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Thus morality gave in to politics, so much so that the standard on which to judge whether an act is right or wrong and whether a person is good or bad was reduced to loyalty to the political head.

I do not know exactly where to use the past tense and where to use the present tense in this sentence. To me, "the standard on which to judge whether an act is right or wrong" in this context refers to some kind of permanent standard. If so, "is" is appropriate. But I doubt this breaking of the unity of tense is not legitimate.

  • I'd use the tenses that way, and for the reason you give. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '14 at 15:28
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This use seems acceptable to me.

At the historical instant being spoken of, when “morality gave in to politics”, the standard “was reduced”. So far so good. But a “standard” judges acts past, present and future, so a ‘generic present’ remains appropriate for a standard’s target, ‘whether an act is right or wrong’ and ‘whether a person is good or bad’.

That is perhaps clearer if we write: “The standard for judging whether an act is right or wrong has changed in the past and will undoubtedly change in the future.”

But that said, I wouldn’t have any particular objection to casting the object of judgment to past tense, either: “The standard on which to judge whether an act was right or wrong was reduced to loyalty ... “.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

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I hesitate to say that the present tense is wrong; you give the same rationale I would if I were faced with the same question. But wait — you're writing about something that is anchored in a specific time: what was right or wrong then, etc. And the fact that you're contrasting these beliefs with those your readers presumably hold suggests that we know these ideas are not permanent.

I don't think that the past tense suggests anything more than you're talking about something in the past: What I mean is that, as far as your subjects are concerned, the idea of being right or wrong or good or bad is just as present as morality giving in to politics.

My test is to make it a simpler question: How about Jim said that guy is bad? I think past tense would sound much better. After all, just because we use the past tense doesn't make it untrue now. My other test is to ask: Would anyone notice if I did it the other way? Maybe, but I bet many more would notice the present tense. Usually, you won't have the opportunity to explain your choices to your reader.

  • Which of course depends on whether you believe good and bad to be "anchored in a specific time." One need not, but one may, or at least might. – Matt Gutting Jun 8 '14 at 16:17
  • ... So that clears that up. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '14 at 16:48

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