Richards addresses moral role of historians at Ryerson Lecture

By Usman Ahmed

Robert Richards, the Morris Fishbein Professor in the History of Science and Medicine, delivered this year’s Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture on Tuesday in Max Palevsky Cinema. Richards, chosen by a committee of University faculty members to present and discuss a topic from his research, addressed the moral role of historians in a lecture entitled “The Narrative Structure of Moral Judgments in History: Evolution and Nazi Biology.”

A specialist in evolutionary philosophy, Richards said he had been concerned with the nature of moral judgment for some time. He explained that he was led to the specific topic of evolution and Nazism after reading several historians’ accounts of the connection between evolutionary theory and Nazi war crimes.

“In reading their accounts, they claimed to be offering an objective, value-free assessment of the history of Darwinism, yet seemed implicitly to be making moral judgments,” Richards said. “Their accounts made [Charles] Darwin and [Ernst] Haeckel complicit in the crimes of the Nazis, though both had been dead for decades before the rise of the Nazis.”

Moral judgment in historical writing, Richards claimed, is unavoidable because of the deep grammar of narrative history.

Richards began his argument discussing how time is represented in narrative histories, emphasizing a particular concern of his, which he termed “time of narrative construction.”

Citing Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, Richards argued that in constructing an explanation of the Spartan victory, Thucydides had the benefit of hindsight, which afforded him the opportunity to choose antecedent events “that would be epistemologically tinged with Athenian folly yet to come.

“The historian, by reason of his or her temporal horizon, arranges antecedent events to make their outcome, the central event of interest, something the reader can expect,” Richards said. “In the ideal case, it is something that would be regarded as inevitable given the antecedent events, all the while keeping his actors in the dark until the last minute.”

Such a narration, according to Richards, has a different causal logic from events in nature. The historian’s moral assessments, he argued, are based on the different causal logic of narrative history.

According to Richards, there are two primary ways that a historian assigns moral characterization to an actor in history. “First, we do think that when we morally evaluate an action, we assume the individual could have chosen otherwise,” he said. “There will thus be a tension between the actors represented as regarding the future as open, as full of possibilities, and the historian’s knowledge that the future is really closed.”

Moral assessment is assigned, secondly, in the historian’s construction of the sequence of events that explain a resulting consequence. “The historian will also be making a moral evaluation of the actions of characters—implicitly at least—and will arrange that sequence in which the character’s actions are placed so as either morally to indict the individual, or morally to exculpate the individual, or, what is more frequently the case, to locate the individual’s action in a morally neutral ground,” Richards explained.

Richards elaborated on his claim that historians must make moral judgments in their narrations by discussing the “moral structure of narrative grammar,” noting that virtually every descriptive term employed by historians is normative. The historian, Richards claimed, must employ norms governing intentional behavior, in a moral context, in order to assign motives and intentions to individuals whose actions affect others.

Turning his attention to Haeckel, Richards evaluated popular history’s moral assessment of the German biologist and champion of Darwinism. In particular, Richards focused on Haeckel’s assumption of progress in evolution, which led him to postulate a correlation between race and advancement. Richards recanted Haeckel’s infamous illustration of this theory, which proposed certain peoples to be superior to “lower species” of humans. Haeckel’s classification has led some historians to include him among the ranks of the proto-Nazis.

While Richards maintained that the moral judgments are unavoidable in narrative history, he did offer his audiences several principles to govern these moral judgments. First, he said, there is “the supreme principle of assessment,” which should evaluate all actions with the same moral core. Other principles included understanding the intention and beliefs of the actor, and the actor’s motive for acting.

Based on these principles, Richards concluded that it could only be “tendentious” and “dogmatic” to condemn Darwin for Nazism, although Richards confessed that he still has not made up his mind on Haeckel.

Richards’s presentation met with enthusiasm from the audience. “I think Richards’s discussion of the historian’s role in assigning moral judgment was just that kind of subject that could speak to people from many fields,” said Julianna Chen, a third-year in the College concentrating in history. “This University has a pretty exceptional environment for cross-disciplinary work, but, even so, an occasion like this where you have people from the sciences and humanities side by side is not that frequent, so far as I can tell,” she said.

Following the lecture, Richards said that he received many e-mails of congratulations, but also invitations to have coffee and discuss points of disagreement. “It is such reactions that make Chicago the most exhilarating of universities,” he said.