Moral Responsibility, History as Rhetoric, and Henry Dundas

A few months back a piece I wrote for The Spectator (9 January 2022) provoked a stream of negative and hostile reaction on Twitter from Professor Geoffery Palmer.  I was objecting to the approach and basic assumptions of the Edinburgh City Council’s Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, as revealed in a recent public poll it had taken on its proposals.  In passing, I mentioned that the way the City had handled the revision of the text on the Dundas monument in St Andrews Square did not bode well for this project, as it had mangled the historical facts.  It was this claim that seemed to draw the harshest response from Professor Palmer, with little attention to the wider point I was making.  Here I will begin by stating as succinctly as possible the problem with the new text on the monument.  But then I will go on to elaborate my reasons for arguing that it is wrong to try to attribute moral responsibility to large, ill-defined groups that are not coherent social actors, and wrong to bend history to suit such moral arguments.  I conclude with some reflections on how we learn moral lessons from history.


The problems with the revised wording of the Melville (Dundas) Monument plaque have recently been very cogently analysed by Professor Angela McCarthy in the journal Scottish Affairs[1]The seriously misleading passage is as follows:

While Home Secretary in 1792, and first Secretary of State for War in 1796 he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.

This simply does not accord with the basic facts of the matter, which are:

  • In 1791 a bill to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was defeated in the House of Commons, by a vote of 163 to 88.
  • In 1792 another bill to abolish the slave trade was put before the Commons by the abolitionist leader William Wilberforce.  Believing that it would again not succeed, facing powerful opposition from the West Indian Planter lobby, the House of Lords, and the King’s circle, Dundas managed to get a series of amendments passed that included a gradual plan to end the slave trade over 7.5 years, and compensation to the West Indian slaveholders.  He argued that simply abolishing the trade would mean it would be carried on illegally, and taken up by other countries that had not abolished it.  He also argued for a longer term plan to phase out slavery itself, not just the slave trade.  The amended bill passed 230 for, 85 against.  It is unlikely the unamended bill would have passed.
  • The bill went before the House of Lords, which decided to delay considering it until the next session.  It never returned to the bill.
  • By February 1793 France had declared war on Britain.  Wilberforce continued to put forward unsuccessful bills for immediate abolition, which Dundas did not support, but did not vote against.
  • Conditions of war strengthened the hand of the Planter lobby, whose trade was a major source of revenue for the British government.  Under these conditions it was extremely unlikely that any bill to abolish the slave trade, immediately or gradually, would succeed.

Saying that Dundas was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the slave trade when the bill he put forward to gradually bring an end to slavery was itself abandoned by the powers that be, is misleading.  Clearly the major factor here was the political economy of war with France.  It may well be that as Secretary of State for War Dundas became more conservative, more of a ‘patriot’.  His prosecution of British radicals inspired by the revolution, such as Thomas Muir, would seem to suggest this.  But there is no reason to think he single-handedly delayed the abolition of the slave trade.  Indeed, in a time when we are repeatedly told that racism, which maintaining the slave trade surely involves, is ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’, it is strange to see structural and systemic explanations of what happened in this process neglected, in favour an intensely individualised attribution of events to the machinations of one person. It doesn’t make much sense.

Moral Responsibility

However we interpret Henry Dundas’s life and actions, that was not the main focus of my objections to the Legacy Review Group’s poll.  I was put off by statements such as this which reveal the unquestioned assumptions behind the review:

2 Civic Redress: There are various ways that Edinburgh might publicly acknowledge and actively atone for its part in supporting and benefiting from Atlantic slavery and colonial expansion. Please tick all of the options which you feel are most constructive:…

In my view there is no moral being named ‘Edinburgh’ that can possibly be held responsible for the events of the past, nor can it ‘actively atone’ for any past sins.  When the survey questions one is being asked, however reasonable in themselves, are premised on assumptions one cannot accept, one has no choice but to reject the exercise as a whole.  I am in favour of having a cold, hard, analytic look at the histories of Edinburgh and the slave trade, and in debating various understandings of how we attribute moral responsibility.  It seems to me the Review Group has tried to rush past these debates.

My position is simple and not terribly novel.  We can be held morally responsible for the effects of actions that are within our powers.  We are responsible for what we do.  We can also criticise social arrangements for their bad effects on people, even if those arrangements (systems, structures) are not clearly the result of anyone’s intention.  This is a matter of evaluation, not one of assigning moral blame.  Ultimately blame needs to attach to some individual with control over their actions.

If the police came to our door, and said that our cousin was charged with embezzlement, but had escaped to another jurisdiction, so they were going to hold us responsible because we are related to that cousin, who among us would consider that fair?  Similarly, if someone is left-handed, blood type B-negative, or a stamp collector, and commits a crime, we do not hold the members of those ‘groups’ collectively, or arbitrarily as individuals, responsible for those crimes.  Nor should we do so for other kinds of ‘groups’, such as nations, ethnicities, races, or religious communities.  This assumption of collective responsibility is characteristic of some premodern legal systems segregated by kin group, and situations of endemic feuding and warfare.  In our world we have abandoned this approach, and attach moral responsibility to individuals. 

