In this article, I address the issue of whether we have an obligation to remember past immoral actions. My central question is: do we have an obligation to remember past moral transgressions? I address this central question through three more specific questions. In the first section, I enquiry whether we have an obligation to remember our own past transgressions. In the second section, I ask whether we have an obligation to remember the wrongful actions that others have committed against ourselves. In the last section, I investigate whether we have a duty to remember the suffering of victims of crimes that have a political aspect, crimes such as state violence, oppression and racial discrimination, for example. Here I use the term ‘obligation’ in a board sense to refer to actions that are recommended from the moral point of view, that is, when we have moral reasons to act in a certain way. Here I decided to explore these issues from a Kantian perspective. At first glance, Kant does not seem to have much to offer to an ethics of memory since he does not ask these questions directly. Nevertheless, I was interested to explore to what extent Kant’s ethics, and Kantian ethics more generally, can give us tools to answer these questions.
What I have discovered is that, despite my initial doubts, the Kantian framework can provide us with materials to build arguments that can help us to answer these questions. In fact, I will argue that in Kant’s ethics, we have an obligation to remember past immoral actions. With regard to our own transgressions, I argue that we ought to remember our past transgressions because this is an aspect of our moral development. With regard to others’ transgressions, I argue that we have a duty of self-respect to demand that others respect us (in the Kantian sense, that is, that others treat us in a morally correct way) and that this involves remembering others’ transgressions, particularly when there is no evidence of their repentance or if they have not apologized. However, if we have (fallible) reasons to think that the wrongdoer has repented, then there is certainly no need to continue to remind them of their offenses. Thus, in the first two sections, my arguments are based on a certain interpretation of Kant’s ethical texts. However, when I address the political dimension of the ethics of memory I have based my arguments on the work of contemporary authors, especially Jeffrey Blustein. In the last section then, the perspective is more ‘Kantian’ than Kant’s. I argue that we have a duty to remember the victims of social and political injustice (social and political violence, oppression, discrimination, atrocity and crimes against humanity). Defenders of the importance of political memory usually appeal to consequentialist arguments. However, these arguments have limits. A Kantian perspective (deontological) is relevant here because it allows us to provide new arguments in support of the importance of political memory and thus ultimately to provide a stronger defense of duties of memory.
The issues that arise in relation to an ethics of memory will no doubt require that we study other sources in addition to the materials and arguments provided from a Kantian perspective. Nevertheless, I conclude that perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Kantian tradition has more to offer than it initially seemed, and it can certainly provide part of the theoretical framework to develop an ethics of memory.