The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas features a series of article conversations between various historians on the features, role and existence of so-called ‘moral history’, which I gather is taken to mean something like history sensitive to ethical considerations. This post isn’t about that, though the place of ethics in history is something I do frequently think about. It’s about the article by George Cotkin on ‘History’s Moral Turn‘ in said JHI issue, which is about to become my stock example for bad academic citation practices.
Cotkin, in calling for the wider adoption of ‘moral history’ in the discipline, takes Professor Richard Evans as his example of someone resistant to this call. According to Cotkin, Professor Evans is of the opinion that ‘moral history’ places historians in a position that they shouldn’t occupy. Listen to Evans’ claim, Cotkin tells the reader. He has Evans say:
Historians are simply not trained to make moral judgments of findings of guilt and innocence; they have no experience in these things.
Somewhat incredulous that someone who has written an entire section entitled ‘History, Science and Morality’ in a book entitled In Defense of History could write that, I decided to track down the citation. It’s from an essay by Evans in History and Theory, Vol. 41 (2002), and Evans does in fact say that at the bottom of page 330 of that issue. But just look at the context. It’s from his essay entitled ‘History, Memory and the Law: The Historian as Expert Witness’. It’s about historians appearing as expert witnesses in war crime trials. Apart from being entirely ripped out of its context in the paragraph and in the rest of the essay, Cotkin’s lifted quote doesn’t end where he says it does — the rest of the sentence continues:
…they have no experience in these things, and so should not be asked to engage in them, or to serve their purposes, by a court of law.‘
Of course historians have no experience in judiciary guilt or innocence, and Evans very sensibly concludes that historians who testify as experts in war crimes trials should confine themselves to elucidating the historical context and offering their professional, historical expertise, and not become involved in judging whether an individual was guilty or otherwise of a crime. But he is not saying, as Cotkin would have him say, that historians have no business at all making moral judgments in their histories. In his book In Defense of History, he explicitly says that “moral judgments are unavoidable when one deals with a whole range of historical issues” (Evans, 2000:44); his concern is rather with discouraging the use of “moral invective”, or judgments expressed in terms of moral outrage, e.g. making the unsupported charge that a given historical deed is “evil”.
OK, maybe it’s only a minor point; but what historian isn’t concerned to get things right when they can, and when there’s no reason why they can’t? And if a historian like Richard Evans should expend so much of his professional energy serving in court as an expert witness against Holocaust denial, defending historical truth and academic integrity, does he deserve such careless misrepresentation of his views? still less by one speaking so broadly and in such terms of leadership for the discipline as a whole?