Does History Have Any Meaning?

Does History Have Any Meaning?

By William C. Heffernan

Thank you so much for your kind introduction. And thanks to the Bergen Society for inviting me back. By my calculation, fifteen years have passed since I gave my first talk at Bergen. It’s an understatement to say that I appreciate your invitations. Whenever you ask me to give a talk, you provide me with an opportunity to arrange ideas in a way I never can when in a classroom or when writing for publication. Both are somewhat narrow experiences. I can sense my students’ impatience if I digress to comment on larger issues than the ones they bargained for in signing up for a course. I don’t even dare risk readers’ impatience in my publications; at most, I include oblique references that suggest a wider frame of reference. It’s in these talks, then, that I have a chance to think a bit more expansively than I can elsewhere—to go beyond the confines of disciplinary specialization. I can’t vouch for the success of my efforts. Perhaps, though, we can agree to define success modestly and say that in this instance it consists of sorting out, rather than solving, perplexing issues. Assuming agreement on this modest aim, I hope you’ll be satisfied with the results of the talk.

Let’s start with the facts that have to be explained—not with facts about this event or that but rather with facts about our existence as temporal creatures. We live in a specific point in time, a point that makes it possible for us to remember (and reflect on) what came before and a point that will be followed by later ones different in character from either the present or the past. Because we are reasoning, inquiring creatures, we construct narratives that help us make sense of our position in time. The narratives have morals—that is, they suggest specific courses of action given the stories told. When we’re young, the narratives may seem clear, the morals unmistakable. However, as time passes and we tell more and more stories, we discover that the very act of story-telling is distortive as well as helpful—helpful because we otherwise couldn’t impose order on our experience but distortive because our stories impose end-points on time despite the fact that time is continuous and extends beyond the end-points in our stories. This understanding of the potential for distortion introduces a complication into the facts about our status as temporal creatures. It’s easy, we realize, to make our stories meaningful by selecting attractive end-points. Experience has shown us, however, that the end-points we select are typically upset by later ones—that the seamless flow of time upsets the neatly constructed stories we have to tell.

These, then, are the facts I propose for discussion. If history is meaningful, its meaning has to be compatible with the facts I’ve just mentioned. Moreover, because the facts just mentioned can be understood at both individual and collective levels of experience, history can be meaningful for individuals, for collectivities, or for both.

How, then, can we make sense of our status as story-telling creatures? I think three answers are possible. Each offers a way of making history—whether personal history or the history of the human race—meaningful. However, of the three, only the third is defensible, at least in my opinion. Here’s an overview of the argument I’m going to advance. The first way to find meaning in history is to focus on end-states. This is surely the most tempting way to understand history because it makes the conclusion to the story the key to grasping its meaning. I think this is profoundly unhelpful, however, for the simple reason that we don’t know how the story, whether our personal story or the story of humanity, will end. The second way to find meaning in history is to think of us, individually or collectively, as having been shaped by the past. This is unhelpful, I believe, because we aren’t simply shaped by the past—we ponder it, respond it, and in doing so change the conditions of our lives. The third way to find meaning—the one I endorse here—is one that accepts our status as actors in a continuing story-line. I call this the medias res version of the meaning of history. The label medias res draws on the opening lines of The Divine Comedy, which Dante begins not at the beginning of his life and not at its end but, as he puts it, “in the middle of the journey of life.” This medias res conception of history has implications not simply for understanding our own status in time but also for understanding the moral codes by which we live, for if we don’t have a final end-point in time from which to reason we also have to accept the provisional nature of the moral standards by which we guide our conduct. More on these points in a moment. Let’s start out by noting in greater detail what’s wrong with end-point reasoning.

