Protesters in South Africa and now Oxford have demanded the destruction of memorials to Cecil Rhodes, a man whose behaviour and beliefs they say are unacceptable in the modern world. But Adam Gopnik asks if our 21st Century ways will look acceptable to future generations.
There has been heated debate over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford. Since Rhodes, once seen as a hero of Empire, now looks like a racist and an imperialist - both bad things - the notion is that he should not be honoured in an institution of knowledge.
Should we tear his statue down? The French have a nice all-purpose idiom to cover the destruction of things of the past in pursuit of the values of the present. "Il faut bruler" they say - it must burn. But must we burn down Sartre or Louis XIV or Victor Hugo over the many things they they got wrong? They also got some important things right and educated and enlightened us.
I am not a fan of Rhodes - though I do think this kind of inquiry can easily become an inquisition. We can rummage through the past of any historical figure and find something obnoxious by the standards of 2016. Even so saintly a character and prescient a man as the philosopher John Stuart Mill - who with Harriet Taylor invented modern feminism - can be shown to have been insufficiently attentive to the very real sufferings of the Irish in Ireland or the Indians in India.
My own standard is simple - what were the moral positions broadly accepted at the time these people lived, and where does the historical figure stand within those? Not too many, but some, saw just how wrong slavery in the American south was in 1860, and Mill was one of them. Not too many people thought imperialism evil in and of itself, and Mill was one of those, too.
But more to the point, we should use these inquiries not as a moment of moral arraignment of others but as moral instruction to ourselves. What attitudes and practices that we accept blithely now as just part of the necessary arrangement of the world will seem horrific to the future? What will we be morally arraigned for tolerating by our more pristine descendants? I've arrived at a tentative list of four such horrors.
I don't say that this is the right or complete list - or even that we ought actually to "bruler" these things - just that these are the things that morally curious people with an eye to the future might to be curious about now.
The first is mass cruelty to animals in the pursuit of food. The industrial farm, the industrialised slaughterhouse - for all that we have been told of these things, we still effectively hide away this truth from ourselves and from our sight. The conditions of animals - chickens forced to spend their lives motionless, pigs, such sentient and feeling beings, crowded in pens and slaughtered on assembly lines of panic - may seem to our descendants as unspeakable as that of the slaves in the middle passage seem to us.Inside the chicken farms
The next moral outrage the future may condemn is cruelty to children in schooling. This may seem like much the lesser sin - certainly not getting any schooling at all, like so many girls in Islamic countries, is far worse. But the Western school day and school regimen we accept uncritically, are, on the whole, remnants of an earlier time, living symptoms of the regimentation of life in the 19th Century that also brought us mass conscription and military drill.
We've outgrown mass conscription, but we still too often teach our children to a military timetable. We take it for granted that long school days, and much homework, will benefit them, though there is not a scrap of evidence that this is true, and a large body of evidence that it is false.
We take it for granted that waking teenagers in the early morning, then having them sit still and listen to lectures for eight hours, and then doing three or four more hours of homework at home, is essential and profitable.
We are taught that the over-regimented Asian societies with their tiger mothers will overtake us, but it is Apple, invented by that stoned Shakespearean high schooler, that sends its phones to be made in China, not the other way round. Genuine entrepreneurial advance comes from strange people and places. In the future, when kids arrive at school in the late morning, and we teach math the way we now teach sports, as an open-ended, self-regulating group activity, we may well recognise that each mind bends its own peculiar way, and our current method of teaching, I think, will seem quite mad.
The third moral outrage I imagine the future espying is our cruelty to the ill and aged in our fetish for surgical intervention. Modern scientific medicine is a mostly unmixed blessing, and anyone who longs for the metaphysical certainties of medieval times should be compelled to have medieval medicine for his family. But no blessing is entirely unmixed, and I suspect that our insistence on massive interventions for late-arriving ills - our appetite for heart valves and knee replacements, artificial hips and endlessly retuned pacemakers - will seem to our descendants as fetishistic and bewildering as the medieval appetite for bleeding and cupping and leeching looks to us now.
Yes, of course, we all know people whose lives have been blessedly extended and improved by artificial joints and by those wi-fi pacemakers. But our health system is designed to make doctors see the benefits of intervention far more clearly than their costs. Not long ago I was reading these words from a doctor about the seemingly benign practice of angioplasty procedures for heart patients: "It has not been shown to extend life expectancy by a day, let alone 10 years - and it's done a million times a year in this country." Every age puts up a fight with mortality - and every subsequent age looks back, and shudders at the weapons the past ones used.
Finally, I suspect the future will frown on any form of sexual rule-making, aside from ones based entirely on the abuse of power. Gay and straight or bi or trans - numbers and kinds and kinks - all that really matters is the empowered consent of two people capable of being empowered and informed.
And that perhaps is the central point. Morality does clarify over time - only not to the wrong willing partner or the wrong way of eating or the wrong way of thinking, but into what's fair and isn't in a relationship of power.
If we want a simple moral rule to take through the centuries it might be - see who's helpless, and help them. That always looks good in retrospect. Meanwhile, moral curiosity needs to separate itself from moral hysteria, and even as we condemn our moral ancestors, we need to hold our ears to the wind, and listen for the faint sounds of our descendants telling their melancholy truths about us.
Mr Gopnik has a lot of insight and I agree with much of what he said. There are few hard and fast principles or standards of morality that survive the ages...except perhaps, The Golden Rule...the ethic of reciprocity. Or, in the idiom of the day...'pay it forward'.