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The Idea of Moral Duties to History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 December 2020

Extract

History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I argue that there are duties that can be called ‘Moral duties due to history’ or, in short, ‘Duties to History’ (DTH). My claim is not the familiar thought that we need to learn from history on how to live better in the present and going forward, but that history itself creates moral duties. In addition to those obligations we currently recognise in response to the present and the future, there also exist special obligations in response to the past. If convincing, this means that our lives ought to be guided, in part, not only by our obligations to the living but by our DTH. This is a surprising result, with significant and sometimes perplexing implications. My focus is on the obligations of individuals in the light of history rather than on collective duties.

I argue that there are duties that can be called ‘Moral duties due to history’ or, in short, ‘Duties to History’ (DTH). My claim is not the familiar thought that we need to learn from history on how to live better in the present and going forward, but that history itself creates moral duties. In addition to those obligations we currently recognise in response to the present and the future, there also exist special obligations in response to the past; such as obligations to good people in the past, but going beyond them. If convincing, this means that our lives ought to be guided, in part, not only by our obligations to the living but by our DTH. This is a surprising result, with significant and sometimes perplexing implications. My focus is on the obligations of individuals in the light of history rather than on collective duties.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2020

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