This is so much the case that in modern legal systems, when we want to hold larger groups collectively responsible, we turn them into individuals by an act of legal fiction.  This is what it means to be ‘incorporated’, an organisation such as a corporation becomes a ‘person in law’ that can ‘sue and be sued’.  Correspondingly, the liability of individuals who are part of that organisation is legally limited, since it is the relevant actor, not them.  And this is because such entities are genuine social actors.  They have structures that aggregate internal activities into executive functions that do make decisions and take actions that they should be held responsible for.  We can debate whether it should be this way (and I would defend it), but the point is that the attribution of moral responsibility to individual actors is so fundamental to our moral order, that we require a legal fiction to attribute responsibility to collective entities.

Far from expressing an expanded morality, the impulse to generalise moral responsibility to loosely defined groups actually weakens moral principle, by detaching it from individual responsibility.  Note that if someone claims they are guilty of something simply by merit of falling into some social category, e.g. as being guilty of racism or ‘white supremacy’ simply by merit of being white, they are in fact, at the same stroke, denying personal responsibility.  They are saying ‘I couldn’t help it’, ‘I had no choice’, ‘it was my fate’.  They are not owning up to the moral consequences of specific actions.  This does not strike me as an effective way to address racist behaviour.  Bad actions should be identified, and people should be called out.  Such large, amorphous, and dubious groups as ‘races’, cannot bear moral responsibility, and just as importantly, they cannot learn moral lessons.  This is something that happens at the level of the individual, as we encounter the approval and disapproval of others, and inspect ourselves to try to understand why.  There is no short cut.  Moral responsibility cannot be batch processed.

As I said, the position I am articulating here is not novel.  It is close to widespread common sense.  We don’t always succeed, but most people think we should ‘take people as we find them’, and ‘not judge a book by its cover’.  People generally do not want to be reduced to mere ciphers of social categories, and understand that if they want to be respected as unique individuals, they need to give the same in return.  Surely it makes more sense to try to improve ourselves morally by cultivating this innate sense of mutual individual respect, than it does to project moral responsibility onto ill-defined imaginary beings.

History as Rhetoric

Human history is a vast fabric of individual actions, aggregating into complex patterns and structures, which in turn provide the context and shape those individual actions.  This generates some coherent collective actors, but also many more vaguely defined groupings that are not real historical actors, but just the outcomes of history.  The more we think of history as a single, vast moral drama, the more we will be inclined to populate it with these amorphous moral beings, such as races, nations, ethnic groups, that are caught up in struggles between good and evil, the oppressed and their oppressors.  This perspective tends to flatten out history, fusing the past and the present into a single atemporal stage on which the timeless moral drama is acted out.  Individual moral responsibility recedes into the background in this perspective.  Another effect of this perspective is that historical individuals become simply symbolic representations of the larger group they are located in.  I suspect something like this is happening in the case of interpreting the actions of Henry Dundas.  The tortured logic of the revised plaque does not work up from the complex events  and actions of his actual life.  Rather, there is a view from above that ‘Edinburgh’, and probably more generally white Europeans, need to ‘atone’ for their sins, and therefore he must be cast as the emblem of those sins.  This would help explain the rather cavalier approach to historical facts.

There is another available approach to history and its moral lessons.  This is one which takes individuals and individual agency seriously.  In it, historical figures are viewed as unique individuals negotiating specific historical circumstances, with more or less moral insight into those circumstances, over which they have limited ultimate control.  It is a perspective that entails a certain amount of moral ambiguity, because so much of the course of events is understood as beyond anyone’s actual control.  This perspective offers very different kinds of moral lessons.  We see individuals, like ourselves, struggling with circumstances, but without the hindsight we now have.  It teaches us about the great difficulties in being a moral person—how we can be ignorant, misled and compromised, or insightful, perceptive and principled.  Or more likely, some messy combination of all of these.  It teaches us about the challenges of genuine moral responsibility.  Good novels and other forms of drama do the same thing, grappling with human weakness and courage under difficult circumstances, and not reducing life to cartoonish struggles between good and evil.  We learn how to be moral person, as best we can, by carefully observing others wrestle with this burden.  This is the stuff of real history.

Ultimately this has bearing on those of us who have moral responsibilities as teachers.  If we inculcate students into the ‘group responsibility’ view, they will be morally coarsened, and rendered indifferent to the vagaries of actual persons in actual circumstances.  They will see only a struggle between categories, and people as the pawns of those categories, with moral responsibility leached out of individual conduct, and absorbed into collective dramatis personae.  Only the individualist approach teaches them to take both history and morality seriously, to learn from history by placing themselves in the shoes of other persons, as moral actors.  It teaches them to be less prideful, and more alert to human frailty.  And that can only be a good thing.

[1] Those wanting to read more should see McCarthy’s article: ‘Bad History: The Controversy over Henry Dundas and the Historiography of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, forthcoming in Scottish Affairs 31, available ahead of print at:   Her argument refutes that put forward by Stephen Mullen: ‘Henry Dundas: A “Great Delayer” of Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. C, 2, no. 253, 218-248.  Also useful for rounding out an understanding of these events is the anonymously authored ‘Henry Dundas and Abolition—The Missing Pieces’ produced by the Henry Dundas Committee for Public Education on Historic Scotland.  While interested in defending the reputation of Henry Dundas, it is well-supported with historical evidence.  It can be found here:

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: