A Sign of the Times or The Problem with Moral Judgements*

I have a problem with labeling something good or bad. Or progressive or regressive, or evil. Then again, I also have to restrain myself when I hear anyone say “I am doing good,” so this may be a personal issue. But beyond even the simple imprecision and ambiguity (if not outright inaccuracies) inherent in such statements, moral judgements are more indicative of the speaker than of what is being spoken and, in reference to history, tend to change with time.

This is hardly a revelation for me. I wrote a college entrance essay on good and evil people, arguing that there was “evil” in the best person and “good” in the worst. Claiming that there was “good” in Hitler is neither an easy nor a popular stance, but I pointed out the likelihood of “good”–I mean, Luke Skywalker succeeded in redeeming Darth Vader (though he never bothered trying with Palpatine). My point is merely that reality exists outside the human moral categories and to realize this you do not even need to resort to semantics. Since the perception of the world is relative, what is bad or inappropriate (the mild forms of evil) to one person, is good or even necessary to another. After all, the truths we cling to depend a great deal on our points of view. And here I am deliberately invoking Star Wars rather than bringing about explicit examples since (for the moment) I would rather not get mired in any sort of political debate.

None of this is comfortable for my students. Much as when I was younger I wanted to know whether the Chechens or the Russians were the good guys, they want to know the hero and the villain at each point. We are hard-wired to find the easy answer preferable even though it is rarely the right one. For one thing, have a simple good-bad dichotomy provides an easy answer to understand who to like and who not to like. Why that person is good or why that person is bad is almost secondary. These same students harbor an intriguing combination of American exceptionalism and white guilt. When presented with Mary Rowlandson, they call her an arrogant bigot who should use her time in captivity to learn about the native culture, but when asked what they would do in the same situation, they maintain that they would not do that because they are American.1 Rowlandson was the most glaring example of this thought process, but it was far from the only one. As a rule, my students did not like any of the white founders of America, then sided with the founding fathers in their revolt against England. Slavery is not something they like, however the slave owners among the founding fathers are alright. For those keeping track at home: slavery, Mary Rowlandson, England, and White colonists (besides the founding fathers and Thomas Paine), bad; founding fathers, Thomas Paine, Native Americans, good.

Objective history is a fallacy, but writing viewing history in moral terms is problematic. The context in which the events happened is generally not the same one in which it is being studied, and it cannot be understood without that context. Moreover, villainizing or heroizing events automatically twists what actually happened. History classes have come a long way, but in order to convey the importance of various events there is still a tendency to use exemplary models and reveal certain events and peoples favorably. Though I often find myself playing devil’s advocate in class, I often do not need to make an intellectual stretch to find arguments in favor of the unpopular side during class, since that is often the side I support. The big issue I am encountering is that there are the two divergent beliefs that my students hold: a certain superiority on account of being here in college in America, and the condemnation of all evil, but only in the most superficial way.2 The two are apparently mutually exclusive, since very often the students will condemn things their ancestors did to produce the society of which they are so proud, and entirely overlook the ways in which they are no different.

I have no solution.

* This post has a large number of currents running through it, so rather than having any particular foundation, it (to me) seems to simply emerge partially formed from the swirling thoughts inside my head. Influences on it include teaching nearly 80 freshmen, literary theory, personal anecdotes, and the present political and paedogogical mileiu. If it seems disjointed, I apologize in advance.
1 I actually did this during class and the exact response I got was “Of course not. I’m American.”
2 This is something I refer to as the Beauty Pageant approach. You know the answer you should say (e.g. “World Peace”), but not how to accomplish that goal or anything beyond how it is a good thing.

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