07 January 2021

Evaluating the past


Evaluating the past.

Topic by Norma


Essay by Lawrence



Second guessing history can always be a dangerous and futile task. Second guessing history can easily hurt us more than it changes history. Evaluating the past means making a judgement about the value of historical events. Of course, judgements maybe of technical facts, for example by considering issues based on knowledge at the time, but with the hindsight of knowledge we have today, or judgements based on moral standards of today.


Of course, we can hardly condemn people for their mistakes if the “knowledge” for them to know did not exist at the time. Indeed, progress has always been achieved by discovering solutions for past mistakes. But we are more concerned on moral value judgements.


But there is an immediate problem with making moral judgements about events and people in history. We just don’t know what it was like to live at the period we are making the judgements about. Don’t forget that many of the documentaries we see on TV purporting to tell us what it was like to live in this or that period is part entertainment and part a narrative of what we know about said period. But we can never be a Roman soldier or a rich woman in Rome during the Roman Empire no matter how much we read about it.


The standard “what it was like…..?” must surely mean we have lived in the relevant period. Elderly people understand this principle because they keep reminding us that things were different in their time. And yes cakes and ice cream were better in the past.


Hence, judging the past by our moral standards is futile and as I said dangerous. Futile because we’re not going to change history and dangerous because we are manipulating history to fit our beliefs, which may very well be unsound. Manipulating history to justify our beliefs will never be valid for our context.


An equally serious problem is the belief that moral principles and ethical systems are universal. This has been the domain of the various religions that have existed over the centuries. But more recently, 17th century onwards, philosophy has been employed to rehash the same old ideas into more sophisticated language: do we really want a masochist psychopath wishing to do onto others as he or she wants others to do to them?


In effect we cannot morally judge past people and past events precisely because there are no universal principles: moral principles keep changing as we change and evolve. But we can do one better than judging the past, we can learn from the past. In a previous essay I mentioned the Great Plague of London; the consequence of this epidemic was that the rich fled the capital and left the poor to fend for themselves.


We can all understand fear and self preservation, but our task is not to condemn the rich of the time, but to make sure that the rich of the present do not abandon the poor of today. And we are failing because those in power and authority in London are today not holding contractors to account when they misappropriating state money destined for medical. And even today we have the technology to control an epidemic as serious as the plague itself, by those in power in London want to deviate from the recommended protocol to administer such vaccines. This is a collapse of all sense of morality because the manufacturer of the vaccines and medical experts strongly advice not to break the protocol.


I use London as an example of a city in the world, but also a specific example of verifiable historical facts.


Indeed, what the present pandemic shows us is that moral principles are not established by some a priori fancy thinking but by solid scientific thinking. Today we have the scientific knowledge and the industrial capacity to vaccinate 70% of the world population against the Coronavirus over the next twelve months.


In effect we cannot change the past but we can certainly learn from the past. And one practical principle we have learnt is that for example universal health care is important in the 21st century basically because no country is fully isolated. But failure to provide a universal healthcare service would certainly be a failure of today’s moral principles.


Best Lawrence


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