Engaging with Morality and Ethics in History

Engaging with Morality and Ethics in History

By its very nature, history opens the door to questions about morality and ethics—questions about justice, about what is right and what is wrong; questions about how apply our understanding of the past to today and to the future. In their article, “Enriching Ethical Judgments in History Education,” authors Andrea Milligan, Lindsay Gibson, and Carla L. Peck explain that the majority of historians today view ethical judgments as a critical part of history teaching (451). They explain that for some historians and philosophers, history is tied to ethics because of language itself, the argument being that “ethical judgments are inescapable when historians research, write, or teach history because language is rife with ethical connotations and implications and that historical narratives cannot be presented in neutral language” (451). For other historians and philosophers, history is tied to ethics given the nature of the topics themselves.

“When students assess historical actions, when they seek to understand others’ perspectives, or when they consider how best to move forward from the past, they move into the practice of ethics” (470).

Decades ago, the discipline of historical study was used partly to promote a morally homogenous citizenry: “There was little room for interpretation. Ethical judgments were often presented as authoritative narratives or positions established by experts, passed on by teachers, and passively accepted by students” (451). Today, however, students of history are encouraged to draw ethical judgments for themselves. Milligan et al. argue that this task requires that students not only have a deep understanding of historical events, but also an understanding of different ethical approaches to understanding past actions.

In their paper, Milligan et al. argue that history teachers would benefit in understanding ethical approaches as presented in the philosophy of ethics, and they explore how the philosophy of ethics could elevate the way in which history students and teachers reach ethical judgments. Given that previous research has shown that “history teachers’ and students’ ethical judgments are often oversimplified because they focus on the conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of an action over the thought process involved in arriving at a justified position” (449), Milligan et al. question whether “history education literature has paid enough attention to what ethics is and does as a discipline” (450).

For Milligan et al., teaching students about the process of reaching ethical judgments has two main purposes. The first purpose is to help students understand the connection between historical context and ethical judgments. Specifically, in order to understand the moral justifications of an action, we must take into account the different historical perspectives, available knowledge, and values of the time (453). The authors emphasize that “explicit teaching about historical perspectives must accompany any focus on ethical judgments,” and that teachers should help students gain a sophisticated understanding of “the social, political, and cultural norms that existed at the time; the events that occurred before, during, and after the historical event; and the values, beliefs, and attitudes that different people held about what was right/wrong, just/unjust, and good/bad” (453-4).

The second purpose is to support students as they form ethical judgments about controversial topics today—as they learn from past events, debate, and justify their positions. Milligan et al. note that as students engage with current topics, they will “unavoidably evaluate the past from the position of our present ethical frameworks” (454).

“Historical ethical judgments could be strengthened considerably by an understanding of the kinds of questions that are asked within the discipline of ethics” (464).

To help students engage in the process of reaching ethical judgments, Milligan et al. suggest that teachers learn and teach the four main types of ethical questions used in the philosophy of ethics (465):

  • meta-ethical questions, which help students analyze the meaning and processes of ethics itself
  • normative ethical questions, which help students identify the ethical theories that can be applied to a given situation
  • descriptive ethical questions, which help students to identify the moral beliefs of societies in the past
  • applied ethical questions, which help students use ethical frameworks to reach judgements about current ethical issues

The authors explore how these types of questions can enhance students’ ethical judgments about past events. As a case study, they apply these types of questions to a controversial historical case: the MS St. Louis. Recall that the MS St. Louis carried roughly 900 Jewish refugees from Europe, who sought to escape Nazi rule. Cuba, the United States, and Canada refused the ship and its passengers entry, and the ship returned to Europe. Using the types of ethical questions mentioned above, Milligan et al. develop a list of questions to help students reach ethical judgments about this event. Some of the questions are listed below.

  • Meta-ethical question:  “How should we decide who was morally responsible for the lives of the Jewish refugees?”
  • Normative ethical question: “What theories can we use to determine our obligations to refugees (e.g. virtues ethics, consequentialist, principles-based, care ethics)?”
  • Descriptive ethical question: “What kinds of ethical arguments did individuals and governments use to justify their response to the MS St. Louis incident?”
  • Applied ethical question: Given the MS St. Louis case, how should governments respond to refugee crises today?” (465)

In addition, Milligan et al. give examples of morality-based questions that help students grapple with questions of moral responsibility in the MS St. Louis case. In particular, these questions encourage students to think about the ethical concepts of “intentionality, consequences, compulsion, and blame” (467). Some of these questions are as follows:

  • “Did the Cuban, American, or Canadian governments intend for 250 refugees to eventually die in the Holocaust? If we don’t mean for something to happen, or it is an unintentional consequence of our actions, are we still responsible? Are we responsible for every consequence of our actions?”
  • Were the Cuban, American, or Canadian governments compelled to refuse to accept Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis? What does it mean to say someone was ‘forced to do it’?” (467)

For Milligan et al., it is through this type of questioning that students can gain a deeper understanding of not only historical events and historical context, but also the ethical approaches that help us reach judgments about the past, present, and future. Indeed, the authors remind history teachers that “the ethical dimension imbues the study of history with meaning, expands students’ historical consciousness by helping them learn from ethical transgressions in the past, encourages them to judge the past more fairly, and supports them in better handling present and future ethical dilemmas” (450).


Paper Title:  Enriching Ethical Judgments in History Education

Authors: Andrea Milligan (Victoria University of Wellington), Lindsay Gibson and Carla L. Peck (University of Alberta)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00933104.2017.1389665?journalCode=utrs20

Published: Theory and Research in Social Education, Vol. 46, Pages 449-479, 2018