BY ADAM GILBERT
When the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into a harbor during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol last month, a discussion about marble memory rose urgently to the fore in the UK. The country is now undergoing an unprecedented reckoning with its many monuments to those who supported and profited from slavery, imperialism, and racism. In the US, where the fate of such statues has long occupied public discourse, the issue appears to have reached an “inflection point” and some statues are now coming down.
Removing statues, of course, will not dismantle the ongoing inequalities linked to these institutions, and there is understandable concern that “statue wars” could distract from a much-needed broader and deeper conversation about how to confront racism and its attendant problems. Still, the statue debate can be a valuable part of this larger conversation, especially insofar as the former addresses not only stone memorials but also the crucial and profoundly moral issue of our lived relationship with the past.
As soon as Colston’s statue sank in the dock where slave ships once moored, in what Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees described as a “piece of historical poetry,” objections to the removal of such statues were raised. One frequent complaint is that taking down these monuments erases and rewrites history. Certainly, sterilizing the past must be avoided. But, as David Olusoga highlights, the toppling of Colston’s statue was not an attack on history but history itself, and, in any case, history is in a perpetual process of being rewritten.
Another common objection to statue-felling cautions against judging the past. This particular argument, which has implications far beyond statues, seems to contain within it a pair of beliefs. The first suggests that it is simply not possible to present a valid moral critique of the past. The second posits that it is not right to denounce the past on moral grounds. Supposedly, then, we cannot and should not judge the past. However, there is an entire sub-discipline of history specifically dedicated to the task of providing moral analyzes of past figures, events, and structures: moral history. Through its active ethical engagement, moral history can function as a form of radical history, and a closer look at its mechanics and rationale shows that we can and should undertake moral assessments of the past.
Moral history is both an area and a mode of historical inquiry. In terms of area, it is interested in how people of the past thought about and acted on conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust—it is concerned with the moral content of past beliefs, behaviors, happenings, and systems. With regard to mode, moral history draws primarily on frameworks, ideas, and insights from moral philosophy in order to examine and analyze this part of the past. As George Cotkin demonstrates in his book Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America, by approaching the past “armed with moral concepts and concerns,” moral history is able to reassess well-worn historical territory and open up new areas of exploration. Cotkin notes that the impetus of moral history is to understand, trouble, and problematize historical issues, rather than to pass easy and simplistic judgments on the past. Any judgments that are made should be transparent, empathetic, and anchored in a rigorous explication of the complex moral realities of causation, choice, character, circumstance, and chance. With a humble recognition of the limitations of its own analysis, moral history can make careful moral judgments about the past.
On a practical level, moral history can proceed in a variety of ways. One option is to employ a specific pre-existing framework of moral philosophical thought relevant to the topic at hand. For example, a moral historical account of a particular war might make use of certain aspects of just war theory, a long-standing ethical tradition with multiple roots that, even with its deficiencies, can shed light on issues such as the decision to go to war, conduct within war, and postwar justice. Another option is to utilize the three major ethical theories: deontology, which emphasizes the morality of an act in itself; consequentialism, which prioritizes the consequences of an act; and virtue ethics, which focuses on moral character. Alternatively, Jonathan Glover’s work Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century pays particular attention to what Glover calls the “moral resources,” which include “moral identity” and the “human responses” of respect and sympathy. There is also the possibility of drawing on a basic moral principle, such as Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life”: “That is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.” Such procedures, it should be stressed, are meant to generate penetrating questions rather than unambiguous answers. As imperfect and tentative as they may be, they nonetheless provide an effective way of grounding morally informed historical inquiry.
Like those opposed to statue removals on the premise of not judging the past, those uneasy with moral history might be concerned that these approaches impose present frameworks and ideas upon the past. However, the supposed pitfalls of presentism are no more problematic for moral history than for histories of class, race, gender, or any other historical approach. Historians use modern concepts in their investigations and interrogations of the past. What matters is not the age of an analytical tool but that it is wielded with care, precision, self-awareness, and transparency. After all, history is a necessarily interpretive act that puts the present in dialogue with the past, and this relationship is in a perennial state of renewal.
It is also worth noting that moral history is particularly interested in and keenly attuned to the climates of the past. Here, “climates” denotes the settings in which people act out their lives, the situations and circumstances in which they find themselves, their epistemic milieus, and the physical environments and psychological surroundings that envelop them. An awareness of how people shape and are shaped by these climatic conditions is an important part of any compassionate and considerate exploration of moral beliefs and behaviors. This appreciation of the myriad possibilities and constraints of any individual’s lived reality also allows for the gauging of a person’s degree of moral autonomy and agency and, with that, their sphere of responsibility. This, in turn, can help combat the strongest plank of the not-judging-the-past argument, which suggests that the vastly different set of climatic conditions in the past explains—exculpates, really—actions and events now deemed abhorrent.
By looking at the climate of antebellum America, for example, historians know that some people vehemently opposed slavery; that the views of abolitionists were widely promulgated; that their arguments against slavery drew on ideas and values understood (if not agreed upon, of course) at the time; and that other people with knowledge of the abolitionist cause and, crucially, the power and freedom to choose otherwise nonetheless decided to own slaves and defend slavery. In other words, that there existed people like Harriet Tubman and John Brown makes it harder to excuse people like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. By thoroughly considering the climatic conditions of the period under investigation, then, moral history is able to essentially judge the past by the past’s standards.