As I just suggested, end-point reasoning is probably the most immediately attractive way of according meaning to history. We’re story-tellers by nature, so the meaning of history, it could be said, depends on how the story turns out. We can even apply a label to this; we can call this the teleological version of history—from the Greek word telos meaning “end.” And we can add another important concept here by noting that, in Judeo-Christian thought, history isn’t simply teleological, it’s also eschatological. For both Jews and Christians, the end of human time is marked by a moment in which God sits in judgment on everyone who has lived. This end-point has meaning for everything that has preceded it. In particular, it has significance for our moral laws, for if we are going to be judged on the basis standards applied at the end of time, then those standards should guide us prior to the end. The conclusion to the Judeo-Christian story thus determines its moral. This moral, it should be added, has obvious implications for individuals, for once someone understands the race’s collective destiny, that person can also see why he or she should live according to the standards that will be used on judgment day.

This is the ultimate in wide-screen, blockbuster history. I assume that one of the reasons why I was invited today is that your speaker committee understood that I don’t agree with it, for if the Ethical Culture Society stands for anything it stands for a rejection of the notion that moral standards are derived from the grand narrative provided by either the Hebrew or Christian bibles. But it isn’t enough to say that we disagree with these narratives; it’s important also to say why. Two factors are critical here. The most important is that both the Hebrew and Christian accounts rely on something that hasn’t happened yet. They extrapolate; they posit an end-state that is expected but that hasn’t occurred. Indeed, I think the most plausible account of Christian thought is that Jesus expected the end-state to occur within a short time of his death. Christian thinkers of the late Roman empire—Augustine in particular—readjusted the end-state, delaying its arrival indefinitely. That they had to do so, however—that they had to modify a key teaching about how soon the story would end—is an indication of how implausible this kind of reasoning actually is.

The second factor that undermines the Judeo-Christian view of history has to do with the possibility of divine intervention. At some time in the past, we’re told—for example, when the Red Sea parted, when the Israelites were delivered to the land of milk and honey, when Jesus entered human history to inform us of the new and everlasting covenant—human time was transformed because of divine intervention. Interestingly, these interventions occurred in a distant, more credulous past, but they’re critical to the Judeo-Christian tradition because they’re a foretaste of the grand end-point, the point at which God will judge all humanity. Again, I reject as implausible the notion of special divine interventions in the course of the story—interventions that, conveniently enough, occurred two millennia ago. By parity of reasoning, I also reject the notion that the moral standards discovered through divine intervention—the ten commandments in the Book of Exodus, the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount—are binding because they’re part of a grand narrative that culminates in God’s judgment of each one of us. I of course have great respect for both the Mosaic commandments and the beatitudes, but my respect has to do with their secular significance, not with their supposed provenance in divine history.

I’ve devoted so much attention to the Judeo-Christian version of end-state, teleological history because of its immense influence on Western thought. My criticism, it should be understood, is not, however, directed at the Judeo-Christian tradition per se but rather at any account, sacred or secular, that claims to explain the significance of human history in light of an end that has yet to occur. To make this clear, let’s consider briefly a secular version of teleological history, Marxism. On Marx’s account, members of the proletariat are the modern children of Israel, beset on all sides by enemies (such as the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy), yet destined ultimately to reach the land of milk and honey. The difficulty here is the same we encounter in the Judeo-Christian sacred version of history. This is extrapolation. The end hasn’t arrived yet, so the moral of the story—in Marx’s case, the morality of socialist society—is based on what’s expected to come. Again, let me emphasize that I have considerable respect for many socialist principles (Republicans beware: I proudly support socialized medicine). However, my support doesn’t hinge on the notion that this is where we’re headed anyway.

I’ve thus rejected end-state versions of history. What about the reverse, then? What about a framework that finds significance in history by focusing on our connection to the past? Oscar Wilde has one of his characters state this hypothesis in its simplest form. In An Ideal Husband, Lord Goring puts the proposition in five words, remarking that “[a] person is his past.” This comment focuses on the meaning of history at the personal level. It’s possible, though, to apply it as well to collective history. America is the sum total of its history, it could be said: it is understandable not simply in terms of the aspirations stated in the Declaration of Independence and not simply in terms of the sordid reality of slavery that continued after publication of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, America is understandable in terms of the interplay, the dialectic, of these two factors as they’ve worked themselves out over time. The meaning of history, it could thus be said, is to be found in the distinctive marks it has placed on both individuals and collectivities as they have endured over time.

