A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World

Must Gandhi fall too? When to remove statues of serious wrongdoers: Reply to Frowe

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.

Lived experience can provide a useful insight to better understand why some people are harmed in this way. Take for example Miles Chambers and the quote he provided to a BBC article on the history of Edward Colston (Parkes 2020). Colston was a slave trader and philanthropist whose statue was torn down in the Summer of 2020 amidst Black Lives Matter protests. In the article, Miles Chambers provides the following example of how the statue of Edward Colston impacts him as a black man living in Bristol:
“A name change or statue move is not going to rectify racism or eradicate the slave mentality that still exists, but it will help to say to black people: ‘You are equal to us, you are British, you are valuable and you mean as much to us as any other citizen.”

This quote encapsulates the notion of alienation and provides a lived example of the harm that a statue can cause.

Condition two: a modified moral-record view

Removing statues only on the basis of harm would be too blunt a tool. A lot of statues bring positive benefits such as a sense of pride and identity as well as harm and we need a model that takes account of this. Hence, to add nuance I will set out my second condition which is a modified moral-record view which builds on the one introduced by Frowe (Frowe 2019, p.11-12).

Frowe believes that the type of wrongdoing that warrants removal is a serious rights violation which threatens an individual’s basic interests (Frowe 2019, p.11). These basic interests might be things such as autonomy and self-determination, rights to which can be violated through subjecting a person to, for example, enslavement. Frowe claims that committing this type of act necessarily makes it the key feature of a person’s moral record in a way which stealing a car does not (Frowe 2019, p.11). Frowe determines which statues to remove on the basis of whether the person has committed serious rights violations partly on the grounds that this does not result in us demanding moral perfection from anyone who is to be deemed worthy of commemoration (Frowe 2019, p.12). I agree that a person’s moral record is a useful tool when considering whether to remove a statue and here I adopt a similar approach, but with two important modifications.

Firstly, Frowe claims that committing a serious rights violation necessarily makes it the dominant feature of one’s moral record. I disagree. It is conceivable that a person has committed a serious rights violation without this being a key feature of their moral record. Consider for example the #Gandhimustfall campaign which focuses on racist comments made by Gandhi. Gandhi spent a part of his life in South Africa and has allegedly called Africans ‘dirty’ and ‘savages’. If these comments were said, we could plausibly argue that Gandhi committed a serious rights violation. However it could also plausibly be argued that these comments are insufficient to be considered a key part of his moral record in the context of the moral good Gandhi did through advocating independence through non-violence. This can be contrasted with the case of Edward Colston, whose engagement in the slave trade he engaged in, which enabled his philanthropy, seems sufficient to be a key part of his moral record. The modification I recommend is therefore that there has to be a serious rights violation that is also a key feature of that person’s moral record which is the case for Edward Colston but not Gandhi.

Secondly, my model expands the scope of Frowe’s moral record view by claiming that something does not need to be the singular key feature of one’s moral record to meet condition two. It is sufficient to qualify as one of the key features of that person’s moral record. This can be contrasted with Frowe’s view that when a person commits a serious rights violation, it necessarily becomes the dominant feature of one’s moral record and consequently the single key feature of one’s moral record Frowe 2019, p.11).

This might seem to imply that the threshold for removing statues under Frowe’s model would be higher, since it might seem that Frowe is requiring an action to be incredibly severe to outweigh all the other moral goods of that person. However, to draw that conclusion would be a mistake. Since Frowe believes a serious rights violation necessarily becomes the key part of a person’s moral record, she need not expand her scope in the same way I do. However, I must expand the scope to avoid creating an unacceptably high threshold of moral wrongdoing required to remove statues depicting people who have done a significant amount of good.

To exemplify how this threshold would be problematic unless we expand the scope, consider Malala Yousafzai’s moral record which is dominated by her impressive contribution to furthering the education of young women and standing up to oppressive structures (“Profile: Malala Yousafzai” 2017). Consider now what she would have to do in order for a morally bad action to take the place as the singular key feature of her moral record. Even if we found out that she frequently hurts defenseless animals, this arguably would still not be enough to become the key feature of her moral record. It would, however, be more than enough to constitute one of the key features of her moral record. As such, we must expand the scope to not require morally bad acts to be the key feature but merely one of the key features of a persons’ moral record to avoid absurd situations where people who have done significant good can commit heinous acts without warranting removal of their statues.

I will now consider how Frowe could critique the second condition on the basis of her claim that it is not only wrong to honour people for their wrongdoing but also despite it (Frowe 2019, p.21). Doing so will either ignore the rights violation which they have committed or imply that this violation is somehow outweighed by other considerations. My second condition implies that in some scenarios, statues will remain despite the rights violations committed by the person and harm caused by the statue. As such, I will respond to this critique to bolster my model.

In considering my response, let me first break down Frowe’s claim. Frowe claims that honouring a person despite their wrongdoing will do one or both of the following:
1. Ignore the rights violation which they have committed
2. Imply that this violation is somehow outweighed by other considerations

The response to the first claim by Frowe is that we should make efforts to recontextualise the statue and provide a more full account of the person’s past. Even if the model in this letter would result in a statue staying, this does not restrict our opportunities to provide a fuller and more nuanced picture of the person to ensure we do not ignore their rights violation.

If we return to the example of #Gandhimustfall, where we assume that condition one but not two has been met, we could in that case determine that the right course of action would be to keep the statue but take measures to contextualise the statue in a more suitable way. For example, a plaque or sign could be added to set out that Gandhi was in many ways highly progressive but made comments about Africans that are unacceptable. Other measures could include schools educating children about the full spectrum of acts committed by Gandhi. These mitigations are suitable when condition one but not two is met. Consequently, I accept Frowe’s critique but argue that it is possible to keep the statue and not ignore their wrongdoing through active measures.

Secondly, I agree with the second issue set out by Frowe. To keep the statue does imply that their violations are outweighed by other considerations. However, this is still a preferable outcome compared to removing the statue in these scenarios. It is true that the bad things Gandhi did are, on balance, outweighed by the good he did. This need not negate that Gandhi did bad things but it does not make those things a key feature of his moral record. Human beings are morally complex and many of the historic characters we revere have committed a mixture of morally good and bad acts. If we accept Frowe’s view, we may avoid honouring people despite their wrongdoing but we will instead fail to honour many people despite their good deeds.

Furthermore, as Johannes Schulz argues, some people depicted in statues will be heroes to one group and serious wrongdoers to another (Schulz 2018, p.175). In fact, Gandhi is a good example of exactly that. While a member of the Indian community might get significant benefit from seeing a Gandhi statue and feel a sense of pride and meaning from the honouring of a person who has meant a lot to them, an African person may find the statue deeply offensive and alienating. If we were to apply Frowe’s model to the case of Gandhi statues and also assume that Gandhi did commit a serious rights violation through racist comments, then we would need no further investigation before deciding to remove statues of Gandhi. Under Frowe’s model we would be able to evidence a serious rights violation which would be a sufficient condition for removal. Frowe’s model therefore does not only fail to take into account the complex moral nature of Gandhi before deciding to remove his statues but also denies those people that benefit from the existence of the statue to have their needs and preferences considered. The model presented in this letter allows for greater nuance by enabling us to consider the morally weighty reasons both for and against the removal of statues. While there may be disagreement about how we ought to balance the positive and negative aspects of statues we ought to at least apply a model that does balance them.