So, it is possible to present substantiated moral insights into and assessments of the past. Still, why should historians—or anyone else—be interested in looking specifically at the morality of past figures, events, and structures? The moral choices we make and the moral constraints we face are core aspects of what it means to be human, and discerning the moral texture of a life is vital to understanding that life. By taking into account climatic conditions and an individual’s own knowledge and power, historians can establish the boundaries of their moral agency and, in doing so, acknowledge their humanness and take seriously both the freedoms and limitations they had when confronting moral issues. Beyond individual beliefs and behaviors, historians can also appreciate how matters of morality impacted on and were impacted by larger events and structures. Thus, morality becomes a lens through which to view the past, another tool of historical analysis, just like class or race or any of the other categories that historians bring to bear on lost time. By meeting the past with a sense of moral curiosity, historians can develop a greater understanding within which any judgment might take place.
On an academic level, there are good historiographical reasons for having at least an awareness of the significance of morality both in the subject matter and in the self. Moral values flow through every movement of the historian, from the moment they begin to search for a domain of investigation, through all of their reading, archival research, evidential selection, writing, and teaching. Just as political neutrality in history is impossible, so too is moral neutrality. Thus, the practice of history is itself a moral act and, depending on the historian, can form part of a radical engagement with the world.
Additionally, there are costs involved in a historical neglect of morality. An inability or unwillingness to grapple with moral issues can have severe consequences. In his account of horrors such as the First World War, the Gulag, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rwanda, Glover argues and demonstrates that “in understanding the history, philosophical questions about ethics cannot be ignored.” In a discomforting but essential observation, he notes that inadequate “answers to these questions have contributed to a climate in which some of the disasters were made possible.”
Another reason to actively engage morally with the past is because of the deep symbiotic connection between morality and memory: our morality influences our memory and our memory influences our morality. In both personal and public memory, what and how we remember—the stories we tell about the past, the dates we mark out on calendars, the people we put on or remove from pedestals—are intimately intertwined with our moral beliefs and behaviors. Since remembering helps to construct and express our morality, it is worthwhile reflecting on the moral underpinnings and moral impact of our memory and memorialization. Moral history can contribute here by providing insights into past morality and by tracing the moral links between past and present. Through a fuller understanding of past morality, it is also possible to develop a better comprehension of present morality. Moreover, this ethical encounter with the past encourages us to reassess and, where necessary, recalibrate our own moral ideas and actions. By examining the values of the past, we come to ask: What values do we want to live by now?
Moral assessments of the past, therefore, aid us in shaping the contours of our present morality. We can look to the past to see what values we want to affirm, alter, or abandon. Thus, judging the past can function as a means of establishing and declaring what we stand for in the present. In this way, judging the past is a key driver of moral progress. Certainly, morality does not necessarily progress over time, and any advances are rarely linear, unanimous, or universal. There is always a risk of moral slippage and regression. But when there has been moral progress—such as civil rights, increased gender equality, LGBT rights, universal healthcare where it exists—it often stemmed from a condemnation and repudiation of past moral failings. Many moral advances occurred because individuals and collectives decided that certain beliefs, behaviors, happenings, and structures were no longer acceptable. Sometimes, then, judging the past by today’s standards is precisely the point.
Of course, if we can and should judge the past, then we must expect that we, too, will be judged in the future. Hence, a moral engagement with the past can serve as a reminder of our own moral shortcomings and motivate us to address them. And there is much work to be done, as just a brief selection from the plethora of contemporary collective moral transgressions highlights: the disregard for and destruction of the more-than-human world; the marginalization and devaluing of disabled and ill people in many areas of our societies; the uncomfortable reality that the Western way of life is predicated on the poverty of those on the other side of the world. Additionally, given the current wide and easy access to knowledge, our moral responsibility is even greater than that of previous generations. Many people of the past at least had an excuse of ignorance that was not the result of indifference. We know what the issues are. Do we care enough to act? Most likely, we will be found wanting by generations hence, and some of those revered today might well be viewed less favorably in the future. This should not, however, be cause for despair. As Simon Critchley argues, morality is “infinitely demanding”: “failure is inevitable, for we can never hope to fulfil the radicality of the ethical demand. But far from failure being a reason for dejection or disaffection, I think it should be viewed as the condition for courage in ethical action.” To evoke—as Cornel West often does—the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Part of this moral project requires an honest confrontation with unpleasant aspects of our past, especially those that still echo in our present. When we condemn the past with regard to matters such as slavery and imperialism, we take a stand with and for those people who bore the grim reality of these institutions. We also express support for those affected by the repercussions and remnants of such practices today. And we signal to the future that we attempted to address these issues, that we tried—even if we failed—to ensure that these burdens were not passed on to yet another generation. In addition to global solidarity, then, a temporal solidarity that encompasses the past, present, and future is needed. This negation of the parts of the past we now find morally execrable embodies Albert Camus’s conception of rebellion, in which refusal “means, for instance, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘so far but no farther,’ ‘you are going too far,’ or again ‘There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.’” The rebel is a person who says “no,” and this declaration “affirms the existence of a borderline.” This can be a moral borderline between past and present in the hope of a better future.
The Bristol protestors’ refusal to allow a statue of a slave trader to remain standing—and other recent acts of marble defenestration—can thus be understood as a form of Camusian rebellion. Which monuments should be taken down is a matter for collective reflection, deliberation, and action, even if that sometimes occurs in the streets. It should be noted that this need not be a slippery slope. The goal is not to remove every memorial of a morally dubious character. Indeed, it would be foolish and arrogant to demand that only moral saints be memorialized. But we should insist that those lauded and set publicly in stone not be moral monsters. In The Fall, Camus considers the importance of taking moral action now: “Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” With this in mind, it is about time we toppled some statues.
Adam Gilbert is the author of A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018). He is currently an Affiliated Researcher with the Swedish Institute for North American Studies at Uppsala University. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Sussex.