Seth Barrett Tillman: “Weighing” Good & Evil, and What We “Forgive” in History

Seth follows up his post on Ireland and World War II.

Seth’s central point:

I do not suggest that Sakharov, Longstreet, or Rommel were evil men, but they did serve bad causes. I do not say that the good they did (or attempted to do) during their lives is made void by the bad. But I do say it is wrong to suggest that the bad is outweighed by the good. Cf. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (“I do not say [God forbid], I do not say that the virtues of such men were to be taken as a balance to their crimes; but they were some corrective to their effects.” (language in square brackets is Burke’s)). Such a moral quantification of right and wrong is not possible by mere mortals, and those who attempt such a calculus only callous our consciences.

The notion of weighing, as Seth cites it, is a metaphor that deserves more scrutiny than it gets from many of the people who casually use it. It begs the question of who has standing to do the weighing. I don’t think it’s human beings, certainly not the humans alive today who didn’t themselves pay much of the price of, in this case, Ireland’s WW2 neutrality. The people who paid aren’t around to speak for themselves. It’s hubris for us to make moral calculations, to weigh, to forgive, in their names. Better to say, so-and-so did these good things and these bad things, and leave it at that.

(See the previous Chicago Boyz post here.)

13 thoughts on “Seth Barrett Tillman: <i>“Weighing” Good & Evil, and What We “Forgive” in History</i>”

  1. “Better to say, so-and-so did these good things and these bad things”: wouldn’t it be better to report that so-and-so did these things and let the reader distinguish good from bad? Perhaps the historian could explain the actors’ motives, and let the reader judge them too.

    Perhaps a historian might also discuss how those actions might have been viewed by the standards of the time by people unblessed with hindsight.

  2. I’m not against putting events in historical perspective, but that’s a different issue, isn’t it? We can believe someone’s actions to be wrong yet not be justified in deciding whether the same person’s other actions offset the wrong.

    One rationale for eye-for-an-eye punishments, particularly with regard to murder, is that we can’t forgive in other people’s names, and the best we can do is try for rough equivalence of punishment and crime.

  3. If Stauffenberg’s rigged briefcase hadn’t gotten kicked aside at the last minute, Rommel would be a hero today. One silly kick.

    Maybe some people just aren’t lucky. On the other hand, maybe some people lose for a reason. If you’re already on the wrong side of a clear moral struggle, there’s going to be extra friction built in that virtue can only go so far to overcome.

  4. I agree, who are we to weigh a person’s good and bad and claim to find a single correct answer?

    That is best left to God.

    We do well enough if we are clear-eyed about the good and the bad, each in its own terms.

  5. I find it hard to place Longstreet in the category of men doing evil. The Civil War was a unique event. I can’t think of another similar. The French Revolution as nothing like it.

    Longstreet was a fine general but, after the war, he spent decades being blamed for the loss and for his basically anti-slavery sentiments. The Union was very different than anything we have now. Another example is Joe Johnston and Sherman who became friends after the war. Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. An aide told him he was too old to be out in that inclement weather. He replies, “Sherman would do it for me.” He died a month later from an illness contracted at the funeral.

    Johnston was fired by Jeff David because he could not defeat Sherman in his Georgia campaign. Sherman was fond of the South and spent many years there in South Carolina and Florida, plus his time as president of what is now LSU. He told his friends in New Orleans that they were fools to fight the Union. He said, “The Union builds locomotives. You can barely make shoes.”

    Longstreet had many connections to the Union but chose to fight for Virginia.

  6. “The Civil War was a unique event. I can’t think of another similar. The French Revolution was nothing like it.”

    That’s because the French Revolution genuinely was a civil war: it was about who ruled France. The American civil war was not about who ruled the union: it was a war of secession. Obvious comparisons would be the Irish or American wars of independence, both wars of secession. Neither, as it happens, was very destructive.

  7. Was American Civil War very destructive? I don’t recall large parts of Ohio or Pennsylvania put to the torch by Confederate invaders. War was unknown in the newly acquired territories in the West, but for the tiniest portions, and almost unknown west of Mississippi river. New Orleans wasn’t torched, nor was Mobile, Pensacola, Galveston. No one dug up unexploded munitions in Richmond a century after the battle (c.f. Verdun). There were no mass murders (c.f. Nanking). Whole populations weren’t driven from their homes (compare Shenandoah valley to Germany in Thirty Years’ War).

    I’m sure some places had it worse than others, but the war as a whole lightly scorched America.

  8. “Was American Civil War very destructive?” I don’t know, nor did I suggest it was. But I suppose some people might view the number of casualties as being pretty destructive.

  9. The Civil War was not spectacularly destructive of property but it was enormously destructive of life. Something on the order of 20% of southern white males of prime military age (20-24) died during the war, and 13% of the male population from 10-44. These are rates comparable to the major combatants during the first world war. A similar number were seriously disabled.

    For all practical purposes the South fought until the bulk of the white male population was killed, captured or disabled. A significant fraction of Southern ante bellum wealth was the value of slaves, and emancipation wiped that out (although presumably to the gain of the slaves). I think the comparison to WWI is apt – neither were particularly destructive to the overall economies of the countries involved, certainly not on the order of WWII or the Thirty Years War, but both left deep scars on the populations by devastating a generation of young men.

  10. “A significant fraction of Southern ante bellum wealth was the value of slaves, and emancipation wiped that out ”

    Lincoln had a proposal to buy them all and free them but could not get a hearing by the South.

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