Historical Thinking and Moral Reflection

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerShould historians ask whether something in the past was good?  Bad?  Here are five suggestions:

1. The historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism.  Historians can engage in moral criticism, but they should do so only after they have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened in the way it did.

2. When historians do speak or write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation.  As historian James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least of historians on their days off.”

3.  When a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized not only by mature historical understanding but also by mature moral thinking.

4.  Historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner.

5.  Historians should remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgement on them.

Much of this post is drawn from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  They are all developed in the book.