Is It Fair To Judge The Past With Morals Of Today?

If you look closely enough at any beloved historic figure, you can probably find some flaws. With some, you don’t even need to look all that closely.

For example, let’s consider U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. He saw the United States through the Great Depression and instituted some revolutionary programs, like Social Security. However, he also was responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

It is relatively easy to look back at injustices in history and harshly judge the people making the decisions that led to those injustices.

But is that fair? Those people were a product of their times. Prevailing public opinion changes over time, and things that are seen as acceptable at one time in history may not be in another time.

To return to Roosevelt, his decision to round up American citizens can today been seen as obviously wrong. However, at the time the decision was made, the U.S. had just suffered the attack of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and it was determined that Japanese spies within the U.S. provided information for the attack. National security was at stake.

Or is any effort to explain negative behavior just an effort in moral relativism? Are there things that are simply right or wrong, and any human being should be able to tell the difference? Or is morality something that shifts and changes over time? Or perhaps there is a mix of some moral absolutes, and some morality that evolves.

Is it fair to judge the past with morals of today?

Thanks go out to Harold Helson, for suggesting the question.

Related questions: What do you do that you shouldn’t? When is a lie justified? What beliefs do you have that might be wrong? What is truth?

12 thoughts on “Is It Fair To Judge The Past With Morals Of Today?”

  1. To begin I need to deal with the example used in today’s question. Based on ethical standards of the time, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was considered wrong. Roosevelt’s executive order was deemed racist by many then. It also lacked proportionality to other measures that were proposed within his administration and could have been taken.

    The context for today’s question asks if someone (like Roosevelt) was simply a product of the times, excusing his actions. That assumes that there was some consensus thought that formed the virtues of the day. But dominant public opinion does not capture the most progressive thinking of the time, which I think is the minimal standard we must use to judge the past.

    For example, for much of slavery’s history, some of the periods’ progressives have considered it immoral. People protested in a variety of ways demonstrate how the institution was flat out wrong. The same is true of progressive action against other ‘isms and ‘isists throughout history. Again, this is the minimal guidepost we must use to judge a period’s standard for right and wrong.

  2. I was just reading the story of Ruth, from the Bible. Part of the story, frankly, I found quite shocking. Ruth and Naomi, her sister-in-law, have both been widowed, and are trying to make a living as widowers, which was very difficult at the time (as it is now as well, I suppose).

    The part that I found shocking was that it was the law at the time that if a man dies, his brother, if he has one, has the first right to the wife of the deceased. And if there is no brother, then the right of the wife goes to the cousin, and on down the line of further and further male relatives. This is how Ruth ended up married to Boaz (and had a child with him), who was distantly related to Ruth’s former husband.

    By today’s standards, this is not law, and indeed would be shocking. A woman is marrying a particular man, not every single male relation to that man as well. But is it right for me to think that society should have treated women better then? Or should I just accept that that is the way things were at that time?

    1. A corollary to this discussion is that there are almost certainly things about our current society that will be deemed to be unacceptable to future generations. Do you think it is fair that your descendants are revolted by, say, the way our society ignored the perils of climate change for so long? Or something harder to predict, like the shameful way we treat early AI avatars like Alexa?

      Do we want to be judged by the future in the same way we judge the past?

      1. Lee, I’m puzzled by your comment about Alexa. Can you please say clarify what you mean – guess I’m behind the times when it comes to technology. Thanks.

        1. Tom, I apologize for being unclear. I was trying to be entirely too clever and failed.

          The point I was trying to make was that what society will consider to be moral in the future is difficult to predict. There are several examples from our recent and not-so-recent past to support this idea. Just think about how quickly societal opinion has changed on something like gay marriage, or legalization of marijuana for medicinal and then recreational usage. And that’s not to mention advances in technology that bring on new moral questions that are impossible to foresee, like the now-ubiquity of the smart phone and the rise of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter and the opportunities and headaches that come along with them.

          But I also wanted to suggest that there are some things that are in our future that aren’t even on our horizon right now — issues that no one is even talking about currently that will become important issues in the coming years and decades. The difficulty in illustrating that concept, however, is the fact that if no one is talking or thinking about these issues, how can I talk or think about them?

