When I criticize someone in the past for having done something that I consider bad by my own modern standards, I often get pushback from friends who say things like: “He was just a man of his time. [Alternative phrasing: a product of his time.] You can’t/shouldn’t judge him by modern standards!” (I’m using he here because usually the person who I’m criticizing in such contexts was male.)
So here are some responses to that argument.
- I’m not saying that the person’s work is of no value. I’m saying that by my standards, something the person did or something about some of their work has some problematic aspects. We can simultaneously recognize that the person’s beliefs were common at the time, and recognize that by our own standards, those beliefs were wrong.
- In most cases, lots of people who lived in that same time period didn’t behave as badly as the person I’m criticizing. Therefore, it was possible to do better, even in that time period. Therefore, it seems reasonable to me to criticize the person.
- Slaveholders were people of their time. Should we say that it’s therefore okay that they owned slaves? Is it inappropriate for us to criticize them? By the standards of their society, what they were doing was fine; but that doesn’t mean that I’m required to approve of it.
- Corollary to those last two points above: At any given time, different people have different standards. Why should we judge the person by the standards they agreed with, rather than the standards of other people of the same period? For example, why should we judge slaveholders by the standards of slaveholding society rather than the standards of the enslaved people? (This item added in 2020, inspired by comments that Mark made in comments on this post.)
- Okay, I might as well go full Godwin’s Law: Hitler was a man of his time. Are we required to avoid criticizing him? (Clarification borrowed from my comment on this post: The person who Hitler ended up being was shaped in part by his experience and the culture around him. His behavior wasn’t “typical,” but his attitudes were shared by a lot of people.)
- Trump is also a man of his time. Does that mean we should excuse him, because by his own standards and the standards of his supporters, his behavior isn’t bad?
- Often, part of the “of his time” argument notes that in the future, people may criticize me, and I wouldn’t want them to do that, would I? Well, I certainly agree that people in the future may well judge our actions and beliefs by their own standards, and some of what I believe may well be repugnant to some people in the future. In that case, I expect that they will criticize me. I might disagree with some of their criticism, or I might realize that I’ve made mistakes too. Either way, I don’t think it will be inherently morally wrong of them to judge me by their standards.
- Meta-argument: If none of the above points are convincing to you, then note that I too am a man of my time. So by the “you can’t judge a man of his time by your own standards” argument, you can’t judge me by your standards; you have to judge me by my standards, and my standards say that it’s okay to criticize past people. Therefore, you shouldn’t criticize me, and you should excuse my willingness to criticize people of the past. :)
See also Tempest’s post from 2015 about Lovecraft, which makes some of the same points.
(I wrote most of this post in early 2018, but didn’t finish and post it until mid-2019.)