I am interested in the question of whether the relevant government officials and members of the public who together can remove the Confederate monuments, are morally obligated to (of their own volition) remove them. I am going to argue that they have a moral obligation to remove most, if not all, public Confederate monuments because of the unavoidable harm they inflict on undeserving persons.
- If the existence of a monument M unavoidably harms an undeserving group, then there is strong moral reason to end the existence of M.
- Public Confederate monuments unavoidably harm at least those who suffer as a result of (I) knowing the racist motivation behind the existence of most Confederate monuments or as a result of (II) having the horrors of the Civil War and the United States’ racist history made salient by public Confederate monuments.
- Therefore, there is strong moral reason to remove public Confederate monuments.
- If there is strong moral reason to remove public Confederate monuments, then absent stronger countervailing reasons to preserve them, people are morally obligated to (of their own volition) remove public Confederate monuments.
- There are no countervailing reasons to preserve public Confederate monuments that are stronger than the moral reasons to remove them. .
- Therefore, people are morally obligated to (of their own volition) remove public Confederate monuments.
I take (1) to be obviously true. It can be derived from the moral axiom that if x unavoidably harms morally considerable beings who don’t deserve to be harmed, then there is strong moral reason to prevent x (assuming, of course, that x is preventable).
At least the first disjunct of (2) is uncontroversial. People have been opposed to Confederate monuments as long as they’ve existed. The motivations behind the creation of Confederate monuments were transparent to those alive at the time of their creation. Knowledge of this history factors into manner in which people suffer as a result of seeing and knowing that the Confederate monuments are still standing. The second disjunct should be uncontroversial, though it appears to be overlooked in the debate. Consider someone unaware of the racist motivations for creating (most) Confederate monuments and who has the typical cursory knowledge of the Civil War. Suppose, hypothetically, that the Confederate monument they happen to see was created for entirely innocuous reasons. Does this Confederate monument still unavoidably harm them? Yes; at least, it will for some. This is because seeing the monument can non-voluntarily make salient America’s racist past and the horrors of one of the darkest periods in American history. Having these facts made salient can clearly cause one to suffer even if we grant that the monument itself is not racist and was not created for racist reasons.
Premise (4) should also be uncontroversial and can just be derived from a moral axiom which holds that if you have strong moral reason to x, then absent stronger reason to not x, you’re morally obligated to x. This only leaves (5), which is perhaps the most contentious premise of my argument. I’ll now consider what I take to be the best, or most common, objections and provide short responses to them.
Objection: Confederate monuments are works of art that have a great deal of aesthetic and historical value.
- I deny that anything can possess aesthetic or historical value that has normative significance independently of its effects on well-being.
- If there is such value, it is not as important as preventing this undeserved harm suffered by oppressed groups.
- I deny that removing these monuments need result in the loss of any historical or aesthetic value.
a. There is not much aesthetic or historical value in the mass produced Confederate monuments created for racist reasons.
b. It’s possible to remove the Confederate monuments without the loss of any historic or aesthetic value (e.g. by placing them in a museum in the appropriate context).
Objection: Removing Confederate statues erases history.
- I am extremely skeptical that Confederate statues themselves impart much in the way of historical knowledge or lend insight into what it was like to exist during the Civil War.
- Even granting (for the sake of argument) that there would be a non-trivial loss of historical knowledge if the monuments are removed, it doesn’t follow that there need be a net decrease in historical knowledge.
- Even if removing the monuments led to some unavoidable loss of historical knowledge, preventing that loss of value is just less important than preventing the amount of suffering Confederate monuments cause undeserving individuals to experience.
Objection: we can continue to preserve Confederate monuments solely to honor of the noble accomplishments of the people they valorize.
- This is unlikely to be what would actually happen.
- Few would think it morally permissible to create a statue of Bill Cosby to honor him for his contribution to comedy even under the assumption that people would only be honoring Cosby for his honorable accomplishments. A good explanation for why this is wrong is because it’s simply more important to prevent the pain that a Cosby statue would cause survivors of sexual abuse than it is to benefit people desiring to honor Cosby. Ditto for Confederate monuments.
Objection: If we have to remove Confederate statues because they honor people who acted in ways that were gravely morally wrong, then wouldn’t we get the absurd conclusion that we have to remove almost all statues?
- There is a difference between people like Thomas Jefferson or Mahatma Ghandi and people like Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest. While all of them committed grave moral wrongs, only the former group also accomplished a great deal of good and were, with respect to some issues, morally prescient.
- Statues of people in the former camp do not cause the same amount of unavoidable harm as people in the latter camp. The amount of harm that statues cause provide a principled reason to treat these cases differently.