History As An End In Itself: A Categorical Imperative?

I plan on commenting on Phillip S. Paludan’s contribution to Brian Dirck’s edited collection of Lincoln essays at some point, but for now I want to say a few words about one particular passage where the author references the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Paludan’s essay focuses on three moments during Lincoln’s presidency that shed light on the question or problem of his racial views.  The first of the three is the August 1862 letter to Horace Greely followed by his comments on colonization and finally his meeting with a group of African Americans in the White House.  In setting up his essay Paludan rightly points out the importance of treating historical figures on their own terms.  He rightly criticizes those people (he mentions Lerone Bennett, but I assume that one could easily throw Thomas DiLorenzo into the mix) who seem to have little interest in exploring Lincoln as closely as possible on his own terms as opposed to using him to help further the agenda of the writer. According to Paludan, "Far too often, as most of the Lincoln discussion reveals, writers and speakers line up Lincoln to march in their parade, to substantiate their arguments, treating him as the same kind of partisan that they are." (p. 32)  Before proceeding let me say flat out that I am under no illusion that the divide between these two goals is clear as if to suggest that we can clearly articulate the "Noble Dream" of historical objectivity.  At the same time this does not necessarily imply historical relativism. 

What I find intriguing about Paludan’s position is that he references Kant as a way of introducing a moral obligation of considering historical figures as "ends in themselves."  In other words that we have an obligation not to simply use the past to further our own ends or interests.  While Paludan does not engage in serious philosophical analysis (that would be silly) his brief reference does warrant some consideration.  First a little background on Kant’s moral theory which is outlined in a number of places, but most clearly in his Metaphysical Foundations of Morals (1785).  Without getting into too much detail Kant argues that the moral worth of an action resides in the intention of the agent rather than the consequences of the action which the agent does not always control.  According to Kant: "That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined."  In short moral worth cannot be understood as an accident, but must be the result of a "good will" of the agent whose actions have intrinsic value.  The maxim must be the result of the exercise of reason:

Only this conformity to law is to serve the will as a principle; that is I am never to act in any way other than so I could want my maxim also to become a general law….’Can you will that your maxim should also be a general law?’  If not, them my maxim must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage in it for myself or even for others, but because my maxim cannot fit as a principle into a possible universal legislation, and reason demands immediate respect from me for such legislation.

This first formulation of the Categorical Imperative gets us close to Paludan’s point, but it’s Kant’s second formulation that gets us home.  According to Kant people inevitably view themselves (insofar as they are rational) as ends in themselves and as sources of value. Yet the reason each person has for viewing himself this way is equally a reason for him to value others similarly.  It follows that our viewing ourselves in this way constitutes a sufficient reason for viewing others as ends in themselves.  Thus "reason requires that you "act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means."

The question is whether we can use Kantian theory as a way to understand our moral responsibilities to historical figures. According to Paludan:

It seems like a close question, but I believe we owe the dead a different fate: to try to reveal them as they would reveal themselves in moments of complete honesty and as they, and we, would have our stories told, as molders and victims of a time and place.  Make no mistake, the dead have almost certainly lied about themselves from time to time; the historian’s job includes catching those prevarications, putting them in full context.  There are a few (if any) circumstances whereby our duty becomes the creation of a story about the past that hides a complex world behind the slogan. (p. 32)

It may be more than a "close question" since we have to find a way to make sense of a moral duty to treat the dead as ends in themselves.  Simply put the dead don’t have any self-regarding interests that the living can make sense of.  However, perhaps we can see historical figures as if they had interests.  I’m not quite sure what this qualifier involves, but there may be something close to analogous that we can use here.  Keep in mind that according to Kant an individual’s ends or goals are formulated by rational thought – the feature that distinguishes humans from other species and gives rise to the Categorical Imperative.  Notice, however, that we do treat certain people as ends in themselves who cannot do so for themselves.  I am thinking of babies and the mentally impaired.  It is in no way a stretch in assuming that most people would have a moral problem with treating members of both categories in ways that benefited others rather than in ways that acknowledged the individual’s welfare. My point is simply that we can assume that members of both communities have self-regarding interests even if they can’t communicate those interests; assumptions would include the desire not to be harmed and perhaps other desires that relate to survival. 

There are still too many problems with this formulation to help historians make sense of their moral obligations to getting the past right or treating historical figures as ends in themselves.  Perhaps if we could ask Lincoln he would say that he is just fine with being used for partisan purposes.  Perhaps in the end our moral obligations as historians are to be found elsewhere.  What is clear is that the use of the past to further our own agendas does involve some notion of using the lives of others as a means to an end.  In that space there are no rules and in that sense everyman really is his own historian.  More importantly, if everyone were to practice history in this manner there would be no discipline of history. 

How in the end can I will that maxim to be a universal law without noticing that the discipline would be rendered otiose?

1 comment… add one
  • Clio Bluestocking Mar 7, 2007 @ 11:59

    “What is clear is that the use of the past to further our own agendas does involve some notion of using the lives of others as a means to an end.”

    When I first started writing biography, the first frustration that I kept coming across was that my subject persisted in not doing what I wanted her to do. How dare she live her own life! I keep that in mind constantly in dealing with a historical subject and in discussing historical subjects with non-historians. The past informs us, it does not serve us.

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