Is it fair to judge people in history by today's standards?


Fact Box

  • Since the civil unrest caused by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, hundreds of statues and memorials of Confederate heroes, Christopher Columbus, and others involved in the genocide of indigenous peoples have come down throughout America and the world in an effort to decry systemic racism. 
  • Although revered for being the first American president and commander of the Continental Army, George Washington owned 300 slaves by the end of his life.
  • Moral relativism is defined as “the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.”
  • A recent LifeWay Research study revealed that over 80% of respondents are “concerned about the declining moral behavior in our nation.”

Luna (Yes)

The question seems to assume that today's moral code is significantly different from that of previous generations. But it isn't, as researchers point out

At the core of our being, humans are driven by the same motives. Whether we look back 10 or 100 years ago, humans still crave food, sex, power, and connection. Maslow's hierarchy of needs explains that a human being will strive to fulfill their physiological needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, sex) before working towards recognition and creativity. And it also argues that anyone whose needs have not been met runs the risk of developing severe mental and physical health problems. And a human being with unmet needs is fully capable of hurting others in his community for personal benefit, as studies show.  

From local homicides to horrific terrorist attacks and world wars, we can observe the same aggressive motives driving humans like they did their predecessors. 

And it is not limited to violent outbursts for meeting survival needs. Steven Reiss, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Ohio State University, spent five years studying over 6,000 people to understand human motives. His research showed 16 basic desires that guide all of humanity, from the past and present. These include power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility. The report also revealed 14 out of these 16 desires to be genetic in origin. 

So even if societies, rules, policies, and cultural norms change, the primitive motives underlying human behavior remain constant, making it reasonably fair to judge people in history by today's standards.

Bill (No)

It isn't fair to judge historical figures by today's modern standards for several reasons. Individuals are flawed--their contributions to advance society, either through words or deeds, should be considered in the context of their environment and era. To some extent, we are all constrained by the times in which we live and the knowledge and technology available to us. Moreover, our history is one of evolving cultural norms. It is no longer culturally acceptable to wear powdered wigs or to hold unenlightened views of racial equality, but that was a reality of the era in which our Founding Fathers lived. We should acknowledge these realities while also appreciating their achievements.

Presentism--the practice of applying modern standards to historical figures--is biased in favor of our contemporary cultural standards. Knowledge and wisdom are acquired over time--just as we shouldn't blame our ancestors for not having invented cell phones sooner, nor should we judge them for the attitudes and beliefs they held at the time. We can objectively evaluate their contributions to society while subjectively considering society's limitations hundreds of years ago. It's fair to say that future generations may likely scorn some of our current parenting or nutritional practices.

Presentism fails to appreciate the context of our forebears' actions and intentions. Historical understanding is complex and can't be undertaken with a blunt instrument like presentism. Our duty as students of history is to investigate the full context of people and events before rendering judgment. Only in this way can we reach rational and objective conclusions about historical figures.

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