Kenan Malik on judging yesterday’s figures by today’s morality

May 10, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Over at the Guardian, Kenan Malik writes with his usual good sense about judging historical figures by today’s morality—something we just read about this morning vis-à-vis Darwin and other evolutionists.. Malik’s particular subjects are Napoleon and Churchill, both in the process of being found “problematic”. Unlike many of the “decolonizers”, Malik is willing to tolerate some ambiguity. And why shouldn’t we, given that morality evolves and was never in the past identical to what it is now?


Malik on Napoleon, with a soupçon of Churchill:

Those who laud [Napoleon’s] legacy claim that he projected France on to the world stage and laid the foundations of a strong state. The Napoleonic Code, a sweeping array of laws covering citizenship, individual rights, property, the family and colonial affairs, established a new legal framework for France and influenced law-making from Europe to South America.

Stacked against this are shockingly reactionary policies. Napoleon reintroduced slavery into French colonies in 1802, eight years after the national assembly had abolished it, imposed new burdens on Jews, reversing rights they had gained after the revolution, strengthened the authority of men over their families, depriving women of individual rights and crushed republican government.

To the far right in France, Napoleon is an unalloyed hero. To many others, his is a troubling legacy. To be wrapped in a complex legacy is not, however, unique to Napoleon. It is the fate of most historical figures, whether Churchill or Wilberforce, Jefferson or Roosevelt, Atatürk or Nkrumah, all of whose actions and beliefs remain contested. Biographies rarely cleave neatly into “good” or “bad”.

Many, though, feel the need to see history in such moral terms, to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present. National and imperial histories have long been whitewashed, the darker aspects obscured. How many people in Britain know of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica or of the “Black War” in Tasmania? We want to preserve our national heroes untainted, none more so than Churchill, the man who saved “the nation… and the entire world”. Attempts to reassess his legacy can be dismissed as “profoundly offensive” or as “rewriting history”.

At the same time, those who seek to address many of these questions often themselves impose a cartoonish view of the past and its relationship to the present, from the call to take down Churchill’s statues to the mania for renaming buildings. The complexities of history fall foul of the political and moral needs of the present.

There’s more, but you get the gist of it.

The more I think about it, the more opposed I am to spending a lot of time denigrating people whose ideas we teach in class: people like Ronald Fisher, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and so on. Yes, a mention or two might be sufficient, but today’s “decolonized curricula” seem to spend more time on the odious history of famous people who advanced good ideas than on the ideas themselves. And yes, Charles Darwin confected (along with A. R. Wallace) the theory of evolution, but he was also a racist, somewhat of a misogynist, and one who believed that white races would supplant others. (I can hear the Discovery Institute licking its lips now: “Coyne admits Darwin was a racist!”).

But these are issues not for science classes, but for ethics classes, where nuances can be discussed and developed. And remember, as Steve Pinker reminds us endlessly, morality has changed substantially, and improved, in the past few centuries. What that means is that things that we do now (is meat-eating one?) will be regarded as odious in 200 years. Who can we celebrate today, knowing that in the future they can (and probably will) be demonized. Will Joe Biden be seen as a barbarian because he enjoyed an occasional pork chop? What this all means is that there is nobody we can admire today except insofar as they conform to a quotidian morality that we know will be supplanted.

Further, I can’t help but feel that a lot of those engaged in denigrating people like Darwin, R. A. Fisher, and George Washington are doing so for performative reasons: to tell us, “Look, I can see how much better we (and I) am today than our forebears.”  Now clearly, for someone like Hitler or the slaveholders of the South, we need not celebrate them at all, for there’s no good that they did to be celebrated. But to deny Darwin some encomiums for what he did, or even Jefferson? For those people surely did do some good things, and their statues are not erected to celebrate the bad things they did.

As I’ve said repeatedly, here are my criteria for celebrating, via statues, plaques, and so on, somebody of the past:

My criteria so far have been twofold. First, is the statue celebrating something good a person did rather than something bad? So, for example, Hitler statues fail this test, though I hear that some Nazi statues are simply left to molder and degenerate rather than having been pulled down. Second, were the person’s contributions on balance good or bad? So, though Gandhi was a bit of a racist towards blacks as a barrister in South Africa, the net amount of good he did in bringing India into existence through nonviolent protest seems to me to heavily outweigh his earlier missteps. Gandhi statues should stay.

What if someone was bad on balance but did a very good thing—should that person be celebrated? That would be a judgment call.

In general, I err on the side of preserving history, for statues and buildings are a mark of history—of times when our morality was different from what it is today. And it’s useful to be reminded of that rather than simply having our past, especially the bad bits, erased. History, after all, isn’t all beer and skittles. We don’t want a lot of Winston Smiths operating in our culture.

So no, Sheffield, don’t spend a lot of time reminding me what a racist and misogynist Darwin was, all of which will be done at the expense of telling us what Darwin accomplished. All you’re doing in effect is showing that, over time, morality has improved.

