A bold statement: People of the past should almost always be judged by today’s standards. This results in thinking of a lot of historical figures as horrible people. So yeah, I’ll say it: most historical figures were horrible people. Some of them were horrible because their surrounding culture was horrible, and others were just plain horrible.
My basic reasoning: Moral judgment isn’t for people of the past. The people of the past are dead, and their actions are already foregone conclusions. Moral judgement is for people of the present. I do not wish for people of the present to valorize or emulate people of the past just because they were great by the standards of their own time. I strive for the perpetual improvement of humankind, not the stagnation of virtue.
I made this argument to a friend the other week regarding Teddy Roosevelt. To be honest, I was mostly assuming that Teddy Roosevelt was terrible because he was president in the early 20th century. But I now see that my assumption was well-founded: Roosevelt’s positions on immigration and race easily rival those of Trump. Or maybe I’m misremembering, and we were actually talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt? Yeah, so FDR was responsible for those Japanese internment camps that we’re so worried Trump will try to emulate!
My friend didn’t like my argument because it gives permission to future generations to negatively judge us. God, I hope so! I hope that future generations can look back on us and recognize how terrible today’s society is by the standards of tomorrow. Especially given our society’s decisions in the past month. I want people of the future to see how wrong I am, just as I wish I myself could see how wrong I am.
Caveats and exceptions: Even if a historical figure was horrible overall doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have performed some praiseworthy actions. I am also more lenient to people who are still alive.