There’s an argument, an argument that I’ve encountered numerous times on college campuses, and argument that bothers me very much. I was talking with one of my friends (a history major)about the nature of historical revisionism, specifically the way that individuals look at the past and then adjust certain cultural practices to be “good” or “evil” based on contemporary ethics, morals, and systems of justice. Both of us were of the opinion that it is more appropriate to attempt understanding a culture without the influence of modern cultural practices (an impossible task, but one that should be attempted nonetheless). Of course there are exceptions to everything, but, as a rule of thumb, we believe this is a good practice.
Another friend of ours made the argument that historical revisionism is necessary because, as they put it, the future will be more just, an therefore more “right” in its determination of what a culture should be.
This argument has been used in other variations, one of the more common sayings being that homophobes/racists/insert-bad-thing here are “on the wrong side of history,” and while I, theoretically, agree, I don’t think this is a real argument.
There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first problem is simple: we don’t know what the future holds. For all we know we could collapse into a so-called dark age or dystopia. We could enter into a world where slavery is accepted; where sexism is not just common, but expected; and then what do we say? What do we say to a future that considers our “progressive” ideals as being foolish, dangerous, or downright evil? What do we say in the face of a real Orwellian Oceania? We can’t say anything, because we have already faded from the face of the Earth.
The other possibility is that human nature will always progress, it will always get better. Either we can assume that mankind will eternally become better, or else we can assume that humanity will eventually reach perfection. This has its own problems, namely, that whatever we do now in the present will not be enough for the future. If humanity is always getting better, then we are put into a situation where, eventually down the line, any practice or belief that’s held in the present will be considered barbaric because humanity has gotten better. The only way around this is to assume that, if we can reach perfection, then we are closer to perfection than away from it, but this is a very problematic worldview in-and-of-itself.
Of course, even if our current practices (progressive or otherwise) will be considered unethical in the future, there is no reason not to strive to be better. The thing that we must realize, however, is that what we do now we do for certain reasons. Practices are born from perceived necessities, and those necessities will die and evolve over time, therefore changing practices. If we assume a cultural practice from the past is necessarily evil just because it doesn’t agree with contemporary values, we do a dishonor to ourselves as well as the past.
5 thoughts on “Confirmation by the Future: Dissecting a Fallacy”
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In what sense is friend number two arguing for historical revisionism given moral progress? Also, does that person think that a strictly descriptive understanding of the past is a worthwhile goal?
And do you think that there is such a thing as moral progress?
The example friend number one was giving was the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. He pointed out that historians have both tried to ignore the practice (because they didn’t want to acknowledge that a culture they liked could do such a thing) and have tried to condemn it from a modern perspective. He argued that the Aztecs had legitimate cultural reasons for the practice and that it should be understood that, as their culture encountered new problems, it would develop new solutions and opinions about the practice. Therefore, we shouldn’t condemn their use of human sacrifice from our lens because they had reasons that don’t align with our culture. Friend two argued that, on the whole, modern society knows that it is better on the whole to protect human life and since we know better because we have advanced we can safely condemn the practice of human sacrifice by past cultures. That’s all the insight I had about the argument, I think the conversation changed shortly afterwards. I don’t really believe in moral progress in the sense of there being a “true” morality we advance towards. I’m something of a post-nihilist/existentialist moving towards idealism. I don’t really think there’s any real moral or existential truth, or that consciousness or history can “progress” in any meaningful sense, but I can at least acknowledge the practices and things that “feel” true to me and can avoid unfairly blocking others from finding ideals that help them live their lives.
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