A Short History of Morality
Past generations could no more live up to present moral standards than we could live up to those of the distant future.
Over the past year, a spirit of iconoclasm has swept across the United States. Dozens of statues have been removed or toppled by people outraged by the supposed moral failures of the men depicted in stone and bronze. Christopher Columbus was guilty of genocide, they claim. George Washington owned slaves. Leaving aside the moral smugness of the topplers, do they have a case?
The answer: no. The argument that men such as Columbus and Washington are guilty of moral turpitude, and thus unworthy of our respect and admiration, is inescapably based on the idea that twenty-first-century concepts of right and wrong have been in place since the dawn of humankind and won’t change in the future.
But a look at the history of morality shows how absurd that idea is. Each succeeding age has tried to live up to different, and usually higher, moral standards. To fail to understand that point is to commit “temporal parochialism,” a historiographical fallacy that imposes on the past the standards and outlook of the present. The wiser and truer approach is beautifully encapsulated in the opening line of L. P. Hartley’s masterful novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Many mythologies contain the idea that human beings are fallen angels who once lived in a paradise. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, only two and a half centuries ago, wrote: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
But human beings are not fallen angels; we are risen apes. We did not once live in a paradise; we lived in a state of nature, where, as Thomas Hobbes observed, we existed in a world of “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” where “life was nasty, brutish, and short.”
Today, we have been to the moon and plumbed the depths of the atom. We live far longer lives, often largely free of disease and pain, and at a level of affluence that, for even the poorest, would be unimaginable in any previous age. War and crime are at levels far below any known before the twentieth century. The course of human history, over the long term, has been strongly upward, thanks in part to an increasingly strict and broader moral code. To be sure, in the short term, morality sometimes declines. The current call to judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character is a case in point.
True, human beings have always been a moral species because we are a social one. Members of social species need the respect and good regard of other members of the society. It is altogether likely that moral rules, such as the last seven of the Ten Commandments, were in place long before the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy were written and, indeed, long before writing itself had been invented. No society that allows murder, theft, and adultery as a matter of course—at least within that society—can long survive.
In hunter-gatherer days, societies were small, probably no more than 100 individuals in a band, usually far fewer. Because most hunter-gatherers were normally nomadic, they had few possessions. Social pressure was usually all that was needed to keep individuals in line.
But once agriculture began, about 10,000 years ago, societies became more complicated. Polities grew larger, and individuals within them became less closely related to one another. As new technologies developed, people began specializing in a much wider variety of occupations. This, in turn, caused the development of markets, as people began trading, both within each polity and with neighboring ones. Social classes began to evolve. All this required more elaborate legal codes and more formal procedures to enforce them than codes like the Ten Commandments.
The oldest known is the Code of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian king, dating to about 2100 B.C. It reveals two classes of people: the free and the enslaved. It listed various crimes and the punishment to be meted out for each. Guilt or innocence was often determined by the “ordeal by water.” The accused would be bound and thrown into the river. If he survived, he was innocent.
The Code of Hammurabi, which dates to three centuries later, is far better known, and we have a more complete text of it. Much of it covers what today would be called the law of contracts. Other provisions detail family law. The code included one of the earliest examples of the presumption of innocence and allowed both the accused and the accuser to present evidence to a judge—crucial advances.
The code details three levels of society: landowners, freemen, and slaves. And the code was heavily biased in favor of the first category. The punishment for assaulting someone of a lower class, for instance, was far lighter than for assaulting someone higher up the social scale. Women were harshly punished for adultery, while men were allowed affairs with their servants and slaves.
The early moral codes applied only to members of the band to which one belonged. The band that lived in the next valley was fair game, and warfare was undoubtedly endemic in hunter-gatherer times, just as it was among Neolithic American Indians before the coming of Europeans and remains common today in places such as New Guinea. As Sir Walter Scott wrote:
The good old rule, the simple plan
That they should take who have the power
And they should keep who can.
All the great empires of earlier times were built on conquest made possible by superior military technology and discipline. And such conquest could be highly profitable.
When the Romans conquered a province, not only were valuables such as gold and silver taken, but much of the population was enslaved and sold in the Roman slave markets. Victories were celebrated; victorious generals paraded through the streets of Rome with the loot and slaves that they had taken.
This began to change significantly only in the nineteenth century. The word “imperialism”—with its negative connotations regarding aggrandizing at the expense of other, less powerful, states—was coined in 1881, at the height of the “scramble for Africa” among European powers. The American annexation of the Philippines from Spain after the Spanish–American War in 1898 met with wide opposition in this country, and Theodore Roosevelt claimed that the country had done so only to prepare the Philippines for self-government. By 1916, less than 20 years later, the archipelago was fully internally self-governing.
Anti-imperialist sentiment quickly grew so strong in America that the United States was the only country among the major combatants of the two world wars that acquired no territory as a result of them. With the end of World War II, imperialism ceased to be pursued almost everywhere, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe being a conspicuous exception. Today, only authoritarian regimes regard the invasion of another country’s territory as acceptable public policy.
