Recent political discourse has brought the debate regarding statues to the forefront of the public’s mind and sparked a broader discussion about how we should relate to statues that depict problematic people. In a recent issue of this Journal, Helen Frowe argues that being a serious rights violator is a sufficient condition for a state to be justified in removing statues depicting that person (Frowe 2019, p.1).
This letter presents an alternative model on which there is a moral duty to remove statues of serious wrongdoers if two conditions are met. Condition one is that the statue causes harm. Condition two is that the serious wrongdoing committed by the person being commemorated is sufficiently severe to become a key feature of that person’s moral record. I will argue that each condition is necessary but not sufficient to justify removal and that the two conditions are jointly sufficient; both conditions being met means that we have a moral duty to remove the statue of the serious wrongdoer.
The letter will focus on how Frowe could critique the second condition of my model by arguing that it is wrong not only to honour serious wrongdoers but also to honour people despite their serious wrongdoing. In refuting this argument, the letter highlights the weighty moral considerations in favour of sometimes honouring people despite their wrongdoing and sets out how my model allows for this nuance while Frowe’s model does not. The letter then briefly considers what a sensible approach to determining whether the second condition has been met could look like.
Condition one: harm
Harm is a suitable first condition because it provides prima facie reasons for removing statues. The act of not removing statues can cause harm because statues can degrade and alienate people by being expressive of a disrespectful ideology or perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies such as those in racist ideologies (Schulz 2018, p.183). Consequently, if a statue degrades or alienates a person, then that person is being harmed and the first necessary condition of the model proposed in this letter is met. Frowe rejects this harm condition and presents the example of a theoretical genocide to explain why (Frowe 2019, p.23). In her example, group A has committed genocide and killed all members of group B. She posits that if group A were to commemorate this genocide through a statue, then group C who were not harmed by the genocide would have no legitimate claim to being harmed but would still be wholly justified in wanting the statue to be removed which would therefore point out how harm is not a suitable criteria. However I would argue that this misses the mark because I think group C could still convincingly claim that they have been harmed on my definition. On my definition of harm, statues can harm by perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies and it seems clear that genocide of any group of people is obviously perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies which we would all be harmed by, even if we did not belong to the group being killed.