The enemies of the past are at it again. Forget ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’, the terminally woke have little time for anything else. When they’re not busy trying to pull down statues, they’re criticising astronauts for quoting Winston Churchill or making idiots of themselves over Remembrance Day.
And it’s not just silly students and activists. The next time you see a historical novel or short story adapted by the BBC, note how much contemporary political judgement is crow-barred into the plot and characterisation – as if the purpose of period drama is to revile the past not reveal it.
But is it really wrong to judge the people of earlier decades and centuries by the standards of the present?
It is, if we misrepresent the actions and motivations of previous generations – for instance by interpreting Remembrance Day traditions as a glorification of war, instead of a solemn respect for the fallen. And yet that still leaves numerous examples of historical heroes who really did say or do something that we, today, find repulsive. How are we to deal with that?
Is explaining away a foul thought or deed as ‘of it’s time’ a kind of moral relativism? Does it, moreover, expose cultural conservatives, who are suppose to believe in moral absolutes, to charges of hypocrisy? If something is morally wrong now hasn’t it always been wrong?
Well, you don’t have to be a moral relativist to see that context matters. You can believe that theft is always wrong and yet judge a starving person less harshly for stealing a loaf of bread than, say, a wealthy financier for defrauding a pension fund. Life was harder in the past – and people more likely to be faced with harsh decisions. I wonder how liberal today’s liberals would be without the resources available to the 21st-century welfare state.
When wrestling with history, it’s not just conservatives who risk hypocrisy. Progressives, who have so much to say about ‘privilege’ in our own time (male privilege, white privilege, cis privilege, etc), need to remember their own ‘temporal privilege’ – i.e. all the unearned advantages that come from being born in this day and age and not a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand years ago.
There’s an eye-opening perspective on our place in time by ‘eukaryote’ on the LessWrong blog. The author argues that while biologically modern humans have been around for 50,000 years or so, most of human experience is much more recent than that. That’s because the quantity of human experience isn’t just a function of the passage of time, but also the number of people around to experience it. For instance, one person alive for 80 years would clock-up 80 years of human experience, while five people who all live to be 70 would collectively accumulate 350 years of human experience.
The author does the sums and reaches a remarkable conclusion:
“It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.
“I call this ‘the funnel of human experience’ – the fact that because of a tiny initial population blossoming out into a huge modern population, more of human experience has happened recently than time would suggest.”
Looking at history this way, it’s not surprising that the rate of technological progress was so slow for so long. Our ancestors took their time inventing things because there weren’t that many of them around to put in the necessary hours. If most of humanity’s collective experience has been lived from 14th century onwards, then that’s the window in which you’d expect most things to happen.
Of course, it’s not just the quantity of human experience that counts, but also what we can do with it. If anything, the temporal distribution of humanity’s total economic output and preserved knowledge is even more skewed towards the present than its collective waking hours. The modern age not only has a disproportionate amount of time to play with, but also all of the economic and intellectual resources that have ever existed. Here’s just one aspect of that privilege:
“FLI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now. That means most of all scientific thought is happening in parallel rather than sequentially.”
Instead of retrospectively shaming our forebears, we’d be better off pondering whether our own achievements – whether technological, cultural or moral – are commensurate with our opportunities.
We might also wish to contemplate our civilisational inheritance and wonder how those before us created so much with so little.