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Can We Morally Judge the Past? On Williams's Relativism of Distance

Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler. These are some of history’s greatest moral monsters: Leaders whose deeds are widely reviled and condemned. In my experience, people enjoy sitting in moral judgment of the past. It’s a mode of thinking they find it easy to slip into. This makes sense. We are constantly sitting in judgment of our contemporary peers. Why can’t we do the same when we look to our historical peers? This finds support in the typical mode of historical education. When we are taught history, particularly in school, we are often taught it from a moral perspective. I remember this quite well from my own history education in Ireland. I’m not if it is still the same, but I certainly remember being frequently reminded of the cruelty and oppression visited upon us by our colonial masters (the British). The moralisation wasn’t always explicit, but I often went away from those history lessons with the sense that I was supposed to be morally outraged about what was done to my ancestors.But is it right to judge the past in this way? I have had arguments about this before. Some of my colleagues think it is wrong to judge the past, particularly the remote past. They believe that the past is — to use a cliché — another country: the moral norms and standards were different back then. It is best not to sit in judgment. It is better simply to try to understand it. What did the people back then think they were doing? What were the moral, political, economic and social forces being [More]