Within pretty broad limits, I’m an advocate of historical ‘presentism’, that is, assessing past events and actions in the same way as those in the present, and considering history in relation to our present concerns. In particular, that implies viewing enslavers, racists and warmongers in the same light, whether they are active today or died hundreds of years ago.
Protesters pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, during a demonstration organized to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on June 7, 2020.
A common objection to this position runs along the lines:
Suppose that at some point in the future, the vast majority of people are vegans. They will judge you in the same way as you judge past enslavers, racists and warmongers. In anticipation of this, you should suspend judgement on people in the past.
I don’t buy this. There are plenty of vegans around today and I have heard and rejected their arguments. While I condemn cruel farming practices, and try to avoid buying food produced with such practices, I don’t accept that there is anything inherently wrong with killing animals for food. Animals raised for food live longer and, with humane farming practices, happier, lives than their wild counterparts . They aren’t aware of their own mortality, and have no life projects that are foreclosed when they die.
Vegans reject these arguments and judge me and others harshly for making them. Perhaps they are right. And they might, in the future, convince a majority of people. But if so, members of the future vegan majority would be just as entitled to condemn my views as are vegans alive today, and to view me in the same light as they would the remaining minority of non-vegans. The fact that I would by then be a “person of my own time” is neither here nor there.
I’ll qualify this a bit. No one can think deeply about everything so, most of the time, most of us go along with whatever people around us think. So, it’s unfair to pass judgement on ordinary Confederate (or Nazi) soldiers for fighting for a cause everyone around them said was right.
But that doesn’t excuse Calhoun, or Jefferson, or Locke, any more than it excuses Hitler. These are people who had been made aware of the evil they were promoting and profiting from, and promoted it anyway. And, if the ethical case for veganism is correct, then I am wrong, regardless of the fact that, at present, most people agree with me.
fn1. As examples of those limits, I don’t want to criticise people who failed to support equal marriage at a time when hardly anyone thought about it. And going back before the modern era (say pre-1600) the difference in world views is so great that it’s hard to make any kind of judgement on most issues.
fn2. Not to mention, happier than the lives of most people.
More discussion at Substack. Based on that, I expect most of the comments here to be about the merits or otherwise of veganism, and only a few to address presentism. This reinforces the point that veganism is not an example on which anti-presentists can lean to support their case. Feel free to provide better examples.