The Code of Hammurabi often prescribed harsh physical punishments. A doctor who killed a patient could have his hands cut off—but if the patient was a slave, the slave’s owner was simply owed compensation. Many crimes were punished with death, often in deliberately painful and extended ways. The Romans considered crucifixion so brutal a method that Roman citizens were exempt from it, which is why Saint Paul was beheaded. In the Middle Ages, heretics were burned at the stake. Traitors as late as the seventeenth century were hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Executions were also, to modern ways of thinking, astonishingly common. In the early seventeenth century, a traveler from Dresden to Prague, a distance of less than 100 miles, counted more than 140 gallows, where thieves were hanged and murderers broken on the wheel and left to rot.
Only in the late eighteenth century did the idea arise that executions should be swift. The hangman’s knot was developed at this time to ensure that the condemned died almost instantly of a broken neck rather than slowly by strangulation. The guillotine ensured instant decapitation.
In the nineteenth century, the number of crimes punishable by death was greatly reduced (usually to rape, murder, and treason), and public executions largely ended. In the 1870s, Norway became the first Western country to stop executing people at all (though it briefly revived the death penalty in 1945 to execute Vidkun Quisling and other Nazi collaborators). In the twentieth century, the number of countries that abolished (or stopped employing) capital punishment rose sharply.
Cruelty toward humans and animals has a long history. The Romans staged gladiatorial games as mass entertainment, and many of the participants died in the arena for the amusement of the Roman masses. When Christianity, with its belief that human life was sacred, became the state religion in the fourth century, gladiatorial games died out.
However, animal cruelty, such as bear- and bull-baiting, in which the animal was tied to a stake and set upon by hunting dogs in a pit, remained popular. These practices declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they weren’t outlawed in Western Europe or the United States until the nineteenth century. Bullfighting and cockfighting remain legal in some countries today.
Only the later nineteenth century saw the establishment of such organizations as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which lobbied for legislative remedies. Popular works of fiction such as Black Beauty propagandized against animal abuse. After the internal combustion engine replaced draft animals in the early twentieth century, animal cruelty came to be regarded with near-universal horror.
It wasn’t just animals who suffered from cruelty in earlier times. The practice of castrating talented boy singers to retain their beautiful high voices was widespread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the 1740s, as many as 4,000 boys a year were castrated in Europe for this purpose. The practice had faded by the end of the century, but the last use of castrati was in 1903 (in the Sistine Chapel choir).
Until modern times, slaves were a major item of commerce in many parts of the world. As much as a third of the population of the ancient world was enslaved, and slaves had no legal rights whatsoever. Slavery died out in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, but it was largely replaced by serfdom, which was not much better. Eastern Europe, however, remained an epicenter of the slave trade. Indeed, so many Eastern Europeans were sold into slavery in the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire, that the very word “slave” comes from the people of that region, the Slavs.
With European expansion into the New World, African slavery rapidly expanded. It had already existed for centuries, with captured slaves being sold on the continent’s east coast to Arab traders for shipment to the Middle East, where slavery persisted the longest. It wasn’t formally abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962.
When George Washington was born in 1732, slavery was legal everywhere in the world. The idea that slavery was morally wrong had begun to develop, mostly among Quakers (though this country’s most famous Quaker, William Penn, himself owned slaves). Most people, when they considered it at all, thought that being born a slave was not a moral issue but a personal misfortune, like a serious birth defect.
The idea that slavery was indeed a moral issue took off only in the 1750s and spread widely and quickly. The first jurisdiction in the world to ban slavery was Vermont, in 1780. In Massachusetts, which, unlike Vermont, had a significant slave population, the state supreme court ruled the following year that the language in the new state constitution’s preamble that “all men are born free and equal” was inconsistent with slavery. The first manumission society in the world was founded in Philadelphia in 1780.
Many Southern planters, such as Washington, were increasingly uncomfortable with slavery as the antislavery movement gathered strength, but they saw no economic way out. Many, including Washington, freed slaves in their wills.
By 1827, slavery was extinct in all the Northern states, and the same might have been true in the South, too, had Eli Whitney’s cotton gin not made cotton, a labor-intensive crop, hugely profitable. Because of cotton—by far, the country’s largest export by the mid-nineteenth century—it would take the greatest war in American history to rid the United States of what all but the self-interested by then saw as a moral abomination.
People can only live up to the moral values of the world they live in, not of some future world. Columbus has been dead for 514 years, and Washington for 221. They could no more have lived up to the moral values of the twenty-first century than we can live up to those of the twenty-fourth or the twenty-seventh, whatever those prove to be.
Blaming people of the past for failing to uphold moral standards that did not exist in their time is itself a violation of an important moral standard: the prohibition against assigning ex post facto culpability.
Photo: Summer 2020: Christopher Columbus, toppled (BASTIAAN SLABBERS/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES)
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).