When studying history, the first rule of intellectual honesty is to never drop the context of the time period being studied. We stand at the end of a long line of people who screwed things up, figured out what went wrong, and came up with a better solution. We are the inheritors of thousands of years learning in every area of human endeavor: including morality. When studying history, any time you indignantly ask the question “How could they?”, it is imperative to stop yourself and ask the question again with curiosity instead. Really… how did it come to pass that people in a prior age thought it right and natural to act in ways we find foreign or even immoral now?
We can (and should) look back with our modern eyes and pass judgement on the moral systems people have used in the past. Most moral codes for most of history were atrocious by our modern moral understanding. However, when judging individual members of those societies, we must not lose our perspective and judge them by standards they never even knew existed. One can only judge a person from a prior historical period by asking whether they faithfully adhered to the best moral code they knew about and/or whether they helped to advance our understanding of morality as such.
This does mean that certain historical figures, though perhaps despicable when judged by our modern standards, where moral and virtuous in their own time. It is important that we judge the moral system, not the person who could have known no better.
Considering Women in History
When thinking of the treatment of women through history (just to pick one minority), we must apply the same respect for context we would for any other historical study. We can (and should) judge historical societies’ moral codes based upon their respect for women. However, we can only judge individual people for having better or worse views and actions compared to others who shared their context.
For example, a person who was skeptical of a woman’s right to vote in England of 1880 is hardly a villain when judged by the moral standards of that time. We now find that position repugnant, but not the person who holds it. Needless to day, a person in a modern context who held such a view would (rightfully) be considered morally bankrupt. Conversely, a person who was enlightened enough, in that place and time, to support women’s suffrage wasn’t merely a normal, decent person (as they would be today), but a one of unusual foresight and virtue.
Notice that I very deliberately used the word “person” throughout that example. We must remember that the suffragettes were themselves usually foresighted and virtuous even among the women of their day. Many women of the time were as skeptical of such things as “votes for women” as their spouses. They too were not villains, but people of ordinary character and understanding: for their own time.
But what about…
The really interesting question is what other moral issues were, at one point, perfectly acceptable, but are not any longer? For example, homophobia was once not only perfectly acceptable, but actively encouraged and legally enforced. However, in the United States today, LGBT+ people are legally protected (in many jurisdictions) and homophobia (in most communities) is actively regarded as backward and immoral. When did that moral stance shift? How did it happen? At what point do you consider someone slow to make the shift as being immoral?