To what extent can/should people be expected to "live by future judgment?"

A considerable amount of the judging these days has been of people from past eras being assessed by the culture of today - for instance, the Boeing executive who resigned over an article he wrote 33 years ago.

Without focusing too much on that particular tree, and rather, looking at the forest - the question then becomes - how should people speak or behave, so that future generations won’t judge them negatively? This is extraordinarily difficult because it is almost impossible to predict how future generations will think. It would have been difficult for that Boeing executive, in the year 1987, to foresee that by the year 2020 the idea that women ought to serve in combat would be mainstream and that his views would be considered far out of line with orthodoxy.

One might respond, “The world is moving in a progressive direction, and the progressives are on the right side of history, so just say or do what’s progressive and you’ll be safe.” But even then, that is still very difficult. Who knows what “progressivism” will be thirty or fifty years from now? Sure, Trump will always be seen as bad, but plenty of issues aren’t that simple. There is considerable division within the political left itself; and who knows which faction will prevail. If the world has become vegan by 2060, will Barack Obama (and countless other people) be judged for having eaten hamburgers today? Will the trans movement still be going strong, or will it be perceived negatively by then? Will polygamy be as accepted as same-sex marriage, or will it be considered patriarchal? Etc. etc.

It essentially requires people to have excellent future-predicting skill, to the point where one can foresee how society will think and behave decades from now - and most people can’t pull that off.

Err on the side of compassion and empathy for your fellow humans.

I think trying to anticipate the ethics of the future is a fool’s errand. There’s no way of knowing which way the pendulum will swing, or how quickly. For all we know, the America of 2120 might be an Islamic caliphate, while the America of 2220 might be a Brave New World style hedonistic dystopia. Trying to ‘future-proof’ our politics just wastes valuable energy which could be better spent dealing with the problems of the present. All you can do is hope that people retain the ability to judge their ancestors in their historical contexts.

Retain? We’re not doing that now.

I lean towards judging people by the standards of their time period. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, don’t get dinged as much for being slave owners to the same extent that the Confederates of the 1860s do. On the other hand, even adjusting for their time period, people like Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson fall onto the bad guy side of the equation. Furthermore, as we have a more global culture the closer we get to the present times, it becomes more appropriate to hold people to the current standards, regardless of their culture. Take genocide as an example. I judge 20th century guys like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin more harshly than someone like Genghis Khan.

Of course it is difficult to make precise predictions, especially about the future. But the history of human civilization up to this point has been a general overall trend of increasing tolerance and compassion, decreasing persecution, cruelty and violence.

I think snfaulkner’s simple recommendation is probably a good starting point. If you’re toward the more compassionate and tolerant end of the spectrum of current views, you’re likely to be on the right side of history in the evolution of human ethics.

I see names like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, freakin’ Genghis Khan coming up as the ones to be judged (or rather not judged, at least not too harshly, please). Men with wealth and power and fame.

There were untold millions of people who lived as these men’s contemporaries. Did they really all, or mostly, do the things these men did?

Many of those contemporaries were In fact victims of these men’s bad actions. How did those victims judge those actions at the time?

It’s interesting and instructive whose ox gets gored, ignored, and forgotten, and whose ox gets sympathy and special pleading.

I also believe you have made the mistake of assuming that behavior today should be based on the judgement of future generations.


Shh, we’re not supposed to mention that obvious flaw in the ‘Nobody knew that it was bad at that time!’ excuse.

Either there are objective, timeless standards for how people should speak and behave, in which case people should aim at those standards; or it’s all purely relative, in which case why should we care what future generations think?

Why are these the only two possibilities? Our knowledge and wisdom as a society can surely improve over time, so why can’t our moral reasoning and our ethical principles also improve?

Do you really think that modern morality is not objectively better than a historical era in which the great majority of people accepted (for example) human slavery as normal?

That would be the first possibility, as I understand it. The existence of “objective, timeless standards” doesn’t imply that we know and understand what those standards are. Our moral reasoning and ethical standards improving would mean that our knowledge and understanding of those standards are improving.

I guess you’re drawing a distinction between the existence of abstract moral principles, and the understanding and application of those principles? For example, the Golden Rule exists - but (with the inferior moral reasoning of some historical era) nobody thinks it should apply to the slave class.

But I’m not sure of the relevance of that distinction. Whether the evolution of higher moral standards rests on novel ideas or the reinterpretation of objective timeless principles, the question remains - what should our attitude be to someone who adheres to the prevalent understanding of his era, when we now find that morally abhorrent?

This is a tough (or at least complicated) call.

As a society we are just now entering the era when (nearly) everything (nearly) everyone ever writes down can be replayed weeks or decades later. In completely different contexts from when / where / why it was created. This is historically unprecedented for anyone not of the lettered or ruling classes, and those folks had editors, censors, historical revisionists, etc., to retroactively protect their reputations. The rest of us today don’t have those advantages.

The instant case of the OP strikes me as overplaying the application of current mores to prior opinions. And the faster mores change, the more likely it is that applying those mores retroactively will impact people still alive and still active in the world.

It’s one thing to say, e.g. Genghis Khan, doesn’t meet 2020 standards of decency. He’s not around to suffer for it. It’s something else to do that to e.g. Bill Clinton or George Clooney to randomly pick two celebrities with controversial histories.

