Why Judge The Past By Standards Of Today?

Why do so many people judge people and events of the past by the moral standards of to-day?

To give some of the most popular examples, consider the strong criticism given to the laws and actions of the Kingdom of Israel such as the law making idolatry punishable by death. In this case as religion and nation was essentially synonymous and one, worshipping a foreign god was basically treason. To give another example, it is argued that many of the Founding Fathers were racist and slaveowners. Virtually everyone at that time was racist and most people of consequence owned slaves.

Because it’s fun. You can also guess future attitudes towards current mores and feel retroactive moral righteousness, from the future. That’s even more fun.

How there my fellow men slaughter pigs and eat bacon! :smiley:

I do it in response to people judging me by the standards and scientific knowledge of the ancient past.

Say someday in the future they’ve eliminated poverty and greatly reduced pollution. They’d probably look back at us with a moral disgust we have towards the inhuman jackasses that owned slaves or murdered their country men in it’s defense.

From that hypothetical future’s perspective we needlessly let our fellows starve, die an agonizing death, and rot while we kill our planet. But you know what, that future society would be far superior to us. That judgement would be just.
Don’t want to be remembered as an evil jackass by the unwashed future hordes? Well do something to fight the evils and you’ll be a hero to them as abolitionists are considered heros to us.

Suppose a different morality triumphed in the future and they looked upon us as weak and foolish for our charity-would their judgement be just?

I wonder why so many people find it easy to wave away past atrocities by arbitrarily defining periods of time as “the past” and “the present”.

For instance, if we were to think back to the unenlightened period of the 1950s, when black people (and women too) were treated as second-class citizens, many people would say this was a “different time”. Therefore, they would argue, we can’t judge folks from this “era” too harshly because it was so long ago. But lest we forget, many of us were alive during this time period. Some of us even were adults during this time period! So when do we decide that the past is The Past, and thus deserving of morality waivers? It’s not a rhetorical question. I’d genuinely like to know.

If the Founding Fathers were of The Past, and thus cannot be judged for the bad they did, then doesn’t that mean we can withhold judgment of them for the good? What about the vocal people who were not slaveowners or racists? Can we judge them as being supremely enlightened, or just “crazy”. Think about it. We call PETA and Jainists “crazy”, but two-hundred years from now society may be look upon these people as being “before their time”. Hell, ten years from now when everybody is married to everyone else, regardless of gender, we’ll be looking at our time now and going WTF!? But we will be the same people. What’s wrong with us now?

Note: I’m not big into judging people, past or present. But I certainly think you can judge people of the past. What I do is rate individuals on the ambient morality of their time, and if they meet or supercede that morality, then I think of them being perfectly fine. Also, it helps if they aren’t hypocrites. Thomas Jefferson was a man of his times, as a wealthy (except when he wasn’t) slaveowner, but he was a damn hypocrite–and even admitted as much. So I judge him more harshly than I would someone else. I can also say that he was a great man for writing the Declaration of Independence. I can judge him as both an asshat and a great man without feeling the need to make excuses for him.

Seems to me the same people who venerate the “good ole days” or wonder what the Founding Fathers Would Do? in each and every situation are often the quickest to not judge people of the past for their wrong-doings. Seems to me you can’t have it both ways. Either we can judge with wise measure or we cannot judge at all in EITHER direction. I say we go with the former.

I’m rambling now, but why limit this to “temporal” separations. What if we’re talking about an individual who grows up in a fucked-up society, with fucked-up mores. If it’s okay to give Thomas Jefferson a pass for owning slaves, is it okay to give a present-day slaveowner half-way across the country a pass too? Why or why not?

Because the standards of today =/= modern standards.

Then if we somehow knew of this future we’d be right to prejudge them. They can think whatever they want, but any metric of morality is going to be arbitrary and I see no reason why a society’s effectiveness at combating and not inflicting suffering isn’t a good one.

Well in the 1950s there were a lot of people who believed racism to be wrong but in the 18th Century there doesn’t seem to have been much opposition to racism although slavery was considered to be wrong by many including slaveowners.

Actually the majority of the founding fathers were not slave owners.

I meant everyone and most people of consequence worldwide not just in America.

They also tend to overlook the ways society has gone uphill since the Good Old Days. “Nobody these days has respect for authority.” Well, people started questioning authority because authority was often wrong. Like about who could ride which buses or attend which schools, for instance. Or about dropping napalm in another country, or sending young men to fight and die in that same country when they were still ruled too young to vote in their own. So I’m sorry if some people think it’s bad to question authority, but…well, I don’t want to Godwinize the thread.


I’d wager that 18th century black people, both free and enslaved, didn’t like racism very much. And showed it through both peaceful and violent action. And continued to do so well into the 20th century. Only when a quorum of righteous white people was reached was when we hit enlightenment? Is that how it works?

How many Germans thought Hitler and the Third Reich was a bad idea? A whole heap of 'em did, but they were too busy dying in gas chambers to have their opinions registered. Everyone else were either too afraid to say anything or were all for the program.

I guess too bad, so sad for the silent minority.


I think your threads would be more productive if you gave us background on why you’re asking a question. Sometimes I get the impression that the question you’re asking is the result of an intricate thought process and can only be satisfyingly answered within that context.

Is it because you dislike the US founding fathers being attacked? You can look up to people who made mistakes, even major ones. Better yet, instead of looking up or down at people, disassociate them from their ideas and actions and learn from the ideas and actions themselves.

If you dislike the idea of attacking biblical morality, good luck to you. Also, defending moral relativism from a Christian perspective is something I hadn’t heard before. What’s right and wrong depends on God and God is consistent, right?

If anyone from “The Past” is off the hook, cause you know it’s all ancient stuff and such, then by that same token anything said and done by those very same antique figures is irrelevant to us.
You can not harp all day long about how the Founding Fathers would never have stood for that (present) nonsense and then not say a word about who the Founding Fathers really were (slave owners, white supremacists, genociders and ethnic cleansers, utter hypocrites and turncoats). And that’s just for the Founding Fathers…

If you don’t like judging individuals of the past as abhorrent, can you at least allow yourself to judge societies as abhorrent? After all, we are all products of our environment. If our environment–whether it be in a different time or place–is foul, chances are we will be foul. We can be less foul than others, but all of us will carry the taint.

Are you a moral relativist then? You think morality is arbitrary?

Here’s what I do. I judge people by MY standards because I am the final moral authority and that’s the end of it. If there is a dispute between me and God, I’m right and God is wrong.

Can we really judge the Holocaust? Killing all the Jews was perfectly moral in Nazi Germany, after all. Why judge Hitler by our own PC, 21st Century American standards?

I reserve the right to judge anybody from any time, and somebody doesn’t like it… fuck 'em. I judge them to be a weenie.