Should we judge history by our moral standards?

Today I pose a question. I’m not entirely sure I will be able to answer it without resorting to writing a novella length essay on the subject but I pose it all the same and maybe it will make you re-think your position on some of the discussed matters.

  • Does it make sense for us to apply our moral standards to cultures of the past and is it fair for us to call a people barbaric purely because they do not subscribe to our modern ideals and values?

To answer this we first need to answer a few other questions

  1. What exactly is included within our modern ideals and values?
  2. What are we considering a ‘culture of the past’?
  3. What are examples of past behaviours that we find abhorrent or repulsive

1) I will take this to be from the perspective of Western Euro-centric culture. Not only because I belong to this and thus understand it but because western culture is filled with a growing number of those on both sides: those who think we should be nostalgic of more ‘barbarous’ times and those who think we should apologetically grovel for past actions. We also live in a society where history is still often very biased, preferring to paint one side as the ‘goody’ and one as the pantomime villain. Central to these western democratic values are: equitable non discriminatory society; universal suffrage; less aggressive military with improved rules of engagement (questionable for some); sexual liberation; equality; ethical farming; ethical science; religious freedom and so on and so forth. Now obviously none of these are upheld by everyone and some are even in decline in certain places but they are the values that we generally strive for and most people, regardless of their politics would agree that at least some of the ideals on my list are a good thing to some greater or lesser extent.

2) Cultures of the past are my next point of examination. I guess wherever I decide to draw the line it will be an arbitrary boundary. Often post-WW2 is where we separate history from modern studies but I feel that we still share a lot of cultural similarities with those who lived in the 40’s. How far back must we go before a people are suitably heinous? I actually think it is impossible for me to draw a line as clear cut as this and as such I will give a few examples from different time periods.

3) There are a lot of ways cultures have evolved over the centuries so there are a lot of aspects in which we can be disgusted by the past: discriminating against others based on sex, gender, race, sexuality universal suffrage; aggressive and imperialistic armies and colonisation; sexual repression and oppression; the many ruled by the few; serfdom; animal abuse; science with questionable ethical practices; religious oppression, inquisition, crusade and jihad. I will discuss a few of these to clarify why we are not in a position of vast moral superiority compared to the past.

  • Discrimination is an interesting one. This is because we are actually hard-wired to be suspicious of, dislike or even hate and ostracize those that are different: those who don’t fit our archetype or our personal standards. By overcoming discrimination we are actually changing our human nature and this in itself is admirable. Part of our high level of societal progress is recognising ways in which we think we are naturally deficient and attempting to change them. Now when people continue to hold discriminatory views today, despite being taught the contrary then yes, they are behind the times and are in the wrong (even then are not inherently bad people). But hundreds of years prior, race was a huge factor: where wars were fought not only over land and resources but over race and religion. Imperialism itself relies heavily on the belief that some peoples and cultures are inherently inferior and must be subjugated and brought civilisation by their conqueror. Now obviously we have edged away from our imperialistic tendencies but it is important to notice that in our modern society, a great deal of discrimination still exists. This is because we are still biologically programmed to turn on those who are different to us and are still in the process of overcoming this instinct through societal norms. So while we can acknowledge that the discrimination of the past was unjust, can we really point the finger at those when we still discriminate ourselves.
  • Warfare. I feel like this is a point that can be very quickly rebutted. History is littered with countless acts of violence committed for various reasons. Warfare has evolved in many ways since its conception: the sharpening of a rock, the taming of the horse, the invention of steel, the gunpowder revolution, the tank, the automatic rifle, the plane, the thermonuclear bomb. We have turned killing each other into an art form. Are we doing it any less? Perhaps marginally. Any less cruelly? In a world where the land mine, white phosphorous, biological warfare and nuclear warfare exist do you think so? Some of these things may be outlawed but in a world where we don’t hold everyone equally accountable? In fact in some parts of the world, warfare used to have rules of conduct, codes such as chivalry, the bushido code or the 19th century practice of not shooting at officers to avoid the chaos that would ensue from a lack of organisation. In some ways we have developed more ‘humane’ rules of war. Yet we still wage countless wars with remote controlled bombs which displace and kill thousands of civilians. This can now all be done, often without ever having to see the face of your victims. Is this progress or is it just change?
  • Religion has had an indisputable power for thousands of years and has had its fair share of involvement in persecution and war, having been utilised by tyrants as a means to control the masses. The crusades and jihads are perfect examples, where both sides waged equally terrible war over locations which often, at the time, had little strategic value. Instead they fought over their ‘holy’ places- arbitrarily religious places due to supposed significant religious events. This, while those of other beliefs were quashed or exterminated. While as a whole our religious practices have evolved to suit a fairer world we still have a long way to go. Freedom of religious expression is extremely important. However, even more important is the need for religious practice to not infringe upon our basic human rights and our goal of an equitable society. As such religions that discriminate against women or homosexuals do not deserve to exist in their current state as their freedom of religious expression infringes upon the rights of others. The holy wars are no longer a thing of the past as war still rages on in the Middle East and as the land disputes over Israel and Palestine continue. As such, as long as we have extreme denominations of Christianity or the currently unreformed state of Islam, as well many other belief systems not compatible with modern values, we are in no position to call the religious practices of the past barbaric.
  • Economic systems have always been a product of the people of the time and their general societal structure. As such when the few ruled the many, the serfs/slaves/working classes were often used as a tool to maximise the productivity and finances of a state. This is to be expected when a minute number of individuals control the masses. As a society, we have grown to acknowledge the importance and the power of the individual, and revolutions in workers rights have granted us more freedom to exercise this individuality and negotiate how we are treated by those we work for. However, it is wrong to say that this same exploitation is not still rampant. Perhaps less so in our ‘civilised western democracies’ but we now simply export this labour into countries where such labour laws have yet to be introduced. Are the way the under classes are treated in some countries that different from the feudal structure of the middle ages or the commoditisation of the workers in the industrial revolution? We have yet to solve the problem, we have simply displaced it. This is a single example of many to show that we have may have progressed from serfdom but we still have a long way to go to become a society free from exploitation

I could spend far longer talking about all the different ways in which we are still progressing as a society and I may write a follow up post but for now you have some of my thoughts. To wrap it all up, I think that it is a little erroneous to judge the actions of past cultures by the differences in the way they conducted themselves and as such dismiss them as brutish or stupid. I actually think that is incredibly arrogant and hypocritical for us to do so. This is because we ourselves are guilty of many of the same failings, which no doubt will be dismissed as disgusting behaviour by those of the future. For us to dismiss those of the past as being monsters is a failure to acknowledge that we still are progressing as a society and will never be perfect. To see our precursors as lesser is for the ape to spit upon the amoeba because it is less advanced than it is while still not being as advanced as it could potentially be itself. Instead the past should be a well of knowledge for us to treat with a balanced view and draw upon both the positive and negative aspects of their cultures.

Do you think we have evolved sufficiently to call the peoples of the past savages or are we forever progressing and as such realise that they were just people like us?


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