Issues of ethics in philosophy of history

Most writings in the philosophy of history have focused on issues of epistemology, method, and explanation. But our history as human beings is thoroughly invested with moral significance, and the philosophy of history needs to reflect on the moral issues raised by historical experience. Historians themselves have moral responsibilities; but perhaps more compellingly, all of us have responsibilities as participants in history to honestly confront our own pasts and the historical events that have influenced us, and acknowledge the often morally repugnant circumstances that this honesty will reveal.The professional responsibilities of historians have occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics within philosophy in the past few years. Here is Brian Fay’s description of the topic in the special issue of History and Theory devoted to these concerns (Fay 2004):

In proposing the topic for this Theme Issue the editors of History and Theory wished to revisit afresh a question that has periodically been urgent to those who think and care about the discipline of history, namely, the relationship between historians, the practice of history, and questions of ethics. Put succinctly: do historians as historians have an ethical responsibility, and if so to whom? Are there ethical commitments that historians have whether they like it or not? Are there ways that historians can either insulate themselves from ethical commitments (insofar as these commitments infect historical research and render it unable to function as it should), or re-conceive these commitments so as to practice history better and to understand the nature of their endeavor more accurately?

The special issue is worth reading as a whole; each article adds something to the question, in what ways does the practice of history create obligations or responsibilities for the historian? Perhaps the most striking and original of the contributions to the History and Theory volume is the contribution by Andrus Pork, “History, Lying, and Moral Responsibility” (link). Pork’s perspective is especially interesting because he was Estonian and intimately familiar with Soviet lies. Pork opens his essay in a very striking way:

Scholars’ moral responsibility for truth, for the objective content of the results of their investigations, is a somewhat neglected problem in Western English-speaking critical philosophy of history. Nor has this problem found much theoretical attention in Soviet philosophy of history. At the same time the process of reassessing and rewriting Soviet history in the light of glasnost has helped to reveal the magnitude of distortions, lies, and half-truths in Soviet historiography over a number of years. The process of rediscovering what actually happened in the past has made history (at least for the time being) a very fashionable subject in Soviet intellectual life, and has also raised painful moral questions for many older historians who now face tough moral accusations by their colleagues, the general public, and perhaps by their own conscience. (321)

Crucial to Pork’s moral framework is his conviction that historians must accept the idea that there are “approximately true representations” of events and circumstances in the past. He acknowledges that an account is never complete, it is always selective, but it may also be false; and it is the historian’s job to try to ensure that the statements and descriptions that he or she brings forward are approximately true and are appropriately supported by relevant evidence. Fundamentally, Pork defends a commonsense conception of historical truth: ” I think that it is morally wrong to suggest that it is never possible to show objectively that some historical accounts are closer to truth than others” (326). Pork’s central concern in this short essay is the topic of lying about the past. Pork distinguishes between “direct lies” (falsification of facts about the past) and “blank pages” (deliberate omission of important details in a historical account), and suggests that the latter are the more insidious for the field of historical representation. He refers, for example, to Soviet historiography about Soviet behavior in the 1930s: “Many other important historical facts that now surface (like the stories about massacres of thousands of people in 1937 and in the following years near Minsk in Byelorussia) were simply absent from history books of that [Stalinist] period.” Pork offers a more detailed and extensive example of Stalinist historiography based on the annexation of Estonia to the USSR in 1940. Stalinist histories that refer to this case use a combination of direct lies and “blank pages” to completely misrepresent and obscure the facts of Soviet coercion of Estonia. For example: “The existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was usually not explicitly denied; rather it was simply not mentioned” (325). 

So it is a moral responsibility of the historian to refrain from omitting salient facts from her account. We might take this point a bit further and argue that historians have a positive obligation to deliberately and actively seek out those aspects of the past for research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton sector but ignores slavery, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter. There are many ways to twist the truth, and leaving out crucial parts of the story is as much of a deception as misrepresenting the facts directly. This is what Pork refers to as “blank page” deception. “For example, if the important fact of who started the war is omitted from the historical account, but detailed descriptions of some particular battles are given (as is the case with many Soviet accounts of the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish war), then we clearly have a morally blameworthy selection of facts” (328).

The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is “myth-making”, according to Judt. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient. (A more extensive treatment of Judt’s argument is provided in an earlier post; link.)

Consider the normative and value challenges created by the need for the historian to confront and honestly present the very repugnant features of the past. Anna Wylegala takes on this kind of project in her recent article “Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history” (link). Here is the abstract of her article:

This article analyzes the status of difficult historic events in Ukrainian collective memory. Difficult elements of collective memory are defined as those which divide society on basic matters, such as identity and national cohesion, and events which are being actively forgotten because of the role of Ukrainians as perpetrators. Three such issues were analyzed: World War II and the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Holocaust, and the ethnic purge of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1945. Utilizing data from quantitative and qualitative studies, the author showcases the significance of these issues for contemporary Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors. In particular, the evaluation of World War II and the role of the UPA in Ukrainian history polarizes Ukrainian society to a great degree. At the same time, this element of national history is used to construct a common, anti-Russian identity. The difficulty of relating to the memory of the Holocaust and the ethnic purge in Volhynia is of a different character. These events are problematic for Ukrainian collective memory because they demand a painful settling of accounts with the past. At present, only Ukrainian elites are willing to work on these subjects, and only to a limited degree, while the common consciousness either denies or ignores them altogether.

What does she mean by “difficult”? I would paraphrase her meaning as unsavory, repugnant, and inconsonant with one’s identity as a “decent” people. “It is associated with certain events which refuse to simply become part of history and instead trouble contemporaries, demanding attention and provoking strong emotions.” These are events that “demand a painful settling of accounts with the past”. This is exactly the kind of issue that Tony Judt addresses in “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”. And Wylegala makes a compelling case for the idea that Ukrainians must come to grips with this past if they are to move forward as a more just society.

It is indeed the case, then, that the search for historical understanding forces us to consider moral issues. These issues have to do with the moral value of fidelity to truth. But more fundamentally, they have to do with issues about collective identity and integrity. We want to know who we are; and that means knowing honestly what we have done, and attempting to understand these moments of collective cruelty and immorality. This means, in turn, that the philosophy of history must confront these issues.

(A recent post offered a more indirect way of articulating related ideas about history, memory, and moral identity (link). There I formulated an allegory about a forgetful but long-lived individual who wants to make sense of earlier episodes in his life. Perhaps if Max von Sydow were still around it could be the basis of a short existentialist film! Here are two scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s allegory about life’s meaning and death, Seventh Seal (clipclip).)

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