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Why We Need an Ethics of History Writing

By Dom Birch

The writing of history, we are told, is a political occupation—all historians have a political lens through which they work, or view the past. This viewpoint has led to historians convincing themselves that their work can almost always be justified in political terms. Justifying history as politics is doomed from the start: academic historians have very little influence on the political action and consciousness of the general population, and unavoidably political and intellectual purposes for writing history come into conflict. Historians inevitably need, at some point, to either change their politics or change their evidence.

This is why we need an ethics of history writing. Instead of constructing a history that is political in focus, we should concentrate instead on what it means to write ethical history. Our ethical framework for writing history should be based around two categories: respect for the aims of history writing (explanation and understanding) and respect for the sources and historical actors themselves (empathy and representation).

How would this work in practice? Firstly, this amounts to a set of fairly standard historiographical principles: do not ignore evidence because it fails to suit your ideological or political viewpoint and try to avoid being ‘present-centred’. Second, we need to be able to write history that doesn’t reduce itself to talking about ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. We need to recognise that history is complicated and to write about any topic requires empathy with a variety of historical actors. We also need to provide representation of all those involved in any given historical event—even if the written evidence provided for their involvement is difficult or laconic.

Perhaps it is easier to say what unethical history would look like: a history that justifies slavery, for example. This history would be unethical for two crucial reasons. First, to justify slavery (whether in scholarship or elsewhere) is unethical. Second, writing history that justifies slavery fails to explain, understand and empathise. At the very least, this history would fail to actively emphasise with the slaves themselves and would—to some extent—fail to represent, explain and understand the experience of being enslaved. We might say that slavery benefitted certain individuals, groups or states—but this is not the same as a justification.

It would also be unethical to write history that actively celebrates exploitation, or ignores the presence of exploitation in any given society. Again, I think this is a fairly uncontroversial claim. Celebrating exploitation in any way is unethical. The crucial term here is exploitation—rather than affluence, inequality and so forth. Exploitation refers to a relationship that is self-evidently unfair such as that between workers in sweatshops and their owners, or victims of aggressive colonisation and the colonisers. This is unethical for the same reasons as the slavery example. On one level justification of exploitation is obviously unethical behaviour in any context. A history that celebrated exploitation would also fail to understand, represent and explain the experience of the exploited—if, as historians, we take this experience seriously then it is clearly problematic to write a history that celebrates the relationship that gave rise to that experience. Ignoring the presence of exploitation in a society raises similar problems: by ignoring the relationship of exploitation the historian is tacitly silencing the experience of the exploited—they are engaging in dubious ethical behaviour and failing to explain, understand, represent and empathise.

These examples are uncontroversial because they are based on a pre-existing consensus. We already know that justifying slavery or exploitation is not ethical. Historians need to build more consensus issues in the future. As historians we need to collaborate, converse and debate. If historians ask each other what they think ethical history is, then that offers the potential to clarify certain issues. Even if much remains unresolved, the debate will certainly be helpful, especially as there is a dearth of discussion about what ethical history could look like. The more engagement there is with the idea of ethical history, the more of an idea historians will have of what an ethical history should look like. Historians writing history according to their opinion of what ethical history is, and explaining that opinion is perhaps the best way to generate the kind of productive discussion that could expand the idea of an ethics of history.

And we do need to take ethical history further. Historians need a way to write history that takes on board historiographical concerns about source-treatment, and that also aims to understand and explain the past. It is becoming increasingly clear that history as politics cannot do this; history as ethics offers a way forward.



Image: ‘Empathy’ via creative commons.

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