Virtuous historiography in Lisbon

At the end of May I’ll be in Lisbon for the International Network for Theory of History conference, History & Responsibility: Doing History in Times of Conflicting Political Demands, giving this talk as part of a panel on ‘Reparative Futures’

Virtuous historiography: avoiding the unreliable future

Doing history responsibly involves evaluating the moral aspects of events and actions in the past, the better to understand their impacts on the present and how these should be understood. Recent work to better understand colonial injustices, in order to understand what forms of reparation might be necessary, is one example (e.g. Araujo, 2017; Bhambra, 2022) . Such judgements are made within some form of moral framework: in the context of the Western academy, two dominant approaches are consequentialism and deontology. Both these approaches assume that the future is reliable: the first assumes that the consequences on which the moral worth of an action will take place; the second, that the principles directing moral action will persist (Mulgan, 2014). But the future is not reliable. So judgements about whether actions are ethical or not that employ these frames are weakened.

This is still true when judging past actions. While the immediate consequences of an action are available to a historian in a way that they weren’t for the historical agents, the consequences may still be unfolding, or new evidence may change our understanding of their impact. And historians are well-placed to recognised that the values underpinning systems of duty and moral obligation change over time, and so might be expected to realise that any deontological judgements they make will be subject to similar changes.

So if the unreliable future makes these moral judgements contingent, valid only insofar as events turn out a certain way or certain values persist, how can historians arrive at more well-founded judgements? This paper suggests that principles drawn from virtue ethics might help historians to avoid depending on an unreliable future when evaluating the moral aspects of historical events and actions. I argue that virtue ethics tend not to depend on the future in the same way, and that focusing on the use of practical wisdom (phronesis) in making decisions about the moral nature of past events would allow historians to work with the necessarily contingent nature of such judgements without depending on an unreliable future. The paper connects this approach with the description of historiographical virtues set out by Paul (2020), suggesting that a virtuous historiography might offer an alternative to deontological approaches towards doing history responsibly (De Baets, 2009).


Araujo, A. L. (2017). Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History. Bloomsbury.
Bhambra, G. K. (2022). For a reparatory social science, Global Social Challenges Journal, 1(1), 8-20. Retrieved Jun 21, 2023, from
De Baets, A. (2009) Responsible History. Berghahn Books
Mulgan, T. (2014). Ethics for Possible Futures. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 114, 57-73.
Paul, H. (2022). Historians’ Virtues: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century (Elements in Historical Theory and Practice). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108993067