calling all historians


But let me ask you, and others who study or enjoy history the same question. Do you think people in history acted more nobly or morally than people today in any capacity? Or do you think modern people are at least as moral as the those of the past in every respect?

My latest Christian blog muse, trueandreasonable (who can be found plugging his blog here) thinks that “although our society is much better on issues of women’s rights … its morally worse in other respects”. I disagree.

In the olden days it was good to send children up chimneys to clean them, because they fitted up the chimneys and they could earn a living. In the olden days it was good to physically punish children because it was the only way they could learn how to behave morally. In the olden days it was good to kill homosexuals because they were perverting society. It was good to burn witches because they were sent by Satan. In the old days it was good to keep slaves, because the god God created people to be slaves and to obey their masters. It was good for women to be constantly pregnant because the god God wants more and more people to be made. In days of ignorance, lots of odd things seemed to be ‘good’.

With this in mind, given what we know today, I think it’s obvious that our society is much more moral. We have laws about treating people equally regardless of their race, sex, sexual orientation, age or ability. We have international agreements on the rights that every human being should have. We are more moral because we are less ignorant – we aren’t allowed to put the lives of children at unnecessary risk by sending them to work, denying them an education, or even dumping them in cars without specially designed car seats; we aren’t allowed to smoke in people’s faces exposing them to cancer risks; we aren’t allow to hit children for disobeying adults (or stone them for disobeying their parents). All these laws and many more come into place because an overwhelming body of evidence tells us that it’s harmful to individuals within society to do otherwise.

I have a suspicion that trueandreasonable bases his understanding of societies in times goneby on films like Braveheart – ah the noble and honest warrior and his supporting, faithful wife. In terms of personal morality, I expect people are no different today than they were in any other period of time. Unfortunately we don’t have any primary sources written by medieval serfs or any other illiterate member of any ancient or medieval society. But what we do have are records of lives of corrupt nobility and royalty, along with power-hungry and game playing churchmen. None of them look pretty, even by any of the comparatively similar morals of today. I’m inclined to think that the stability, safety and consistency many of us now experience in our lives leads us to behave much better than our ignorant and desperate ancestors did.

But I don’t think my random ramblings tell the whole story, and I know that a few people who sometimes read this blog have a much more serious interest in history than I do, whether through formal qualifications or personal interest, or a mixture of both. What does everyone think? Does history demonstrate that people in the past acted more morally or nobly?