TERRIBLE ARGUMENTS 5
You can’t judge the past by the standards of the present.
Yes, you can. You absolutely can. There are no other standards by which you can possibly judge it.
We say that Edward Colston did a bad thing when he invested money in the slave trade. We say this because we think that slavery is bad.
You respond that Edward Colston did a good thing when he gave some of that money away. You say this because you think charitable giving is good.
If you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present, you can’t say that Colston was bad because he was a slaver; but equally you can’t say that he was good because he was a philanthropist. You can’t say anything at all. (Which might be a good idea.)
In the seventeenth century, criminals were eviscerated and dismembered, while still alive and conscious, in front of large crowds. This was wrong.
In the eighteenth century, black people were treated as livestock. This was wrong.
In the nineteenth century, very young children were forced to work as chimney sweeps. This was wrong.
In the twentieth century Alan Turing was forced to take drugs as a punishment for being gay. This was wrong.
See? That wasn't too hard, was it?
Manners and mores and customs can vary from place to place. Of course they can. Nude sunbathing is okay in Ibiza but a bit out of order in Weston Super Mare. Young people use the word “shit” more freely than I would have done. But it doesn't follow that all standards are reducible to manners and customs. “You can’t say fuck on the BBC” and “You can’t set fire to old ladies” are two quite different things.
People can discover new information. C.S. Lewis famously said that if there really had been witches, a lot of people might have quite reasonably thought they deserved to be executed: we stopped executing witches because we stopped believing in their existence. We can say that Matthew Hopkins was sincerely deluded, or indeed that he was stupid, but not that he operated according to an unintelligible moral code.
It might be that the day after tomorrow we will discover that tulips are fully sentient, with a sophisticated language and culture, and a sense of morality and free will. That they are, in the jargon, hnau. Doubtless a hundred years hence children would be unable to believe that in the twenty first century people went around butchering tulips with shears and exhibiting their corpses in their houses. But we would be able to reply, quite honestly, “We didn’t know.”
Yes, as a matter of fact, I do eat meat. But I am not going to use that as an example, because there is a wide continuum of opinion on the rights of animals. You very rarely meet someone who thinks that animals are soulless automata which can be hunted and tortured and experimented on at a human’s whim; and you very rarely meet someone who thinks cows and goldfish and snails are fully autonomous individuals who should be given citizenship and the vote. Most of us are somewhere in between: we think that it is okay to keep animals as pets, but we are uneasy about zoos; we think that it is okay to farm animals, but think that there should be rules about their welfare; we abstain from meat, but acknowledge that a certain amount of scientific vivisection is a necessary evil; in the event of a fire, we save the baby before the dog but the dog before the goldfish. "Eating sausages is wrong" and "buying and selling black people is wrong" are not equivalent statements.
I look at the statue of Edward Colston: it says that he was “the wisest and most virtuous son of Bristol”. That is what it says: not that he made a lot of money and that he founded a school, but that he was superlatively wise and superlatively virtuous. The statue of Edmund Burke says that he was an MP. The statue of Brunel says he was an engineer. The statue of Samuel Plimsoll says that he invented running shoes. (Check this. Ed.) But the statue of Colston says that he was wise and virtuous.
We say “He was neither wise nor virtuous; his day-job was buying and selling black people ”.
And you say “But it was the olden days. Buying and selling black people wasn’t wrong in the olden days.”
Maybe black people are like tulips. We have only recently discovered that they have minds and souls. “Oh my god” we said “You mean all those years we were…. ? When in fact….? Oh my god.” If that were so would be very hard to condemn people in the olden days unreservedly; although it must be pointed out that if someone did to a sheep or a cow today what Colston’s employees did to black people back then they would certainly go to prison.
“Colston traded in human beings.”
“Yes, but he honestly didn’t know they were human beings.”
It's a funny reason for celebrating a historical person: like saying that someone is one of the best doctors who ever lived because, although he killed all his patients, he honestly thought that leeches were a good idea.
Maybe morals change, like the weather; or maybe they are progressively discovered, like scientific facts.
The fundamental physical laws might differ from universe to universe; so that although 2 plus 2 definitely equals 4 in our world, there might be a parallel world where it equals 5 or 16 or Green. In the same way, just because “You should always be kind” is a moral law in the twentieth century, it doesn’t follow that it was a moral law in the seventeenth. Back then the golden rule might have been “You should always be cruel” or indeed “You should always wear purple underwear.”
Richard quotes a remark from Neil Gaiman in one of his children’s books: that in the nineteenth century it hadn’t been discovered that beating children was wrong. I take it that Gaiman is being facetious here, and making the point that we tend to treat very local, contingent goods and bads as absolute eternal truths. We act as if “you mustn’t smack naughty children, ever, ever, ever” was a thing waiting to be discovered, like “illnesses are caused by microbes” or “Australia”. In fact it is a prevailing opinion that used to prevail differently.
There is a very popular series of children’s books called Horrible History which tends to assume that people experienced the past in the same way that a modern time traveller would: that the Greeks found it funny and awkward that Olympic athletes didn’t wear any clothes because that’s how we would feel about it. Gaiman's "people in the olden days didn't know it was wrong" is a joke about that kind of fallacy.
I don't think that there is a vast blob of “morals” which we gradually discover more and more of. But if I did then it would if anything be a point against the slavers and child beaters of the olden days. We judge their morals by the standards of today in the same way we judge their science by the standards of today: because we happen to know that the morals and science of yesterday were wrong.
I don't know how the theory that people didn't know that bad things were bad until really quite modern times fits in with the theory that it was OK for us, the English, to impose our way of life on people on other continents because we knew about Jesus and they didn't.
It is absolutely true that we tolerate some evils at some times and not others. It wouldn’t be true to say that those of us who grew up in the 1970s “didn’t know” or “hadn’t discovered” that black-face comedy was incredibly offensive. Very many people were very uncomfortable with it. But most of us watched the Black and White Minstrel Show anyway. The singing and the dancing were pretty good, if show tunes were your thing. We just sort of accepted that racism was part of comedy; it would have been better if it wasn't, but it was just one of those things. My parents would have been outraged if one of my teachers had ever threatened to beat me; but at the same time, they pretty much took it for granted that canes and schools just went together because that’s how life was.
And when the evil is built in and systemic it is almost impossible not to tolerate it to some extent. If you were living in Bristol in the 1750s and ate jam, or drank tea, or smoked then you were implicated in slavery.
It is harder to blame one person for doing a very bad thing if everyone else is doing the very bad thing as well. Grown ups used to say “But if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge too?” to which the answer is “Almost certainly.” And this may, to some extent, excuse the historical Colston as an individual. It is certainly unhelpful to point and say “Look: a sexist individual!” when what you mean is “Look: someone who lived in a sexist age!” Jane Austen didn’t support votes for women. Neither did anyone else. It would be a non sequitur to scrawl “anti-suffragist” on her grave.
So: “you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present” means, at best “Colston was doing a terrible thing; it was a terrible thing then; it would be a terrible thing now; he knew it was a terrible thing; but in fairness to him it was a terrible thing which other people were doing as well, and which most people ignored or put up with”.
But the question is not; and never has been “Why blame Colston in particular; why single him out for special condemnation.” The question is “Why make him a hero; why single him out for special praise.”
There were other slavers in Bristol; and there were very many other people who were tacitly complicit in the system. But there aren't big statues of them in the centre of Bristol, calling them the wisest and most virtuous people who were ever born in the city.
Alternatively, you could buy me a virtual cup of coffee, which is the only kind available at present.