Coming back from an all too short winter break, the Society kicked off the new semester to debate Resolved: Historical figures should be judged by the moral standards of their times. The affirmation and the negation pitted two of our newly-returned members from abroad Mr. Andrew Boling (SFS’ 18 California) against Ms. Sarah Griffin (SFS’18 New York).
After a few good natured jokes at Mr. Marrow’s expense, Mr. Boling opened the night with a general framing. For purposes of the debate, the “moral standards” part of the resolution would refer to the general moral beliefs that were related to the context of the time. The floor could also safely assume that it was not morally impermissible to judge the morality of different individuals. Pushing forward, Mr. Boling made the case that the decisions that historical figures make can never be completely divorced from the times in which they lived. Central to the affirmation’s argument was the claim that just as people are shaped by their environments, the moral standards by which they live are also shaped by the culture and context of time. Mr. Boling rounded out his opening keynote by reminding the floor that applying our present moral standards to would unfairly rob historical figures, both good and bad, over their nuances.
Responding on the negation, Ms. Griffin conceded that she realized that it is almost impossible to look at the actions from people in the past without the context of the times in which they lived. However, she refuted the notion that the negation cheats historical figures of the chance to seen in their fullest light. The affirmation, she firmly argued, supported the complicit acceptance that some of history’s most horrible events-like slavery-could simply be explained away by blaming historical context. The negation repudiated the idea of moral relativism in favor of moral progression, and Ms. Griffin contended that while specific norms may change, what ultimately decides what is right and what is wrong do not. She concluded that “moral relativism is inherently insufficient”, and that while it may not be easy to not apply our own moral to the past, we must in order to prevent the justification of historical atrocities.
Opening the floor with his usual bombast Mr. Marrow used the example of William Lloyd Garrison to argue that what constitutes morality is neither omniscient or universal and that we must “judge people with, not by, the standards of their time”. Ms. Landau and later Mr. Easterling both mentioned that surrounding morality is power, and it is the people in power that decide what is and what is not moral. Ms. Landau asserted that “ignoring suffering is wrong, regardless of the times”. However, Ms. Hu agreed with Mr. Marrow’s earlier sentiments that external environment matters in how we form our opinions.
Ms. Little turned the debate toward progress by arguing that the common thread of of history is progress and that the negation celebrates that progress. Taking the opposite view, Mr. Estes replied that the idea that history advances toward progress is a myth and that what “progress” is largely subjective. Ms. Ludtke evoked film star Gene Kelly’s treatment of his co-star Debbie Reynolds to argue that “a judgment is not a blanket statement” and that using modern moral standards allows us to understand the good and bad of historical individuals and their actions. In a short speech on the affirmation Mr. Bies got up to remind the floor to “think about Jesuit values”. Chancellor Thanki got up to assert that people today can understand historical figures while still seeing their immoralities, to which Mr. Lark (SFS ’20) immediately countered that you have to separate the evaluation of the person versus the evaluation of their legacy and do otherwise would ignore that we have the benefit of hindsight that people in the past did not have.
Following age-old society tradition, Vice-President Reilly brought up the principles of Kant to argue that moral beliefs transcend time and that there is no point of looking at historical figures if we cannot derive certain values to apply to our own lives. Mr. Hinck brought up the idea of a “moral heritage” to point out that our judgments of the past contribute to who we are in the present. With her usual flair Ms. Spira reminded everyone that the resolution refers to the popular moral standards of the time, and that affirmation ignores historical figures that defied popular morality and moral relativism to do things that are judged historically just today. Using the historical climate of Soviet Russia, Mr. Perez-Reyes brought the discussion back to power, and argued that morality of people’s choices is affected by who has the power to determine what morality is. Meanwhile, Ms. Weissman derided the idea that modernity was one set of values and that the morals of people in the present were any better than people in the past.
Starting off non-member speaking time Mr. Leonardo Mendez (SFS ’19) and Ms. Julia Pinney (COL ’20) made the argument that the values of the past and the present intersect, and that judging historical figures with anything but the standards of their times makes a caricature of the values that we can derive from history. Mr. Jack Morten (COL ’20) repeated the sentiment that “we can understand why people did certain things while still judging them” and Mr. Jack Brownfield (COL ’20) responded that because morality is in a constant flux historic characters will never satisfy our modern moral standards. Finishing non-member speeches Mr. Sam Appel (COL ’20) argued that the standing on the negation would reduce complacency and create a better world.
Mr. Ma re-opened member speaking by stating that previous speeches had mistaken tendencies versus certainties, and explored the idea that luck has a place in deciding morality. Ms. Young prompted the floor to think about “how it was judging people”, while Mr. Fletcher asserted that we can judge is people are moral or not, and questioned the existence of a popular moral standard in the first place. Using a three-pronged approach, Ms. Li pointed out that the affirmation can acknowledge the existence of a historical moral standard without saying that it’s right. She also noted that when our values and the values of the past come into conflict we should use the past to guide our judgments.
Taking his first prerogative as president, President Ernst argued that absolute knowledge without practical application is useless, and that “understand is not an action, and it by itself does nothing”. Responding to President Ernst, Ms. Fischer disagreed by maintaining the practice understanding allows us to “see and appreciate the whole person”. Injecting some humor, Mr. Rinaudo asked “why do we judge people at all”, to which he responded with the assertion that “we judge because we think we are better than we are”. However, keeping that in mind, he reminded the floor that just because people are complicated and flawed does not mean we can condemn them by using our standards today. With a hint of exasperation, Ms. Oster responded that “history is not a series of constant changes”, and does not therefore arc towards progress. Our esteemed alumni Mr. David Edgar made a brief return to the Philodemic floor to argue that if it is possible for judgment to take place in the Judeo-Christian religion, then there is no reason to not judge historical figures by the standards of our time. Taking to the floor to correct Mr. Edgar and make the last floor speech of the night, Ms. Bjwd used her religious identity as a Catholic to dispute the notion that you cannot be religious and sit on the affirmation.
In her ending keynote, Ms. Griffin adopted a tone of learning and self-reflection. Despite the floor’s ideological wrestling with the existence of historical progress, Ms. Griffin stated that she hoped that “we in the present are judged to be immoral in the future, because that might indicate progress”. She concluded by arguing that we “cannot view history as something that we have already learned from”, because we in the present have the privilege to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to make a better world.
Mr. Boling ended his speech by imploring the floor to remember that past figures did not have the moral hindsight of our own times. Taking some points from previous affirmation floor speeches, Mr. Boling made the distinction between the evaluation of historical individuals and the legacies that they leave. He asserted that “we evaluate individuals and not legacies because legacies presume hindsight”, and that we need to view history as a spiral of events rather than a linear moral progression to allow for a reconciliation with the past.
With a vote of 19 affirming, 7 abstaining, and 23 negating, this resolution was negated!
Congratulations to President Ernst for a wonderful first time in the chair, and a hearty welcome back to all members of the society that were abroad.