27 thoughts on “Kenan Malik on judging yesterday’s figures by today’s morality

  1. But these are issues not for science classes, but for ethics classes

    Fully agree. Science classes should generally limit discussions of historical figures to “brief introduction” type discussion that sets up the class to learn the science itself. The in-depth plumbing of their lives is more appropriate to a history of philosophy class.

    As for statues, I take the more systematic outlook on such things by saying I’d rather the local elected government make those decisions than impose a single (i.e. my own) standard on others. If my neighborhood meets to discuss things like this (and things like school renamings), I’ll certainly voice my opinion and vote my conscience. But I feel little to no upset if other neighborhoods decide differently than I would.

  2. Yes, it seems to be a terrible dilemma for lots of people. But here is the real difference today. Give me a couple of negative things about Lincoln or Washington or whoever you want and we will cut them to pieces on the Internet. After all, that is what the internet is for, right? Other than propaganda and conspiracy theories, what else do the web people do. They judge. They actually know very little but they judge. The less you know the easier it is to judge. In the end, we will all be very lucky if the internet and all of it’s tribal platforms do not wreck society as we know it. I suspect this little experiment in democracy we have here will soon be gone down the toilet and replaced with another great platform fresh from the internet.

  3. There are few people who have ever lived who were entirely beyond reproach in their own times, yet alone in an unforeseeable future.

    Will Joe Biden be seen as a barbarian because he enjoyed an occasional pork chop?

    That could lead to an odd reappraisal of Hitler given his (somewhat dubious) vegetarianism. (Although just yesterday I came across the Wikipedia article about a British writer who apparently “has compared the slaughter of animals to the holocaust”, so this is a view that is out there: – apologies in advance to disappointed fans of the BBC Radio 4 adaptations of Newman’s The Corrupted!)

    1. “There are few people who have ever lived who were entirely beyond reproach in their own times, yet alone in an unforeseeable future.”

      Yes, there are very few of us, & we are not always fully appreciated… sigh…

    2. There are few people who have ever lived who were entirely beyond reproach in their own times, yet alone in an unforeseeable future.

      That can’t be true. IF the present is the key to the past, AND the present Internet is absolutely full of utterly unimpechable paragons of virtue, then the past too must have been full of pure-as-the-driven snow (but not white!) commentators who were oppressed by the powerful figures of their day.
      Has the [sarcasm] tag been standardised yet, or is that oppressive too?

  4. Of course we shall all be condemned by those in the future, and of things that are presently dear to our heart and cannot be let go…
    An easy example is why The West did not put a hundred billion (10% of present military spending) towards ending world hunger and providing clean water to everyone on earth?

    It is probable that many future leaders will be women who do not necessarily take the bait of challenging tinpot dictators, but go the route of conflict resolution.

    I suspect that the academic world (outside the sciences) will go the way of religion, and the Social Sciences will collapse. Look at all those present-day intellectuals tumbling!
    And that the Free Enterprise competitive system will gradually be replaced by complex co-operative arrangements that benefit the many, not the few.

    In fifty years we shall be told that we all held reactionary views. But those of the future who judge us by the values of their day will surely be surpassed by their own future generations. And those enlightened values held by people in the future will be an improvement, but will still fall short of a stable universal concensus on desirable human belief and behaviour.

    1. If you think that in the future in the academic world that only the sciences will remain then you will have a world of mindless drones. And you will certainly not have “complex cooperative arrangements that the benefit the many, not the few.”

    2. Wow, solving all the world’s ills sounds so easy.

      I’d love to know more about this plan to solve world hunger, violence, and poverty, just by spending money and using “conflict resolution.” Since I’m interested in knowing more about these world-saving methods, how will you use this amazing (and, apparently, solely or almost solely the province of women) tool of peaceful “conflict resolution” to stop the hatred between, for example, Hindu and Muslim people in India? Once you’ve done that, how will you ensure that all of those people, now suddenly living in harmony, install a leader who wants what’s best for every citizen? And, after this leader is elected, how will you ensure that she does things exactly as you believe and exactly as they need to be done to create sustainable food and clean water infrastructure — farms, plumbing, sewage systems, etc. — even if given all the money necessary?

      How will you peaceably get everyone in, say, Congo to come to the table, sit down, and peacefully resolve all of their differences using “conflict resolution”? And, once you’ve magically accomplished that, you’ll have to rely on the people there to not hold any of the grudges they currently do, and to all work together to install a wonderful leader who will only do what’s best for everyone in their country. And then you’ll have to get that leader to do what needs to be done to end hunger and water scarcity there, even without having to come up with the money for it, but willingly working with Western governments to build all of the necessary infrastructure. How will this get done, beyond merely spending money and using “conflict resolution”?

      I’m very interested in these ideas. They might just save the world.

  5. In the future, I could easily see people today being judged on their diet, environmental activism or lack of it, political activism or lack of it, political association (As a Canadian, based on the stories I often hear out of the U.S., I have to wonder why any educated person would vote Republican…but I think I answered my own question), and even the actions of their relatives.

