Not long ago my wife stood as an independent candidate for our local council. Of all the policies she put forward, there was only one she ever got angry emails about: her support for changing the name of a local reserve, Batman Park.
Entertain, for a moment, the common refrain that we should judge historical figures by the moral standards of their time instead of our own. John Batman won’t benefit much from this charity. In Tasmania, Batman shot Palawa people with impunity and kidnapped their children, insisting they were ‘as much his property as his farm and that he had as much right to keep them as the government’.
In 1835 Batman took one of these hostages, an eight-year-old boy named Rolepana, across Bass Strait on a land speculation expedition. In popular memory, Batman signed a ‘treaty’ with Wurundjeri elders for the district that became Melbourne. The ‘treaty’ was effectively a private contract of sale, one that the traditional owners would not have understood. In any case, Batman’s ‘treaty’ was promptly voided by the New South Wales government (which had previously outlawed colonial settlement in what is now Victoria), not for being exploitative, but because the Crown recognised no Indigenous rights of ownership of country and so no right of disposal.
From this squalid land grab, Batman somehow acquired a posthumous reputation as a benevolent ‘Friend of the Aborigines’, instead of a murderous chancer who defrauded the Kulin nations and the colonial authorities. His contemporaries, however, saw Batman for what he was. The landscape painter John Glover called his neighbour ‘a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known’. Providence didn’t seem to think much better of him either. Batman died alone and broke, his face mutilated by syphilis, at just 38—to be buried in a cemetery now named after his arch enemy, Fawkner. Six years later Batman’s son drowned in the Yarra, while his estranged wife Elizabeth was murdered in a bar-room brawl in Geelong in 1852.
Yet Batman today does not want for memorials. Ours wasn’t the only Batman Park in Victoria. The park even sits within the federal electorate of Batman, while Melbourne contains at least ten streets named after Batman and a statue of him in the CBD. Batman’s golden age has, however, passed. The statue was removed during a rebuilding and it’s not yet clear if it will be coming back. Our council did change the name of the park, despite those angry complaints about ‘rewriting history’. There are moves afoot to rename the electorate, too, along with that of a rural seat named after Angus McMillan, who led massacres of Kurnai people in Gippsland during the 1840s. A handful of Melbourne councils, including ours, have decided not to conduct citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, holding that celebrating the anniversary of the British invasion of the Australian continent is an insult to its First Peoples. Further north, statues of Macquarie and Cook that have stood unremarked for decades are suddenly culture-war flashpoints. Things once solidly in place seem to be shifting. But the pushback is relentless, almost primordial. Nor is it merely local.
When history repeats, it often does so in exaggerated accents and disjointed grammar. That’s how, in 2017 America, we got the semiotic fever dream of young men in polo shirts carrying lighted tiki torches, marching through the Virginian night chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ Counter-protesters called for the removal of statues of Confederates; some were even torn down. Defenders of these monuments rail against ‘erasing’ the past; their opponents insist the statues should be in museums instead of streets and parks. Both views assume these statues have some historical value. Yet they tend to be relics of the twentieth century rather than the nineteenth, erected in segregated communities not so much to honour the dead as to intimidate the living. The history they embody is not that of the Confederacy but of Jim Crow. Cheap and mass produced, they crumple easily when toppled.
Settler states are founded on erasure and myth—myths that collapse under scrutiny as quickly as those cheap zinc statues of generic soldiers. Reconciling pride in Australian society with the stain of ongoing dispossession as our national condition of being is complex, messy and tiring. The old imperial shibboleths don’t work any more, so we cling to whatever we can salvage from the flotsam. We insist that statues commemorating the genocidal remain in public space, that parks retain the name of the men who stole them, these demands leavened with a few grudging concessions that these men ‘had their flaws’.
Medieval theologians were horrified by the thought that figures they revered, from the Hebrew prophets to Plato and Aristotle, were denied salvation simply by virtue of having died before Jesus did. This bothered them so much that they invented the ‘harrowing of hell’ narrative, a three-day rescue mission in which the newly crucified Christ descends into the underworld and rescues the righteous damned before his resurrection. Today we perform the same trick just by insisting that ‘it was a different time’. Somehow, white Australia would rather harrow hell to rescue Batman than acknowledge why he deserves to be there.
What’s truly strange though is that we pass up the chance to celebrate our distance from these figures and the attitudes they embodied. The flipside of ‘it was a different time’ is that ‘we’ve come a long way’ since, say, May 1901, when our first prime minister told our first parliament that ‘the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman’. Edmund Barton would barely recognise the parliament he addressed in the one that, fitfully and torturously, has conferred marriage rights on relationships that were outlawed well within living memory. Self-congratulation is almost never helpful. Swapping comforting myths of a noble past for smug pieties of an enlightened present can only blind us to the need to press on. Yet we seem determined to pretend our forebears weren’t so different after all—not in order to show up our own sins, but to wash away theirs.