I think this version of history’s meaning is also implausible. My rationale for this conclusion is straightforward. While identity over time matters a great deal, it’s a rather thin reed on which to build a notion of historical meaning. The past is often marked by change; when it is, then time immemorial isn’t critical but instead something far more mysterious: a process of connectedness that revises past practices while nonetheless retaining some portions of what came before. To think of history as meaningful simply because you emerge from the past is to reason passively about something that in fact is often active and dynamic. I thus agree that the past has considerable significance qua past; however, I suggest that what really matters is not the past per se but instead our role as historically situated creatures who reflect on the past in the course of modifying our conduct in the present.

This is the medias res position I mentioned earlier—medias res because it treats history as meaningful in that we are historically situated creatures who find ourselves in a given way of life, have the capacity to reflect on our situation by constructing narratives connecting past and present, and so have the tools to alter our lives (though at considerable cost) on the basis of our reflections. This approach emphasizes the provisional nature of narratives. It’s compatible with the facts noted earlier—that is, it’s compatible with the fact that we are narrative-constructing creatures, whether at the individual or collective level, and that as creatures of this kind we routinely interpret and reinterpret the significance of past events we consider relevant to our narratives. However, now that we’ve had a chance to understand the difficulties with end-state accounts, it can be added that we construct narratives not because we know the final end, not because there’s an immanent eschatology whose outlines we’ve just discovered, but rather because we’ve reached a resting point, a temporary perspective, from which to look back and reassess what came before. This resting point comes in medias res, in the middle of things, not at the end. My medias res conception of history (whether collective or individual) takes its cue from the opening lines of The Divine Comedy. Dante avoids the usual starting points of birth, death, or some other dramatic event; instead, he plunges into the middle of things:

Dante on the Middle of the Journey
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
For I had lost the path that does not stray.
The Divine Comedy: Inferno I, i-iii
(Allen Mandelbaum trans.)

In the translation I was assigned at college, “mi ritrovai” is rendered as “I came to myself.” Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, on the other hand, which I’ve used here, seems to me to be more accurate in rendering it as “I found myself.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by the way, also rendered it as “I found myself.”) So understood, the first two lines capture aptly our status as historically rooted individuals, placed by genetic and cosmic chance in a context whose characteristics we begin to dimly to consider only after major events have already affected our lives and whose full character we ponder provisionally at various points of rest for the remainder of our lives. We are involuntary heirs to our past. In this sense, history’s meaning is understandable in terms of an individual’s connection to his or her past. But in finding ourselves connected to the past, we also have the consciousness to reassess that connection and to find new ways, typically informed by older ones, in which to act in the future. This is the sense, I suggest, in which history is meaningful—because we find ourselves in the middle of a journey with no clear end or beginning but with the possibility of change through resort to our capacity for constructing narratives (provisional narratives) that enable us to reflect on what we’ve been through and where we may be going.

This medias res conception of history is relevant to individuals and collectivities; it’s relevant to questions that arise in psychotherapy and also to public policy debates. We can begin to appreciate the significance of the medias res position by considering a paragraph in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that concludes with his famous image about the owl of Minerva spreading her wings at dusk. The owl of Minerva, as I’m sure you realize, is a symbol of historical knowledge. Our condition as creatures in a temporal continuum makes it possible for us to understand events, and so to re-evaluate the significance of our aims and values, but only after those events have occurred. As you will see, I follow Hegel’s owl-of-Minerva dictum in only the loosest sense. Nonetheless, it provides a helpful way to consider the significance of consciousness in the dynamic continuum of events and understanding:

Hegel on the Owl of Minerva
“One word more about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed. The teaching of the concept, which is … history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal apprehends the same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself in the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right [1821] 12-13 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) (T.M. Knox trans.)
In this passage, Hegel addresses what I take to be the most important feature of our status as historically situated creatures—that is, he’s concerned with the possibility of an individual understanding his or her historically situated condition and so modifying it. With understanding, we take the necessary step toward re-evaluating the larger framework by which we have lived, but this re-evaluation need not occur all at once; rather, it may sometimes be carried out on a piecemeal basis and sometimes be carried out in its entirety. Important as this point is, I part company with Hegel on three specific issues. The first has to do with teleology—that is, with end-states. There are different ways to characterize Hegel’s approach to teleology, so I’ll simply say that to the extent that he believed history came to an end in his own era, with the triumph of the Prussian state and Germanic philosophy, his comments on the interplay of understanding and events are incompatible with mine. I thus have a simple proposition to make about Hegel: let’s think about the owl-of-Minerva comment without assuming that we can now identify an end-state for history. For our purposes, the owl-of-Minerva passage is about historically situated reflection under conditions of uncertainty about where matters are headed.

