ethics, and are then able to provide their expertise in numerous contexts. 

In education, ethics is equally important. Anyone doing educational research has to take courses on research ethics, and teachers will at times get to think about ethical issues in their initial training and professional development. I do not think it is as developed a field as (say) medical ethics, but acting in an ethical way is clearly important for teachers. This is true at both the general and the subject level. At the general level, we have to make ethical decisions related to behaviour, pupil welfare, use of resources and so on. At a subject level, ethics informs what we choose to teach and what we want pupils to do with what they learn. It informs the pedagogical decisions we make, how we assess, how we interact with colleagues, and so on. Just as there is an ethics of medicine or law, so too is there an ethics of teaching, and history teaching specifically. 

Thus far, we have dealt with “the ethics of…” and it is quite clear to me that there is an ethics of everything: it must be so if it is so central to the human condition.

We can also turn this on its head. Ethics is also at times an object of study. There is, most obviously, a history of ethics as a philosophical pursuit, but there is also a history of ethical decisions made by people in their lives. We can ask, as historians, what ethical decisions drove people to think or act in certain ways. We can broaden this out further and ask about the ethical structures in a society, what caused these, how these changed over time, how widely they were adhered to or rejected, and so on. Given the centrality of ethics to the human condition, we could not claim as historians to be making sense of a period if we were not accounting for the ethics of individuals and actions in the past.

We also have to account for ethics when we are looking at how the past has been constructed in interpretations. We might, in critiquing an interpretation, point towards the interpreter’s ethical positioning or that of their time causing them to misunderstand or misrepresent something in the past. Part of the critical dialogue of historians is trying to work out why an interpretation was formed the way it was, as understanding this can help us avoid a problem we have found in someone else’s work.

All of this tells us that history and history teaching are deeply ethical exercises: they have to be, because of the centrality of ethics to the human condition. This is why pupils should learn ethics, ideally as a subject in its own right, but there is no harm in history teachers or science teachers helping pupils understand the ethical implications of what they have studied. To the contrary, showing the links between the kinds of scientific analysis or historical analysis that they have conducted and issues that arise in ethics is exactly the kind of inter-disciplinary work that is of value in classrooms.

Does this mean that history involves asking and answering ethical questions?

This is where I think it starts to become more complex. I think it’s easier to start here with the sciences and move towards history. Science is driven by ethics in all the ways set out above. When scientists do not take ethics into consideration, we end up with Jurassic Park: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Ethical decisions drive what we choose to research and fund, and (in terms of what people see more regularly) what we choose to do with the findings of what we research. 

Does this mean that science involves asking and answering ethical questions? 

Well, clearly scientists do. Some scientists have made a career out of moving from scientific research to dealing with ethical problems – take a Ben Goldacre, for example, who is more than happy to lay down the ethical gauntlet to pharmaceutical companies. When Goldacre does this, is he still doing science? Or has he become scientist who speaks out on ethical issues? 

Arguably, it is not worth splitting hairs on this. What I would question, though, is what is the source of ethical justification? If we wanted to go into more depth on the ethical judgements Goldacre makes, who would be best placed to provide the frameworks that would help us better understand the nature of the problem? The answer, I would argue, is ethics (and philosophy more broadly). Biology and chemistry can tell us whether we can clone a dinosaur, but no amount of scientific research is going to tell us whether we should do this. That problem is an ethical problem, and our best hope of reaching an answer to that problem is by studying more ethics.

Parallels between disciplines should be made with great caution, but I would argue that there is a parallel here with history. Ethical judgements drive history in terms of what we choose to study, and what we do with what we find out. Historians, just like scientists, can and do speak out on ethical issues. History has some fairly sophisticated tools we can use to uncover what people thought and did, their own ethical frameworks, why these emerged, how they changed, how accepted those thoughts and actions were, and so on. As an empirical discipline, we can deploy our sources to answer these questions and many others.

But can history answer an ethical question for us? Interestingly, a minority of philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre think that we can, and that to understand ethics we need to understand the history of ethics, but this is quite a technical argument based on rejecting enlightenment universalism and postmodern relativism. For me, I come back to where the source is for our ethical decisions. I do not think any amount of empirical work can tell us whether or not to put a statue in a museum. History can provide us with everything we need to make that ethical judgement, but the judgement itself is driven by a thought process derived from ethics, philosophy and wider political and social values. This is where people who justify keeping statues up “because they reflected the values at the time” get it wrong: it may or may not be the case that the actions of an individual did represent the values of people at the time (a historian can tell you this), but this on its own will not resolve the issue of whether to leave a statue up or take it down. That decision is ultimately an ethical decision. 

Does any of this really matter in practice? Possibly not. This may just be a fairly technical argument that hangs on subtle distinctions that, in the big picture, and not actually that important. As teachers, though, these very technical issues can at times have very real manifestations in the classroom. For what it’s worth, my best advice to history teachers here is to follow your own professional ethics. Whether or not an ethical question is a historical question, those children in front of you deserve to have the chance to hear about it. Few schools teach ethics in any systematic sense, at least below A Level, and you (and their science teacher, and their English teacher) may be the only chance they get to learn a bit of ethics. If it is the right thing for those children in front of you, then it is almost certainly worth exploring. 

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