The Ethical Duties of Historians

Historians, because of their unique positions, have certain ethical obligations. According to Edith Wyschogrod, Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, for instance, historians have an obligation to the writers of the past. Because those who write about history often make use of the written work of authors from ages past, they have a responsibility to those whose ideas they deal with, to convey their messages accurately.

Meanwhile, according to Jonathan Gorman, people have a right to freedom of association. They generally choose their careers voluntarily. When, he says, people voluntarily take on a position they "take upon themselves its associated duties" by choosing to publish as historians, historians are promising to deliver historical truth to their readers.  They, therefore, have a duty to fulfill that obligation, just as husbands have duties because they take on the role of "spouse" or just as doctors are obliged to practice good medicine, because they have chosen to be doctors.
Historians also have obligations to those who pay them. Often, as Gorman observes, historians are paid by the public. Many, for instance, work at universities that receive federal funding. In this case, historians are accountable to the public. According to Gorman, "Public accountability consists in evaluating how well university history teachers do what they themselves claim to be doing in this regard."  Historians, for instance, claim that they provide their students with an understanding of the past, an explanation of the development of different "values, systems and societies" and the teaching of tolerant criticism. The public, then, in Gorman's view, has a right to hold historians accountable for teaching these things and historians have a duty to deliver what they promise.

This is true outside public schools as well. Historians who write have a duty to provide their readers with an honest account of history, as long as they are publishing as historians, rather than writers of fiction. Yet, perhaps the most interesting obligation historians have is their duty to those in the past. Historians often shape public views about past events. They, therefore, have a duty to portray past figures and events honestly and as accurately as possible.