No doubt there are many reasons for this. Some are obvious, others less so. One is that moral progress, far from being a source of comfort, is inherently troubling, both to live through and to contemplate after the fact. Moral progress is very often rapid and disruptive, revolutionary rather than gradual. The unthinkable becomes the uncontestable with disorienting speed. Thomas Kuhn observed that scientific revolutions, just like political ones, tend to rewrite their pre-revolutionary pasts. The problems and concepts of past theorists come to be seen as continuous with those of the present. Yet that revision can only partially obscure just how incompatible the conceptual schemes of the past were. Some moral revolutions, at least, appear to be like that too. Paradigm shifts in moral belief leave the world looking new, strange; things so familiar they passed unnoticed now strike us as outrageous and indefensible.
Yet moral progress is also fragile and reversible. The Whiggish fable of inexorable open-ended improvement could not survive the trenches and crematoria of the last century. Even its modern inheritors, pointing to historically unprecedented declines in violence, poverty and injustice in the postwar era, always temper their optimism with a note of caution that none of these gains are guaranteed to endure.
• • •
Morality is standardly pictured as a set of universal and timeless principles that hold in all times and places, either discernible (at least in theory) by pure reason, or given by divine revelation. If that’s what morality is, then on the face of it moral revolution shouldn’t be possible at all. Some theorists of moral progress, philosophers such as Joseph Raz and Michele Moody-Adams have claimed moral progress is indeed incremental and evolutionary: we don’t change our moral principles, we just come to understand more fully what those principles entail. Barton has the same concept of equality as us, but through ignorance (wilful or otherwise) he doesn’t see what that concept truly requires.
But that door swings both ways. Compare Barton’s speech to that given in Georgia by Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens 40 years earlier, ‘Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.’ Barton took white superiority to be simply a truism: ‘These races are, in comparison with white races—I think no one wants convincing of this fact—unequal and inferior.’ Stephens, by contrast, saw ‘this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth’ of white superiority as a principle that had been won out of struggle with error, gradually realised ‘like all other truths in the various departments of science’. Whereas racial equality was simply not within Barton’s intellectual horizon, for Stephen’s equality was itself an error of the past that had been exorcised, a confusion in the minds of the Founding Fathers that the South and its ‘peculiar institution’ had finally sloughed off.
Perhaps that is why we find moral progress so disturbing. We take it that as the ‘arc of the moral universe … bends towards justice’, as Martin Luther King Jr put it, the direction of travel is from Barton to our fuller (if still deeply imperfect) conception of equality. Stephens was no less convinced it travelled exactly the opposite way, from an ideal of freedom to a state built explicitly on slavery. Stephens, we want to say, was wrong, just as Barton was. But the very fact of this disagreement volatilises a confidence we need on a very basic, existential level.
Ethical action requires a degree of certainty that often outstrips our convictions. Belief admits of degrees in a way action does not. You can be half sure a given course of action is the right thing to do, but you can’t half do it. You can’t partly euthanise someone or tell most of a lie. (You can say something that’s only half-true, but you can’t tell half of a lie, so to speak. Insisting on distinctions like these, you’ll have gathered, is why philosophers don’t get invited to parties). Just the very awareness that moral beliefs and practices have changed over time threatens whatever certainty we have in the values and assumptions we use to guide our actions.
The problem is analogous to what’s known in the philosophy of science as the pessimistic meta-induction: we take it that our scientific theories are true (or at least truer than what came before), but if all past theories turned out to be wrong, it seems probable that all our theories will turn out to be wrong too. Likewise, if our predecessors can strike us as obliviously evil (or even just hopelessly misguided) on questions such as race, gender, warfare and sexual morality, how can we be confident that we’re any less wrong than they were? Can we, then, live our moral convictions only at the cost of a certain wilful amnesia?
A certain strand of philosophy has responded to this problem by embracing moral scepticism. By this view, there is no such thing as moral progress at all. Things just change. Our forebears believed one thing, we believe something different—that’s all. But this sort of relativism is far rarer in the academy than some sections of the commentariat would have you believe. You can find it in Nietzsche and at least some of Foucault, and the generally conservative American philosopher and jurist Richard Posner. Yet even admirers of Nietzsche such as Richard Rorty have insisted that moral progress is real, even while dismissing any unchanging foundation of timeless moral law. Ethical history is made by the actions of what Rorty calls ‘moral prophets’, the Wilberforces and Dr Kings, but such a prophet is no spokesperson for eternal truth. They are ‘just someone who has a better idea, on an epistemological par with the people who claim to have a new gimmick for retreading tires’. There’s no fixed moral truth, for Rorty, just new ideas that work better than the old ones.