Second, I’m also troubled by Hegel’s recurrent emphasis in the passage on fully formed thought and fully formed actuality. Philosophy comes on the scene too late, he says, but what about intuitive insight? What about fleeting thoughts that suggest problems with prevailing models? And why speak only of actuality that is “cut and dried after its process of formation”? Why not speak of fleeting, evanescent actuality—actuality that’s the catalyst for further reflection, however incomplete? Because my concern is with the interplay of understanding and action, I’ll speak of these (and emphasize their fluidity) and will not avoid any suggestions of fully formed philosophical reflection.

My final qualification has to do with Hegel’s pessimism about the sequential relationship between understanding and action. Hegel’s implication is that understanding can never alter things. If he’s simply suggesting that it’s a necessary feature of events that we reflect on them after they’ve occurred, I of course agree. But if he’s suggesting something more—that we can’t react, alter ideas, and change course—until some larger series of events has occurred, then I don’t. Given our status as historically situated selves, we’re constantly faced with the challenge of adjusting our thoughts and plans as quickly as possible to the events around us.

Let me express my objections differently on this by considering Yogi Berra’s famous saying, “Think! How the hell you gonna think and hit at the same time?” Note that Yogi doesn’t deny the possibility of doing both at the same time; he’s just noting the difficulty of fusing them. Needless to say, if Yogi was suggesting that it’s impossible to rethink your entire approach to hitting while a fastball is heading your way, he was right. But his comment could also be understood to allow for rethinking hitting from the ground up in an extended series of hitting encounters. During the course of this extended series, it would be possible to rethink one’s stance, one’s view of the pitcher’s grip just before release, the significance of pitch sequences, criteria for understanding a given umpire’s strike zone, and so on. The interplay of understanding and action is potentially endless under this latter scenario. If Yogi, a natural hitter, didn’t bother with this, certainly other students of hitting—for example, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, George Brett, and Tony Gwynn—did. Not to sound too theoretical, these were historically situated hitters: they built on talents they had, critiqued their strengths and weaknesses in light of prevailing conditions, and improved through constant reflection on the baseball of their day.

Because this general point about the relationship between understanding and action is so important, let me alert you to one other comment—less well-known than either Hegel’s and Yogi’s—but to my mind even more helpful. The comment is by Otto Neurath, a Viennese philosopher of the early twentieth century. My hunch is that the remark hasn’t received the attention accorded Hegel’s and Yogi’s remarks simply because Neurath was never as famous as they were. The remark relies on an extended simile:

Otto Neurath’s Raft Simile
“We are like sailors on the open sea who must reconstruct their ship afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and the driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.” Otto Neurath, quoted in W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object 3 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960)
I must confess to a feeling of awe as to the aptness of Neurath’s simile. We’re historically situated in that, on the open sea of life, we are presented with opportunities to rethink our conduct, but with the cost that the more fundamentally we revise our mental and evaluative presuppositions the greater the risk of disaster. I think this is quite helpful. At a personal and collective level, there are indeed foundations for our lives. For individuals, they’re the givens we took in while growing up; for the collectivity, they’re the givens of our shared heritage. As we grow, we may question the givens we inherited; nonetheless, though, we can’t build from nothing at all. Something has to remain in place while we address other parts of the foundation. On Neurath’s accout, we find ourselves on a raft and have options to rebuild it piece by piece, though we can’t rebuild it all at once. This is perhaps the most arresting image available to us of our lives as historically situated beings.

