23 April, 2009

Historians and Their Duties

I just finished reading an article titled "Historians and Their Duties" by Jonathan Gorman*. I found this article extremely fascinating. Gorman spent most of the article talking about philosophy and philosophers and how they relate to history and historians. This was kind of neat and opened up my mind to a different way of looking at the profession I am choosing.

So the question is "What is the responsibility of the historian?". Historians need to be accountable, tell the truth, follow a moral philosophy, connect the past with the present, and judge only when called to do so. Historians should not place history in the political or legal arenas as it can infringe on their abililty to tell the truth.

Some highlights from the article:
  • Plato: Philosophers thinking is best because they think correctly - are the only ones who do. So in this thinking, historians need to be philosophers. "Human moral failings are due to ignorance." (104).
  • Aristotle: Constrasts with Plato because people should know what to do but sometimes do differently. By this, historians should know right from wrong? "Human moral failings are due to desire." (104)
  • Utilitarian: Individual actions leading to the greater good - morally correct actions. Historians should strive to be morally correct.
  • Kant: Good Will or Free Will - Our intentions are more important than the action itself. So, historians should be consistent in their intentions.
  • Vincent Barry: 2-step moral decision-making process - "...(1) identify the important consideration involved and (2) decide where the emphasis should be". (107)

Gorman later discusses truth vs. lies and uses an example that is really fitting to today's "hot topics". He asks whether business execs have the duty to conceal the truth in order to boost stocks or not (108). I found that rather interesting considering what is happening with American (and even world) Markets and the financial crisis we are facing. It's almost as if he foreshadowed what would happen.

Another aspect of the article talks about Natural vs. Non-Natural duty. Here, Gorman says that all professions should abide by the same moral code, but there is another set of standards that apply when we volunteer for a specific position or institution. The moral code followed by all is called "Natural duty" and the other set of standards is the "Non-Natural duty". He says, "...they (students) have a right not to be killed by me and in virtue I have a 'natural' obligation not to kill them" (109). For non-natural duty, Gorman likens a judges responsibility to uphold the law regardless of morality.

So, what is the historians' responsibility? It is to tell the truth while maintaining moral convictions as well as any institutional standard that applies to them, and also engage the seeker of history (i.e. the reader, the student, etc.) and make history meaningful to them. It is to be respectful to history and the dead and somehow make connections between the past and present.

In my first year of college, 2001, I had a history teacher who was finishing her Master's degree. One of the things she instilled in me was that history is cyclical. She used the following to express this cycle: History = Change over Time. So, it is the historians express duty to convey that change over time in a truthful, meaningful manner while maintaining moral and institutional standards.


Gorman, Jonathan. "Historians and their Duties." History and Theory 43, no. 4, Theme Issue 43: Historians and Ethics (Dec. 2004): 103-117. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590638. Accessed: 4/19/09/

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