This approach, though, voids the ethics of its categorical force and authority. Rortyan pragmatism lets us make sense of moral progress, but only at the cost of putting ‘moral’ in scare quotes. ‘We are discussing no small matter,’ says Socrates, ‘but how we ought to live.’ Not many of us would be willing to live, or to die—let alone kill—for a better gimmick for retreading tyres.
• • •
One possible answer lies in the work of K.E. Løgstrup, a figure the Danes like to claim as their second-greatest philosopher (after Kierkegaard), but who remains largely unknown elsewhere. Like his celebrated German contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Løgstrup was a Lutheran priest and ethicist who joined the resistance against the Nazis. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Løgstrup survived, having spent the last year of the occupation of Denmark in hiding from the Gestapo. A decade after the war he wrote The Ethical Demand, a deceptively accessible work on the nature of moral obligation. For Løgstrup, the source of ethics lies neither in principles nor virtues, but in the simple fact that we find ourselves having power over others, and that this imposes a demand that we act for the other’s sake instead of our own. By the time we notice this demand it’s normally too late; ‘the demand demands that it be itself superfluous’; that is, we shouldn’t have to stop and think about whether to act for the sake of others at all. Principles and codes of ethics are what we fall back on when we’ve already failed to meet the unspoken demand for spontaneous concern.
For Løgstrup, that demand is eternal and unchanging. But what ‘acting for the sake of the other’ requires of us will largely depend upon the society in which we find ourselves. Our expectations of each other will vary under different social and economic conditions. We find ourselves born into a world already structured by moral beliefs and practices that shape how we interact. Those beliefs change over time, even if the ethical demand itself does not. And as Løgstrup notes, the awareness that moral norms change across time can threaten to destroy our confidence in our own beliefs and values: ‘How can there be anything obligatory about the good, they ask, if that good is something that is only good today in contradistinction to what was good yesterday and what will be good tomorrow?’
Løgstrup doesn’t give us a clear answer to that problem. But he drops a clue in his claim that the ethical demand is never encountered in its purity, but only ever ‘refracted’ through the prevailing norms and practices of the given era. We can’t shrug off the ethos of our epoch; at most we can hope partially to reform or amend it. But perhaps—and here we depart from Løgstrup—we can see that certain groups of norms, while still refracting the ethical demand, let more of the light through than others. Some sets of beliefs and practices, such as racist or patriarchal ones, don’t let us see others clearly enough to act for their sake.
This is something we can usually only see in retrospect. The racism and sexism of the past sometimes shocks us not so much with its venom as its casual ignorance. How could they not have seen how wrong this is? we find ourselves saying. But that is the benefit of living after the revolution. We see a different world. Not completely different, but different enough: Batman’s contemporaries loathed him but continued to employ him to drive Indigenous communities off their land. The lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur, might well have written on Batman’s dispatches that he ‘had much slaughter to account for’, but the government still availed itself of his services. Arthur’s term of office was itself marked by judicial and extrajudicial brutality, including the imposition of martial law and the legal rendering of the Palawa people as ‘open enemies’. That these outrages could be carried out in the name of conveying ‘the benevolent intentions of the Government’ to the Indigenous population aggravates rather than excuses them.
The full obscenity of these murders and dispossessions only becomes apparent in a world where its victims are seen in their fullness. The moral norms structuring colonial society clouded that moral vision like a cataract. Indigenous Tasmanians could not appear to colonists as fellow humans resisting the unjust invasion of their home. Not nearly enough of the light got through.
Likewise, Barton’s world view doesn’t allow him to act for the sake of others, as he cannot see them for what they are. In the same sitting, parliament legislated to deport some 10,000 Pacific Islanders working as labourers, including many who had been ‘blackbirded’—kidnapped and forced into indentured servitude. Neither Barton nor those who viewed the Islanders as a threat to white wages could see the Islanders clearly. They could not see them as full members of a moral community. (If there’s progress in our attitudes here, much of it is of a perverse sort: dehumanisation is no longer quite so effortless. Consider the prodigious amount of national energy spent simply on obscuring the lives and humanity of asylum seekers.)
That does not make Barton blameless, any more than Batman was. Nor does it mean that our own vision is less blighted in ways we are not yet aware of. That more light gets through does not mean maximum brightness has been achieved, let alone some Platonic Form of the Bright realised. If moral progress challenges our certainty in the face of the past, it also does so with respect to the future. Our descendants may curse us for depravities that seem perfectly benign to us now. Perhaps the most we can hope is that they’ll at least find us worth harrowing hell for. •
Patrick Stokes is senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University, and a Melbourne-based writer and comedian. His books include The Naked Self (Oxford, 2015) and Kierkegaard’s Mirrors (Palgrave, 2010).