          So I tried to imagine what might be a hot-button issue in the future that is just emerging, or that might emerge shortly. I thought about referring to the issue of animal rights: we treat some animals with great love and reverence (our pets, for example) and others with great neglect and cruelty (like factory farming). That seems to be something that future generations might judge us harshly over. But I thought that might be a little too obvious, as there is a small but vocal minority concerned with this issue already (and indeed they have been for years — this is hardly a new issue).

          So I took that a step further, and considered that as Artificial Intelligence (AI) gets more and more advanced and we introduce self-driving cars and personal digital assistants like advanced versions of Alexa and smart devices throughout our homes, the issue of what constitutes life and what rights, if any, digital “life forms” might have could become an issue. In that future, our descendants could look back on the introduction of Alexa and other similar devices as the first steps toward AI “life” and that we could be judged on how we treated them. And by using new “life forms” to tell us the weather or to play a certain song on request (or whatever people use Alexa for these days) could be considered short-sighted, hence my “shameful” comment, with an attempted delivery tongue-in-cheek.

          That was a lot of information to be contained in a throwaway line like that, which was poorly done on my part. I’ll try to be more careful with future comments.

    2. We also may not understand the reasons for a particular way people did things in the past.

      In the case of Ruth, an Israelite man was only required to marry his brother’s widow if she remained childless. This was to protect the widow from future poverty, as, if she was childless she would not have anyone to support her in her old age. It was not poor treatment of women, but rather a way to make sure that they were provided for.
      Ruth also was not required to mary her deceased husband’s relative. She made the choice to take advantage of laws of the day and also to marry a man who was a good provider as well as being one of God’s chosen people

  3. I like the way you stated that question Lee.

    It will be very interesting to see how our children will judge our parents behavior.
    Already I see a huge difference in the beliefs of my children’s feelings regarding corporal punishment.
    Where as I saw nothing wrong with the way my parents handled disapline. Most of today’s generation seems to see it as out and out abuse.
    So how do we know how to judge the worlds choices of tomorrow.
    I can’t wait to see what happens with the political system of today’s society in the next few years…

  4. My gut reaction to this question is that I don’t judge the past – what good does that do? We can learn from the past and try not to make the same mistakes. Times change, and so do our customs and morals. I think of how quickly attitudes have changed regarding homosexuality in the past few decades. That’s just one example; I’m sure there are many more.

    When I think about how future generations will view us, I have concerns that we did to little too late about damage to our environment. I also have concerns about the amount of the federal debt that we are saddling future generations with, not to mention the political polarization and incivility we are handing down to the next generation.

    I’m sure there is a bright side to this equation. The next generation will have many advantages that we didn’t. They’ll know much more that we did about the world around them, and will have the tools to make people’s lives better. There will still be evil in the world, but the good news is that love triumphs over evil in the long run.

  5. One more concern I forgot to mention: the threat of weapons of mass destruction, including cyber warfare. Our country has an opportunity to be a world leader in banning them, and making the world better for future generations.

  6. I find it helpful to think about the question slightly differently. Not is it fair to judge the past by the moral standards of today, but is it fair to consider all questions open to a new moral judgment no matter how much time has passed?

    I think we have to recognize that every decision and action taken in the past, present, or future has a context to it. There are things that might have constrained or enabled it. There may have been a more or less perfect understanding of it. It might have been approached with varying degrees of moral courage.

    Great things may have been produced for selfish reasons (such as advances in life-improving technology being driven by competition for patents and profits). Bad things have resulted from good intentions (such as urban renewal that wiped out diverse middle-class neighborhoods). Terrible things may have been done for the greater good (such as Churchill allowing the German bombing of Coventry in order conceal that England had cracked the Nazi communications code). Good things have come out of bad situations (such as World War II inspiring post-war waves of de-colonization).

    I think it’s important to resist the urge to reduce any person, group, society, whatever to one dimension; either one-dimensionally good or bad. We should also avoid static views. Context, understanding, people, etc. are forever changing.

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