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Should We Judge Historical Figures through the Lens of Current Standards?


Alan has been an online writer for more than three years and enjoys sharing a wide range of ideas.


Was what the conquistadors did to the Incas blameless? Was the exploitation of peoples and resources ethical? These are the kinds of question that are coming up more often than not. Society is judging the actions of past figures based on current society norms; for instance, many statues are a point of contention around the world today not because of the good the individual did, but the negative they brought onto society in their time. Is this right? Should we be judging the actions of past peoples through the lens of current standards? Or should we be judging them based on what was the norm during their time?

Confederate statue being removed during the BLM movement in 2020.

Confederate statue being removed during the BLM movement in 2020.

The Minefield

It is illogical and unfair to judge the people of the past by today's standards; but it is also very hard to not. Take the example of John A. MacDonald in Canada. He is widely considered the father of Canada when he signed the British North America Act in 1867 being birth to the nation. However, he was also the architect of residential schools are Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be indoctrinated into the European way of life; thus eliminating the Indigenous culture. Both actions were beneficial and detrimental to the reputation of the nation but it does not tell us about the character of the individual?

I feel a fair start is not to assume our current state of affairs are superior to those of the past. Slavery for example was completely legal and acceptable during colonial times but today we find it appalling that such actions was widely practiced. As such, we cannot demand statues, street names and monuments to be removed because what is deems morally correct in our time may not be the same as in their time. For instance, we will not demand the destruction of the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza because it was built partly by slaves will we?

Labour that was used during construction ranged from soldiers to slaves in forced labour.

Labour that was used during construction ranged from soldiers to slaves in forced labour.

As the Spanish philosopher George Santayan wrote: "Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeating their mistakes". And so it's not often feasible to judge past individuals through a subjective lens. We often need to apply a certain amount of current morality standards to people from the past. We just need to be careful the amount we apply.

Coming back to slavery for a minute. We have long since abolished slavery but we still have theatres, lecture halls, street names named after individuals who supported such practice. It is fully appropriate to critique those people whose morals fall short but at the same time, we cannot discredit the beneficial actions they brought upon their nation. Take Thomas Jefferson as an example. He often wrote "all men are created equal" and yet he enslaved more than six hundred people over the course of his life.

Yes Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner which is frowned upon by current morality standards but was a common practice back in the day. However, he was also one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. So should we be praising him for creating a nation or should we condemn him for owning slaves?

This is the very predicament we find ourselves in when we try to judge past figures using our current morality standards. It is a literal minefield we must navigate.


The best approach is to take a subjective view of the actions and not the behaviour of the individual. As such, we can at the very least to mitigate the possibility of our judgement being skewed to comparing what was accepted by society in their time and our current standards. Olivette Otele, a professor of History and Slavery at Bristol University states it best "...We have created grey areas that allow us to ignore sinister sides of human nature...". Unless the actions of the individual is extremely deplorable such as those during World War II, grey areas will always exist due to the constant battle of analyzing the benefit they brought to their respective nations vs. the detrimental actions they as individuals made.