To be sure, if Bill or George are still acting like typical e.g. 1970s people in 2020 then call them out for their current unreconstructed behavior. And if their behavior in 1970 was outrageous enough by the standards of the time (“I just grab 'em by the pussy” has never been mainstream OK behavior) then they still have something to answer for. The Cosby date rape cases coming readily to mind.

That’s a good question, but it’s not the question the OP is asking—at least, not directly, in the bolded part of the OP. Your question looks backward: how should we in the present judge the people of the past? The OP’s question (as I interpret it, though he may in an oblique way be really trying to get at the same thing) looks forward: how should we in the present act so as to be judged in the future?

And what I was trying to say is, it depends on whether you think those future understandings will be better or just different from our present understanding. If they’re better, then “living by future judgment” really just means doing the best we can to live and behave rightly. And if they’re just different, then why should we care how our present actions measure up to the standards of the future?

Hit [Send] too soon.

I suppose my ultimate bottom line is that it’s fundamentally flawed to judge any behavior short of the traditional sins like murder by a standard not of its time. However, just as in the law, prior bad acts may not be introduced to prove guilt of current bad acts, but may be introduced to indicate matters of character.

e.g. the OP’s PR honcho who lost his job should be judged mostly on what he’s done recently. If he’s still spouting the same now-incorrect junk 30 years later that’s a problem. If not, not. For sure if he’s harassing his female staffers boot him out. If not, not.

Admittedly being in a public position hurts him a lot more. He wasn’t hammered for what he did 30 years ago to his reputation today, but for what Boeing not hammering him could have done to their reputation tomorrow.

Such is life in the public eye in an era where your life’s history is but a Google away. But should life be such?


What I disagree with is the feeling I get from the OP:

There seems to a be a strong implication here that all this social “progressivism” is abritrary and capricious, and that it’s just a question of trying to guess the right direction so you don’t get caught out an cancelled. Sure, there are problems with some elements on the left at the moment that are beyond the scope of this discussion. But that doesn’t mean that you can dismiss the entire millennia-long underlying moral trend of civilization toward greater compassion and tolerance as capricious, as some kind of trap for the well-meaning but unwary.

Very well said.

I’ll expand a bit on your complaint about @Velocity’s implications (a complaint with which I agree). And note I’m not complaining about @Velocity himself; he’s done a nice job of pointing out an issue in the larger culture. Here’s a thought experiment …

Starting from a cultural baseline of e.g. USA 1960, Mad Men, JFK as Prez, etc. …

  1. Imagine a future where by 1990 we’d achieved almost total equality for women but had made little progress on LGBTQ discrimination or race-based discrimination. Those had to wait until 2020 and 2050 respectively to be reduced to the same negligible levels as anti-women discrimination.

  2. Imagine a future where by 1990 we’d achieved almost total equality for LGBTQ but had made little progress on race-based or anti-women discrimination. Those had to wait until 2020 and 2050 respectively to be reduced to the same negligible levels as anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

  3. Imagine a future where by 1990 we’d achieved almost total equality for all races but had made little progress on LGBTQ or anti-women discrimination. Those had to wait until 2020 and 2050 respectively to be reduced to the same negligible levels as racial discrimination.

Given those 3 example future scenarios (not to mention the hundreds of more complex scenarios out in the real world). …

Now what exactly is somebody in e.g. 1980, 2010, or 2030 supposed to do to future-proof his/her then-current behavior for later review between now and 2050? Better not guess wrong on which sequence the future evolves in.

To my eyes, that’s the trap of the way of thinking @Velocity explains in the OP and the specifics of cancel culture (to the degree it’s actually a real phenomenon).

I agree the sweep of civic Progress and the sweep of history is all about greater compassion, greater egalitarianism, and greater responsibility as a citizen, not just as a maximally selfish minimally fore-sightful actor*.

And that’s the way I try to run my life and agitate for others to do as well. Be that future change you want to see.

But the devil is in the details and when & how that future slowly reveals itself over decades, centuries, and millenia. And that’s what’s wrong with judging past people by current mores in the same way you’d judge current people by current mores. There needs to be a metaphorical discount,exchange rate, or something else to make allowances for the change of cultures over time.

* Present Presidents of the USA and several countries we don't expect much better of notwithstanding.

It’s absurd to assert that the problem with his article is with his answer to the premise “should women serve in combat”, rather it’s with the extremely misogynistic nonsense he spews throughout the article, where he talks at length about how his stereotypes about women (and to a lesser extent men) are the true and natural order, and how women are inferior to men at forming social bonds and can never possibly be as good of soldiers as men, in spite of ample historical and scientific evidence to the contrary. I really doubt anyone is taking issue with someone disagreeing on rather women should serve in combat, rather its the idea that women are fundamentally ‘other’ and are inferior to men, and also that the superior men can’t function as well in combat with women nearby.

So the simple way to avoid this kind of ‘future judgement’? Don’t be a bigot, and failing that don’t write articles based on and extolling your bigotry. If you feel the urge to write that women are inferior to men, how according human rights to gays insults ‘traditional marriage’, how trans people are all predators waiting to attack women in bathrooms and trick men into having sex with them, black lives don’t matter (and yes, dog whistles like ‘blue lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter’ count), or anything along those lines then… just don’t.

Also forgot to mention: In 1987, the idea that women were human beings who deserve equal rights and not some sort of strange alien being was not some obscure concept that only a fringe believed in. While there was (and remains) resistance to the idea, pretending that the idea of treating women as full human beings was something one might not know about is silly. Geraldine Ferraro (female) was the Democratic VP candidate 3 years before he wrote this article, FFS.