Let me summarize, then. Under the medias res conception of the meaning of history, we find ourselves—that is, we become conscious of ourselves—as beings in a continuous flow of events. We construct narratives about our significance within those events, but given the seamlessness of time we ruefully concede that the narratives don’t rely on permanent end-points—rather, the narratives are provisional because the end-points were selected simply for purposes of present reflection. The narratives have morals—that is, there’s a moral to the tales we tell, and there are thus precepts (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) about how to act. But these precepts are also provisional; further events may well lead us to revise our precepts for conduct.

This, then, is the medias res framework I’m suggesting. You may have shown up hoping for more; you may have wanted some blinding insight that would supplant the big-screen, Judeo-Christian version of history. However, I have nothing to offer along those lines—and for the reasons I’ve already put forward, I’d be skeptical of anyone else propounding a big-screen, end-state account of history’s meaning.

With the framework outlined, I’m now going to focus on its implications for conduct. My prime concern will be with questions of public morality, but let me pause briefly to note its significance for individual conduct, in particular for psychotherapy. As far as I know, Freud never met or heard of Neurath. It seems highly likely, though, that Freud was aware of Hegel’s owl of Minerva metaphor. After all, Hegel’s image is thoroughly apt for the extraordinary change that occurs between the ages of four and ten as we not only become self-conscious but also draw on that self-consciousness to regulate our behavior. Because my son and daughter work with pre-kindergarten four-year olds in a summer camp, I hear fascinating stories of unself-conscious, guileless statements by the kids they supervise, statements that are windows into the souls of the children making them. Within four or five years, the children will become more circumspect. Within ten to twelve years, they will reflect on all that came before, though the reflections will in a sense come too late.

In this respect, Hegel is right to say that “philosophy comes too late.” Retrospective consciousness can’t alter the raw unself-conscious behavior that came before it. But in another respect, Hegel overstates his case. Indeed, I think psychotherapy provides a way of seeing how Hegel goes too far, for if properly conducted, psychotherapy offers patients a way to systematize a cycle of insight and action and so to understand themselves as temporally situated creatures. There are givens in my past that I must comprehend, the patient reasons; the more radically I try to change, the greater the chance of failure. I may nonetheless attempt radical change: my risk-reward calculus in deciding whether to undertake radical change will be decisively influenced by the narrative I’ve already constructed of my life—by the conclusions, in other words, I’ve drawn about the importance of changing the conditions of my life. I’m not simply my past, then. Although I spend a tremendous amount of time examining my past, I do so not simply to tell a story but to think about the prospects and risks associated with change.

Speaking for myself, I will say that I constantly revisit episodes from my past and that, in doing so, I revise narratives about my life. I often do so through expressions of regret and apology—expressions I don’t convey to the people I’ve hurt, but expressions that, I hope, fortify me today by making me less likely to act that way in the future. In feeling regret, I recognize the alterations in values that I’ve experienced, alterations I haven’t planned but that have come upon me as I’ve redirected my life. Am I simply affirming the present by castigating my past? Or am I instead recalculating the significance of my life by considering the problematic connection between my current practices and those of the past? I’d like to believe it’s the latter hypothesis that better captures what I do. My reassessments of past conduct, I’d like to think, don’t simply affirm the present, they also inform it, solidifying my resolve to act properly today even if I didn’t in the past. My status as a responsible person, in other words, hinges on my ability to re-examine the terms of my past life from a perspective different from the one that prompted me to act in earlier days. This is surely the meaning of human history—not geological or biological history, which is simply an accumulation of patterns over time, but of the history of people capable of deliberating about their lives.

Let me turn now to questions of public policy; in doing so, I’ll discuss the darker side of the medias res framework I’ve outlined so far. My perspective will become darker because I’ve delayed discussing an important feature of the provisional status of narratives. That feature is this: a person who openly admits to formulating a provisional narrative must also admit that the moral conclusions he draws from the narrative are provisional as well. Consider the contrast with religious teaching about ethics. The third line of Inferno, you’ll recall, is “For I had lost the path that does not stray,” an unmistakable reference to the firm guidance provided by Christian teaching. My approach is different. Once we concede that our narratives are subject to revision, I suggest, we also have to accept the possibility that our ordering of values may be revised as well. If Dante reasons in terms of a path that doesn’t stray, I am reasoning in terms of a path we establish for ourselves in the course of reflecting on what came before—a path whose course we may decide to revise in light of our re-evaluation of earlier events.

