As president Obama has recently proclaimed his support for same-sex “marriage,” supportive commentators have labeled his action “historic.” One news anchor warned lest opponents of such unions should find themselves on the “wrong side of history.”
The expression is magnificent rhetoric. Proponents use it to conjure up images of those who opposed civil rights for blacks or resisted the abolition of slavery. Yet like many slogans in a culture that thrives more on rhetoric than reason and more on emotion than evidence, it is hollow at heart.
Presumably such people who warn the backward amongst us not to be on the wrong side of history think that we should make history our moral guide. History says thus and we must obey. The tide is flowing and we must follow it, lest we be caught like children in sandcastles. Where the tide of history goes, so must we. But this is not sound, for the tide may sweep us out to sea. In following the tide, we may find ourselves drowned.
In plain language, history does not always move in a positive direction. It is not a safe guide for a man’s moral decisions. The modern world may (or may not) have moved toward greater democracy and civil rights, but it also moved to world war and genocide. The Middle Ages saw neither world war nor holocaust. It was left to the modern world to discover those. Nor should we think that history will always move in a positive direction in the future. It has not always done so in the past, why should we think it will do so in the future? History is a fickle mistress. One century she may command freedom, the next genocide.
Further still, history is no guide of morality because it is morally neutral. This is the fallacy of seeking to derive an ought from an is. History tells us what has happened. It does not tell us what should happen. Those who would try to derive their morality from history are in the same position as those who would derive it from science. Both tell us what is, not what ought to be. There is no rational inference from the claim “in history, x happened” to “x should have happened,” or “we should do x.”
Indeed, making history out moral guide would put us in the absurd position of trying to anticipate what will happen in the future and then make it happen faster. Perhaps, we project greater freedom in the next century. Then we must work to make this happen even more quickly. Yet, perhaps we anticipate a move to greater slavery two centuries hence. If our mistress History commands it, I suppose we must work for it.
This brings us from the absurdity of history as a moral guide to the evil of history as a moral guide. If we are to always follow history, to not be on the wrong side of history, then we shall never be able to resist her. There will be no room for the last desperate stand against the tide, no heroic resistance against inevitable onslaught.
Only if morality is something beyond history and even beyond society, if it is something transcendent and what is more, divine, will we ever have a firm ground on which to stand, to plant our flag, and to cry “maybe thus far, but no farther.”