Proxy Morality: Taking Sides in History

Tuesday, August 10, AD 2010

Generally speaking, I think we would say that moral behavior consists of choosing to do right in one’s actions. However, there are a number of instances in which we tend to think of ourselves as behaving virtuously despite not having actually undertaken any action. These are means by which we tell ourselves that we have demonstrated we are “good people” without the burden of actually doing good things.

There are several different ways we do this which I’d like to address under the description of “proxy morality”, by which I mean instances in which someone assigns virtue to himself through no more action than identifying himself with some good which is performed by someone else. The first of these, one which I think people of all ideological persuasions fall into at times, is that of taking sides in history.

It is by now an old saw that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I think there is a good deal of truth in this. Further, it can be of some moral benefit for us to look to history for people and actions to admire. The moment in which we find ourselves suddenly faced with some difficult moral decision is typically not the moment at which are most un-biased or deliberative, and so having clear examples to follow, if they are well chosen, can be a significant benefit.

However, all too often, we assign too much virtue to being “on the right side” of a historical event. Sometimes this happens very shortly after an event. In post-war France, it was often observed that if everyone who claimed to have been part of the resistance had actually been so, the occupation would not have lasted a month. Similarly, I recall reading a civil rights writer observe, “Every [African American] says he would have been a freedom rider. Most people just stayed home. Everyone says he would have marched with Martin Luther King, but people just used the water fountain they were told and watched it on TV.”

The fact of the matter is, identifying the right side of history is easy — indeed so easy that it’s easier if one doesn’t actually know much about history. So easy that there is virtually no moral action involved.

To be sure, choosing the wrong side of history can be a significant moral wrong. To support the Nazis or support slavery or support Stalin in this day and age shows a deeply twisted moral sense. But to oppose these three is so easy, and so obvious, from this point in history, that there is little to no virtue involved.

To congratulate oneself for admiring the right side of history is to assign oneself virtue one has not earned. Indeed, it is often more a sign of pride than of virtue. Without question, we should admire those in history who acted virtuously, but we should not consider ourselves to have performed any great virtue by doing so. Nor should we be quick to consider ourselves the superiors of those “ordinary people” in history who failed to rise to the standards of our heroes. We look at their actions with all of the clarity of distance, and none of the danger of immediacy.


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