But if we can’t claim that our moral standards are timeless, what authority can they be said to have? In particular, what authority can they be said to have for people who disagree with them? Why shouldn’t someone who doesn’t want to obey an inconvenient norm disregard it, saying that given his or her historical situation, the norm isn’t worth following? I haven’t claimed that norms come down from the heavens; on the contrary, on my medias res account, the moral of the story is proposed on the basis of human experience so far, thus allowing for the possibility that it might be revised later. Moreover—and here is a difference between individual and collective experience—the moral I draw from the history of humanity so far may not be the moral someone else draws from its history. So in denying the authority of the norms that I advance, the critic could thus suggest he is situated differently and so need not submit to the norms others have announced. He can invent his own norms based on his own reading of human history.

The distinction between invention and discovery is not a fanciful one. In talking about norms, people claim to have discovered them; they don’t admit—or at least they don’t typically admit—to having made them up as they go along. Think, for example, about the Declaration of Independence and its statement about individual rights—“we hold these truths to be self-evident….” Nearly two centuries later, in 1948, the UN issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The implication, both in 1776 and 1948, is clear: rights exist in timeless form; they are discovered; and following their discovery they are announced to the world. This is just what I’m questioning; my medias res account relies on the claim that even the human rights mentioned in 1776 may not have been discovered but instead may have been made up in the course of human history. I’m not the only one to advance this claim. Lynn Hunt, a UCLA history, has advanced a similar one, adopting the provocative title Inventing Human Rights for a book that provides a history of human rights discourse over the last two and half centuries. Hunt quotes Jefferson’s famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident” on the first page of her book; however, she continues in short order to inquire into what she calls “the paradox of self-evidence.” Here are her questions:

Lynn Hunt on Inventing Human Rights
“This claim of self-evidence, crucial to human rights even now, gives rise to a paradox: if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why is it only made in specific times and places? How can human rights be universal if they are not universally recognized? Shall we rest content with the explanation given by the 1948 framers that ‘we agree bout the rights but on condition that no one asks us why’? Can they be ‘self-evident’ when scholars have argued for more than two hundred years about what Jefferson meant by his phrase?” Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights 19-20 (New York: Norton, 2007)
These aren’t exactly the questions I would ask; nonetheless, they strike approximately the same tone I’m employing here. Like me, Hunt is sympathetic to human rights claims, but in pointing out that claims about human rights didn’t become common until the eighteenth century, Hunt focuses on origins in a way that makes difficult the work of justification. Jefferson speaks of self-evident truths, but she recognizes that his rhetoric about something that can be apprehended by anyone at any time is at odds with the brute fact that the ideology of human rights originated in the age of enlightenment. The historian’s attention to the temporal is in this respect at war with the philosopher’s declaration of the eternal. Hunt the historian subverts the philosophical claim to have identified something eternal with her reference to inventing; indeed, the entire focus of her book involves an uncomfortable, awkward mixture of respect for universal norms and etiological explanation of their origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I readily agree that the juxtaposition of history and philosophy, of origins and justification, is awkward, but my straightforward answer to those who therefore seek to avoid it is: “Get used to it!” If we’re to take the medias res position seriously, we must also take seriously the proposition that norms of conduct are amended as we go along—that they’re provisional in just the same sense that our narrative end-points are provisional. Religious reasoning offers the possibility of timeless norms delivered by God. Philosophical reasoning offers the possibility of timeless norms discovered by reason. In contrast, the medias res position requires us to attend to the time-specific status of the norms we employ. These norms don’t come from God; they don’t come from reason; they come from us—from us, as we ponder the stories, collective and individual, we tell about our condition as human beings.

An example will help, an example drawn from the institution (indeed, the once-venerated institution) of slavery. The Hebrew and Christian bibles explicitly endorse slavery. Aristotle does so as well; in fact, he classifies women as natural slaves. Even Augustine and Aquinas refrained from challenging its legitimacy.

