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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Judging historic figures

In "The Whig Interpretation of History" (1931), Herbert Butterfield asserted that “The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries of history.” In the Dec. 17, 2015 New York Review of Books, Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg defended his recent history of modern science from the charge of Whiggism by arguing that past scientific work must in part be judged by present standards because the goal of science is the right understanding of the natural world, which is a progressive enterprise. But he added that, because it is progressive, we mustn’t fault scientists of the past for lacking our present knowledge.

What about moral, not scientific, understanding? Should we judge the moral values of earlier times by those of our own? And should we fault people of earlier times for beliefs that seem wrong to us?

These questions are prompted by the highly publicized demand of black students at Princeton that it should remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. There’s been a similar demand that the University of Oregon remove Matthew Deady’s name from the oldest campus building.

One issue these demands entail is whether morality is a cultural construct and thus relative, or whether, like science, morality is an effort to discover abiding, and thus transcultural truths. So large is this issue that I’ll just state my position on it without explanation so I can move on to a second issue more narrowly relevant to the current controversies.

I don’t think that morals, like manners, are merely relative. No one would attempt to justify setting one’s sister’s hair on fire. Nor can a society long cohere if it permits its members to kill each other with impunity. And I think there is a progressive aspect to moral understanding, though it’s more complex than it is with natural science. The quite recent global consensus that slavery is unacceptable strikes me as an instance of moral advance.

If one disagrees with me — if one is a moral relativist — then it makes no sense to condemn Woodrow Wilson or Matthew Deady for having views on race that we find offensive. We wouldn’t honor that dimension of their lives, but it wouldn’t be an obstacle to our honoring them for achievements we admire.

But suppose we aren’t moral relativists? Even if we’re willing to excuse historical figures for having views we condemn but their contemporaries didn’t, it doesn’t settle the question of whether we should ignore that part of the historical record when deciding to honor them.

Making this decision — which the governing boards of Princeton and UO must now do — strikes me as a challenging task. I hope they won’t make it in sympathy with the black students’ claims that such names discomfort them. As I argued in my Nov. 20 column, universities shouldn’t try to make their students intellectually comfortable. If they did, the challenges to their curricula and their campus discourse would be endless and endlessly constrictive. Safe, yes; comfortable, no.

Ultimately, I think, these decisions must be made on an ad hominem basis, not on general principle. Did the person make a contribution to the university and/or the world large enough to outweigh the actions we disapprove of? If Mussolini actually did make the trains run on time, that would hardly tip the scales in his favor. With Woodrow Wilson and Matthew Deady, the calculations will not be as easy.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.