Sunday, February 28, 2010

Butterfield on Moral judgments in history

"Behind everything, and notwithstanding something like a cosmic scheme of good and evil in conflict, the whig historian has found it possible to reserve for himself one last curious piece of subtlety.  He can choose even to forgive the private life of Fox and save his moral condemnation for 'the repressive policy of Pitt.'  For of Lord Acton himself we are informed that 'he had little desire to pry into the private morality of kings and politicians'; and it was Acton who told historians that they must 'suspect power more than vice.'  The whig seems to prefer to take his moral stand upon what he calls the larger questions of public policy.  So upon the whig interpretation of history we have imposed the peculiar historian's ethics, by which we can overlook the fact that a king is a spendthrift and a rake, but cannot contain our moral passions if a king has too exalted a view of his own office.  Burke's dictum, which Acton endorses, that 'the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged,' may contain a world of truth, but it can be dangerous in the hands of the historian.  And not the least of its dangers lies in the fact that it can be so easily inverted."

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig interpretation of history, 1st American ed. (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951 [1931]), 128-129 (chapter entitled "Moral judgments in history").  No comfort here for those tempted to reverse this and suspect vice as much as power (since they would be Whiggish, too), but quite true-to-form nonetheless.
(Those tempted to reverse this and suspect vice as much as power would be forgetting that "moral judgments are useless unless they can be taken to imply a comparison of one man with another", that "it is impossible to make comparisons of this kind unless we compare also [exhaustively] the situation in which men find themselves" (123), that "all history [of this sort] perpetually requires to be corrected by more history" (131), and that, in sum, there is no end to the requisite enumeration of the relevant circumstances on the part of the historian qua historian, no end to pure description, no God's-eye view, no "verdict of History" personified.)

Butterfield may well be right about the historian qua "servant of the servants of God [or the Devil], . . . drudge of all the drudges" (130 ff.), but is his role qua responsible agent or person really this sequestrable?  And isn't the claim that there can be for us no end to (an ultimately exonerating) pure description a debilitating assumption?

4 comments:

Elaine said...

So we are to believe that morality does not really exist as the characteristic of a person? Perhaps Christ's circumstances allied to allow him purity? Or that temptation (in the form of power) excuses sin? History does have the advantage of judging the effect of the action on history, and not just the motivation. I suppose it's possible to take action for pure reasons with disastrous consequences. Do the motivations justify the means any better than the ends?

Steve Perisho said...

Butterfield doesn't say that morality does not really exist as the characteristic of a person (115), but only that it lies beyond the purview of the historian qua historian to pass absolute judgment, "there [being] limits to what history and the historian can do." What falls within his remit is "the historical explanation of character", but "historical explaining does not condemn; neither does it excuse; it does not even touch the realm in which words like these have meaning or relevance" (117). The same, I would say, is true for the natural sciences, and it is only a "whig" scientist of either stripe who would ever pretend otherwise.

There is, of course, a sense in which "Christ's circumstances [(take, for example, his freedom from original sin)] allied to allow him purity", though he was indeed "tempted like us [(i.e. Adam)] in every respect". I take your point, though. Butterfield's response would be that the paradigmatic purity of Christ (unlike the paradigmatic amorality of Napoleon, which is there in the historical record (120-125)) is an article of faith not accessible to the historian qua historian. And I would have to agree with that.

History, says Butterfield, strays into whiggism whenever it attempts to pass absolute judgment on more than just effect, i.e. motivation (when it condemns the motives of Catholics because they weren't (supposedly) those of an enlightened and progressive contemporary Protestantism (or an enlightened and fundamentally Protestant contemporary progressivism), or vice versa), for all this has is "the practical effect of curtailing the effort of [a properly] historical understanding" (112).

I'm still thinking this through, as my comments imply. The book is a classic, and the thesis, too, but I (though a history major) had never read it.

Although Butterfield has a mostly Protestant whiggism in mind, his thesis cuts both ways. Indeed, the example his gives of a Moral interpretation of history is that of Lord Acton, the Catholic.

Steve Perisho said...

As you may know, Butterfield was, by the way, a Christian (a Methodist). Some day I'll get round to the other book of his on my shelves, Christianity and history.

Steve Perisho said...
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