Two Mosaic Commandments
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to him.” (Final Commandment)
“You shall not steal.” (Seventh Commandment)
Exodus 20:17; 20:15 (The New English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961))
Today, of course, slavery is widely taken to be a classic instance of wrongdoing. Times have changed; we tell a vastly different story about enslavement than did the ancients. However, many institutions of the modern world cling to sacred texts that took slavery for granted. How, then, can those institutions continue to view the texts as sacred given the undeniable fact that those text accept the legitimacy of slavery? The answer, for at least some religious thinkers, is to deny the obvious and to frame timeless norms that denounce what their own texts endorse. Consider, for instance, the critique of slavery in modern Catholic social teaching. Despite the remarks accepting slavery in the old and new testaments, despite the fact that the final commandment in the ten commandments states “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to him,” the latest catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1992, provides the following interpretation of the seventh commandment (i.e., “You shall not steal”):

Roman Catholic Teaching on Slavery
“The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason—selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian—lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard of their personal dignity. It is a sin against the personal dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit.” Catechism of the Catholic Church Teaching 2,414, quoted in John T. Noonan, Jr., A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching 121 (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005)
If I may be permitted to borrow from the language of a different religious group, there’s a certain chutzpah in this exegetical comment. To classify this as an interpretation of the text is to disregard the text in the course of claiming to interpret it. The alternative seems to be worse, though. Fidelity to the inerrant word of a holy text—the kind of fidelity one finds among Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalists, for instance—raises the frightening prospect of preserving historically situated norms in settings where those norms are now considered abhorrent.

But while I certainly prefer the Roman Catholic position to that of fundamentalists, I think that the Catholics don’t come sufficiently clean about what they’ve done. The brute fact is that we’ve modified our thought about slavery, that we tell a different story about it than did the ancients, and that we draw a different moral from our story than they did. An honest account of moral norms must make allowance for these points—that is, an honest account must concede the time-bound, provisional status of prohibitions against slavery and so step down from the pedestal of timelessness that was characteristic of the past. Does this mean I think all moral norms are time-bound, or do I simply think that many are? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that some extremely thin norms are timeless in nature and that they’re thickened by historical experience as human communities change. I’m not alone in entertaining this possibility. Stuart Hampshire, an Oxford philosopher of the late twentieth century, advances an argument along these lines, one that is worth careful consideration.

Stuart Hampshire on the Procedural Conception of Justice as a Historical Constant in Human Thought and Society
“There is a basic concept of justice which has a constant connotation and core sense, from the earliest times to the present day; and it always refers to a regular and reasonable procedure of weighing claims and counter-claims, as in arbitration or court of law…. Conceptions of justice are constantly changing as practical reasoning enters new and unexpected domains of practice and of social life. If I am asked, ‘Was the institution of slavery, as it existed in ancient Athens, unjust?’ I reply, Yes, it was, though it did not come into conflict with the substantial conceptions of justice and of the good prevailing at the time…. The concept of justice, like the concept of art or the concept of intelligence, has a history of being associated with different conceptions of justice, attached to different conceptions of the good. But this does not entail that the statement that a practice is, or was, unjust is always an elliptical way of saying, given a certain conception of justice, the practice was unjust.” Stuart Hampshire, Innocence and Experience 63-64 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)
Well, perhaps. Hampshire is certainly among the most modest of modern moral philosophers. He doesn’t speak in terms of an objectively given concept of justice; rather, he speaks only of a historically constant one. The fact that even this constant has been disregarded at numerous times in history—from Attila the Hun to Slobodan Milosevic—can be set aside for the moment. Even if we grant the significance of Hampshire’s constant, we would have to say, as I think he would, that moral judgments formulated in light of his constant norm have bite only because they draw on historically situated claims such as claims about the wrongfulness of slavery. Reasoning in this way, we might reject the post-modernist provocation associated with the word inventing; we might instead choose a different title such for Lynn Hunt’s book such as A Revised List of Human Rights (21st century edition). A title such as this isn’t likely to sell books. However, it does at least begin to capture the two-sided phenomenon I’m suggesting: that human-rights talk is a contemporary phenomenon but it isn’t simply this, it’s also a movement of prescriptive power. To say that slavery violates human rights is not simply to declare one’s modernity, it is also to make a moral judgment that can have practical consequences.

