Judging past eras by contemporary standards

Let’s imagine two groups of people, one on the left and the other on the right. The group on the left tends to say that everyone (except for the group on the right) should be judged by their own standards, that we shouldn’t impose our own views of right and wrong on others; and the group on the right tends to say that everyone should be held to the same moral standard no matter where they come from, that some things are just wrong no matter what sort of demographic does them.

One of these groups looks at the past and says, those people were barbaric, they were deluded, they were evil, they were selfish liars, they were stupid and cruel and superstitious. The other group says in reply, look, why are you judging them based on our contemporary moral framework? In this situation, though, all of a sudden it is the left who are fundamentalists and the right who are relativists.

How does this happen? How is it that again and again, the people on the right, who supposedly believe in transcendent and timeless moral realities, instinctively reach for the argument that one group of people ought never to judge another group by any standards except the ones that are inherent to that group?

The motivation is obvious. The right feels some loyalty to the people of the past in a way that the left does not, and so the right is stung when the left takes delight in passing haughty judgement against those who have no power to defend themselves. The person of the right is desperate in that moment for any simple argument that will shut up and shame the other side. Why does the right suddenly change its tune only here? It’s because it is highly motivated to do so.

There are a couple obvious justifications that work pretty well to excuse the right for changing tactics in this way. One might be that the right is just turning the tables on the left, saying, look, even if we work from your own premises, which we don’t necessarily share, we can prove you wrong. This is a common debating strategy, and if successfully pulled off it can be devastating in its simplicity and forcefulness. No doubt that’s part of what’s happening.

We don’t need to stop at that, though. There’s even a way for the right to say that they are being true to their own convictions, and not only borrowing the left’s beliefs in order to make a point. Even if there is indeed a universal moral code that everyone should be judged by, we can’t judge everyone equally by that code but do have to make allowances for context. Ignorance of the moral code matters, and constraints based on need or fear also factor in. The person who grew up in a family of thieves, in which stealing was praised, and who later during a tough time took something without paying, is far less blameworthy than an hypothetical wealthy person who was brought up to recognize the importance of property rights and who takes the same item for the sake of a laugh. On these grounds, we could say that past societies, which were poorer, should be given extra leeway in our moral judgements upon them; their ignorance of what we now know of morality (either because less was known at that time, or because the structure of society meant that fewer people could learn even that which was known) is even more of a reason to avoid judging them too harshly.

Still, the right needs to be more self-aware about the fact that in this sort of scenario, they have not accomplished as much as they seem to think they have. Even if we shouldn’t blame the past so harshly because of their limitations, we still can and should say that what they did was wrong, if it was. Even if you’ve shown that the left can’t consistently blame the past as it does, you have by no means shown that the past can’t be blamed on the basis of your own starting point, which is what should really matter to you. The only way to refute the left successfully and completely, if that’s indeed what a person wants to do on this matter, would be to show why, from universal and timeless moral principles, the things done by the people of the past were not wrong. This doesn’t have to be accomplished every time you’re challenged, but it does need to happen at least sometime.

In certain instances, such effort might be really worthwhile and instructive, even if your conversation partners won’t in the final accounting give your arguments a fair shake. (That’s their problem, not yours.) Much of the time, though, it would probably be best for the right just to focus on enumerating the evils that were indeed done and admitting their agreement with the left. It’s far too easy to be overly zealous in defending the honour of past ages.

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