    1. Yes. I wonder whether future critics will have the same blind spot as present-day critics, who see their own morality as improved over the morality of historical figures, while also rejecting the idea that overall morality (and other measures of wellbeing) has also improved.

    2. Or, of course, why any rational person should vote for a Machine Politics Democrat. Only the perspective of history will be able to tease out the answer, and then only by that generation’s values.

  6. My practice is to judge them by the standards of their time and in comparison with their contemporaries. Was Jefferson a slave owner? Yes. Was he alone in that? No, many other men in American, and around the world, were as well. Was he merely a slave owner? No, he was so much more, and things he did have benefited everyone who lives in the United States, and arguably many people elsewhere. It seems we have gone from hagiography to character assassination. It’s not an improvement.

    1. I will add one- Did Jefferson’s philosophical contributions lead to the eventual abolition of slavery?

      Right now, there are lots of people trying to contribute to the technologies that will eventually, hopefully, lead to a world where polluting energy sources are made obsolete.
      But while they are trying to make that happen, they are working in labs that are likely using conventional energy sources. They are heating and cooling their homes, and commuting to work everyday also while using technologies that are currently available. Even if they drive an electric car, it is probably being charged with electricity generated with coal or gas.
      Yes, I am sure that somewhere there are scientists working in a solar powered lab. The point is, even once the decision is made that fossil fuels or slavery are things that must be stopped, actually stopping them without phasing in some sort of replacement can lead to disaster.

      The people tearing down the statues don’t really care about any of the nuances of the debate, or even care that anyone might disagree. They each believe that they are each the perfect pinnacle of human morality, the final result of humanity’s striving for perfection. They totally lack humility. It is hard to reason with such people.

  7. Sure, Napoleon was an excellent innovator (and at times a brilliant military strategist, such as during the Italian campaign), but I don’t think he’s generally seen as a heroic figure, except maybe by France’s right-wing fringe.

    Hell, he’s even been accused of “Bonapartism.” 🙂

  8. Do you need to be taught this at university? Surely you read around a subject, to get different perspectives & views? You read Darwin & Huxley, & you read Gosse & Butler… etc. You teach the ability to be critical, to evaluate & question written sources…

    1. > Do you need to be taught this at university?

      I think the question is more “do you need to teach it?” Where the relevant “you” is someone whose expertise is rather more in calling people racist, than in biology, or chemistry, or statistics, or history. For such people the answer is obvious, just imagine the job openings once every department must teach this stuff!

  9. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were rightly destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The Buddhas’ views were repulsive when judged by the morality which happened to prevail in that time and place.

  10. The strangest thing about all of this is we understand that we are products of our society and upbringing. Why would anyone expect historical figures to adhere to (and be vindicated by) the morality of today? I get Christians who think this way about Christ because that’s the foundation of morality, but I’m the secular world there isn’t meant to be such hero worship.

    Very few people transcend the beliefs of their culture, and those who do aren’t going to deviate too much. The individuals who in some way challenge or transcend their society are already remarkable people, but only a fool would look to them and not to the living exemplars for moral guidance.

    Gonna guess that this is mainly the problem of the illusion of moral objectivity – right and wrong can’t be contingent without giving up something fundamental in the notion of moral truth. Unfortunately it means everyone who has ever lived fails the test, as we no doubt will when future generations look back on us. Whatever contingent truths they happen to hold as objective.

  11. Hitler statues (had there been any) would have been pulled down in Germany after the war, not only because of the balance of what he did, but also because this history hadn’t become history yet. The Nazi crimes were despicable and shocking even by the majority moral standards of their own day, and many of the people involved were still alive.
    In contrast, Charlemagne is truly history and no longer part of our moral world at all. His statues are history, too, like medieval castles. Charlemagne is celebrated by EU officials today (e.g., who choose to highlight his “unification” of Europe instead of his warlord-conqueror aspect and what would surely be called the Saxon genocide today.
    Even the evilest of evil, Hitler, did good things, and unless one remembers those, too, one cannot learn from history. Hitler could do what he did because of the authority his early successes (like reversing poverty and hopelessness among the working class) gave him.

  12. Basically virtue signaling at its finest: “Jefferson kept slaves but I don’t, therefore we must remove his name from EVERYTHING!” Uh-huh…

  13. Its always puzzling when those who judge people in the past as falling short of modern moral standards also claim that the world is going to rack and ruin, despite the element of contradiction in the two claims.

    Of course Darwin and other members of the British ruling class held views, and in many cases did things, that we regard as bad by modern standards. However, when you compare the British ruling class to other ruling classes in different places at the same time, or to other ruling classes in the same places at previous and subsequent times, more often than not they come out of the comparison pretty well.

    We are all spoiled by living in the post-war west, with by far the least appalling ruling classes the world has ever known. Of course the Corporate Aristocracy 0.1% are rapacious and greedy, but almost every other ruling class throughout the world, throughout history, has been far worse.

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