I've seen quite a lot of arguments against judging historical figures by modern standards, most representatively by the principle of moral relativism. Is there any argument for it though? The only example I've got so far is the notion of moral obligation, in which the impact of a historical being's action is evaluated, and resorted to a contemporary being that is believed to have inherited the obligation(e.g. the contemporary Australian government apologising to Aboriginal Australians on behalf of the Australian government in the 20th century).

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    Grattan-Guinness distinguished history and heritage, its reinterpretation for modern uses. If the latter is the goal then judging historical figures by modern standards, i.e. judging their modern relevance, is a natural approach. Tosh explicitly defends present-centered approaches to history in Anachronism and retrospective explanation, which aim "to target, for further investigation, those past activities ancestral to modern science".
    – Conifold
    Sep 6 '20 at 18:51
  • Hermeneutics deliver the argument that it is, in fact, impossible not to read texts from the perspective and understanding of the present socio-cultural background. Even as we try to read a text and argument as neutral as possible and in relation to the then-current understandings and ideas, this historical standpoint necessarily eludes us as it really was, and is only reconstrued within the contemporary framework at hand. Thus, truly judging arguments impartially is an illusion. Nevertheless, it is prudent to read all authors as charitable as possible, historical or contemporary.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 6 '20 at 20:10
  • No man should be judged by his defects. The great virtues a man has are his especially, his errors are the common weaknesses of humanity and should never be counted in estimating his character. Being an old man over 70, I have lived in different times. Be careful who you condemn, time always changes beliefs and attitudes. Those who judge the past harshly now will face the same to themselves in the future. All arguments on the righteousness or 'reason' or 'logic' of moral relativism are mere sophistry. Sep 8 '20 at 4:39
  • Intellectual integrity is the process whereby a reader essentially dissociates from their contemporary mindset in order to attempt to understand the context, perspective and intended meaning of a document from the past. Try it, it will open up your mindset!
    – user37981
    Sep 14 '20 at 2:17
  • It's a good question. But my immediate response is to wonder if "moral judgment" is relevant to history in the first place. To "explain" historical figures and actions will require a reconstruction of the contemporary society, always an incomplete endeavor. Such work may be distorted by the anachronistic appeal to present moral standards. But to explain is not to judge. To judge what one "ought" to do is to appeal to a state of freedom in the present. Hence a kind of compatibilism. We need a Dantesque Purgatory to categorize all the good "Pagans" by the creed of the "Church." Oct 7 '20 at 17:41

Standards are never universal or consistent enough to be anachronistic as such. In America, we have records of prominent founders acknowledging the wrong of slavery, even guilt and dread over this, and indeed abolitionism was part of the ethical milieu thereafter through the Civil War.

Kant later, and las Casas earlier (and much more intensively), are examples of critics and condemnation of European imperialism/colonialism vs. native Americans.

Theories of just wars stretch back well over a millennium.

And on top of all this, what do you think the victims thought? Were they generally like, "According to the dominant moral theories of my day, my murder or enslavement or rape is acceptable, so tally-ho!" No, even if damaged to the point of submission, there is no need for us to assume that the victims really agreed with the atrocities inflicted on them, at least not due to mentally healthful reasoning and attitudes.


Present apologies for previous generations' misdeeds

A present-day Australian apologising for the treatment of Aborigines by his forbears? You probe the moral position that supports or explains this practice.

A historical person - a forbear in this case - can only have acted on the moral beliefs they had. Only such beliefs can have provided their motivation for action. In terms of moral responsibility and conscience, such a person cannot be judged with any point or justification by later standards since they cannot have been motivated by such standards. We cannot blame them for failing to act towards Aborigines on moral standards to which they had no access.

This is perfectly consistent with putting blame aside and judging that none the less by our own standards a historical person - the forbear - acted wrongly. They did an action or carried out a policy, motivated as they were by their own moral beliefs, which by our standards is wrong even though they did what they thought was right or permissible.

This seems to me a coherent position: the forbear (or more realistically a group of forbears, most likely spread across generations) acted wrongly by our standards, and so we apologise, or express moral regret, because we have benefited by what the forbear - or group of forbears - did and because we enjoy advantages which still disbenefit the Aborigines.


On a theoretical note, since you mention 'moral relativism'...

This viewpoint, supporting the appropriateness of apology or the expression of moral regret, has no particular connection with relativism. An objective or cognitive morality is not static - or at least our knowledge of it may not be so. It may be understood differently at different times; a historical person may have a less perfect, a less developed, understanding of its requirements than someone living at a later period. All that is relative is, in respect of moral responsibility and conscience, the relation of a historical person's motivation to their moral beliefs. 'Relative' here has no connexion with 'relativism' if this protean term signifies that no action is right, obligatory, neutral or wrong except relative to the non-truth apt and contingent norms of a community, society or culture.

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