Historical Understanding versus Moral Appraisal

To understand history, we must, as it were, enter into the minds of people in the past—a task that we can never accomplish except in a very incomplete way. We must try to understand how they viewed the choices they made, what various actions and categories of action meant to them. By looking at their world through their eyes, understanding their motives, incentives, and constraints as they understood them, we may construct a warranted historical interpretation of why they acted as they did.

But the use of such Verstehende Soziologie, as Max Weber called it, must never be confused with exculpating the sins that people committed in the past merely because generally prevailing standards were different then. Slavery was always and everywhere morally wrong, regardless of how widely accepted it was. Mass murder of innocents was always wrong, even if the American whites considered the plains Indians to be subhuman or the Nazis considered Jews and Slavs to be vermin or the Truman administration regarded the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as expendable in its exercise of “statecraft.”

Natural law propounds a concept of justice applicable to human beings as such. It applies to any moral judgment of human actions. Differing dominant ideologies and changes in the prevailing social and economic conventions and institutions do not alter it. To reduce moral judgments to nothing but a consideration of what was viewed as proper or improper in another time and place is to embrace a form of moral relativism that, in fact, obliterates moral appraisal as such and substitutes the all-purpose excuse that “that’s just how it was then and there,” which, however accurate it may be in a factual sense, is merely descriptive and wholly divorced from genuine moral judgment.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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