Perhaps, then, I’ve begun to explain how moral thought can be historically rooted and yet still have some prescriptive force. At one time, philosophers may have claimed to speak with a prophetic voice: they defined a separate, objective realm that imposed claims on us independently of our will. My medias res account allows for the possibility that there are some historical constants (like Hampshire’s concept of justice) that may be rooted in human nature, but it holds that the details of moral judgment depend on historically situated norms that have changed over time. Philosophy, on this account, is a form of prescriptive ethnography: it explains how we’re rebuilding the raft at this point in time, but it offers no ahistorical framework that explains which planks should be replaced and how.

But why adhere to norms announced in this cautious, provisional manner? If there’s no timeless quality to a prohibition against slavery, genocide, or ethnic cleansing, then why should someone like Slobodan Milosevic accept the norm as binding? The deepest problems of philosophical justification have always centered on questions such as this. When you studied Plato or Kant in college, you were actually addressing questions about the defensibility of timeless justifications of morality. On a Platonic or Kantian account, history doesn’t matter. Eternal reason alone establishes the authority of an idea.

I’m disclaiming such rational authority; I’m suggesting that rationalist accounts won’t create cowed submission and that the best that can be hoped for is a historical account that explains why norms that haven’t always been accorded authority should be treated as authoritative now. Consider, then, the human rights argument I would advance to Milosevic. I might well draw on Stuart Hampshire’s suggestion that justice-as-fair-procedure has long been embedded in human practice and thought. I wouldn’t contend, though, that so loose an idea covers the genocidal policies Milosevic and his Serbs followed in the 90s. In earlier times, the concept of justice-as-fair-procedure tended to be applied only within relatively small political communities, if at all. It most certainly wasn’t applied to members of out-groups, for while the term “ethnic cleansing” may be a relatively recent one, one can readily see that the forcible removable of one political community so as to provide land for another is a recurrent theme in human history. Milosevic can correctly note, then, that historical precedent is on his side: what the Serbs attempted in Bosnia in the 90s is what countless bands and tribes attempted for a very long time.

But I would further argue that by the late twentieth century our norms had changed. The change is discernible in terms of the many charters emerging after World War II—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, and the European Convention of Human Rights. These state broad exceptionless norms, so the cynic might point out that these norms, while framed in timeless language, weren’t honored much in the past. However, one could respond to the cynic that their preambles make quite clear the lessons drawn from recent history in formulating the rights. The second paragraph of the Universal Declaration provides a good example:

An Excerpt from the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people….” Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Preamble, Paragraph 2)
Surely the advent of this world, I would note to Milosevic, was not proclaimed prior to the contemporary era. Its origins are to be found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; by now, a quarter millennium later, it has become the dominant model of political morality in the world. Thus without claiming that rational analysis supports my argument, without claiming that my position is self-evident, and above all without claiming that the teleology of human history establishes the rightness of my position, I would nonetheless contend that today the notion of justice is widely understood to apply beyond the nation-state, to have a particular significance to humans qua humans, and that Milosevic was responsible for monstrous moral crimes in disregarding this. To those who expect their philosophers to preach from on high and so to announce universally binding claims of reason, I would say, “Get used to it! You expect too much. Reason has exposed the pretenses of reason.” But to those who would say that historically situated moral norms have no prescriptive bite at all, I would say, “You too are mistaken. Once norms have crystallized into different form in light of humanity’s understanding of its current situation, then those norms establish the proper basis for action.”

A final point. What would I say to Attila the Hun and his fellow ethnic cleansers of the pre-modern world? I’m afraid I wouldn’t be censorious. The raft operated differently then. I don’t approve of what he did; I think it essential to reflect on his conduct through the prism of current norms; but I also understand that the raft was operated in a quite different fashion way back then.

By William C. Heffernan on September 30, 2007

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