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Conservatives Say They Hate Moral Relativism. Why Do They Use It To Defend Statues?

Statues are once again in the news — which means, for those of us who work in philosophical ethics, fresh examples of conservative inconsistency on what morality is and how it’s supposed to work.

Here’s the inconsistency: The same conservatives who decry moral relativism as a depraved form of ethical thinking are often the first to embrace relativism in defending historical figures and institutions they like.

Let’s bring into closer focus the issue of statues.

Conservatives view moral relativism — a contemporary position in modern philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and history — as morally and intellectually bankrupt. They think adopting this position leads to an unacceptably permissive public ethic, and to a degenerate society.

Many of these same folks then turn around and apply the relativist framework in moral apologia for the actions of historical figures they like — e.g., Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, etc. (Or, if “like” is too strong, they are least figures whose monuments conservatives don’t want to see torn down.) How do they use it in defense of these figures?

The idea is fairly straightforward: such-and-such behavior is now viewed as morally bad, but in Columbus’s time (or Jefferson’s, or Churchill’s) the behavior was ubiquitous and culturally acceptable. As such, this should soften, or even outright mitigate, our moral repugnance at the historical instances. Imperialism was the default attitude of the British public in the time of Churchill; slavery was a broadly accepted institution in the time of Edward Colston. Therefore, one should consider Churchill or Colston in a softer moral light.

This, fundamentally, is the inconsistency: Conservatives view relativism as a scourge on society when it leads to positions they disapprove of, but it’s the appropriate framework by which to defend historical figures they broadly approve of.

Consider two questions.

(A) Is moral relativism an acceptable position?

(B) Does moral relativism justify keeping certain historical monuments up?

You cannot scream “No!” to (A) and then affirm (B). That’s incoherent. If all instances under (A) are unacceptable, then the particular instances under (B) must also be unacceptable. (That’s how the all-to-some relation works.)

The initial spur for diving into this came from two tweets, one from notorious reactionary Matt Walsh (not the Veep one) and the other from former governor (and famed screamer) Howard Dean. Dean, obviously, isn’t a conservative, but he profiled the argument many conservatives make whenever statues come up.

I admit to being thoroughly baffled by the idea that we shouldn’t critically interrogate the role of racism in history.

To me, it’s obvious we should think seriously about the early American political figures, because the early economic institutions, the three-fifths compromise, the adoption of new states into the union, and so on are all importantly interrelated with the institution of slavery.

History should involve some level of moral recognition, lest it become stenography.

I imagined I could enlist conservatives into thinking the same—after all, here is a group who by and large believe moral relativism is a ruinous position to take when it comes to right and wrong. Matt Walsh has done at least two podcast episodes raging against moral relativism. (They are hereand here, though I can’t recommend them … they’re atrocious.)

But something funny happens when certain historical figures come under the ethical spotlight. It’s as if, for many conservatives who otherwise despise the position, moral relativism comes roaring back into respectability.

Let’s consider Columbus, whom Walsh is referring to in his tweet. Why should our judgments about him be softened by his historical context?

First, it’s worth noting (and then bracketing) the observation that Columbus was an atrocious and brutal human being even by the standards of his own time. So, even by Walsh’s preferred standards, Columbus was morally depraved. But let’s set that aside and zero-in on Walsh’s specific defense here.

Walsh’s argument relies on a distinction between “moral truth” and “moral culpability.” He wants to say that moral culpability is relative to time, social context, etc. — basically, everything that he doesn’t want to say moral truthis relative to.

But judgments of moral culpability are supposed to be judgments about moral truth. At an abstract level, facts about moral responsibility are a subset of the moral facts. Some moral facts aren’t about accountability (x is morally bad, vs. Person A isn’t culpable for doing x), but all facts about accountability are moral facts. Even those who don’t believe anyone is blameworthy recognize that the absence of blameworthiness is itself a moral fact. There’s skepticism about the existence of moral facts, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

Walsh wants to say that Columbus was morally wrong for enacting slavery, facilitating rape, and committing murder, but that he shouldn’t be morally culpable for doing so because of his particular social context.

For starters, the fact that an act is accepted or widely practiced does not reduce culpability. That’s why, when your mother [rhetorically] asks, “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” the correct answer is “No.”

Similarly, suppose the individual didn’t actually know the act was wrong. Does not knowing that something is wrong reduce or altogether eliminate culpability? Only if one couldn’t (or couldn’t reasonably) have known. But if the individual should have known, then the fact that they didn’t isn’t a saving grace.

Columbus isn’t in a position where the “he didn’t know any better” excuse applies, and Walsh’s apologia falls flat for the same reason it would fall flat in the example of any other systematic rapist and genocidal whack-a-loon. “I didn’t know mass murder was bad” isn’t culpability reducing. “Timmy was doing systematic rape, too” doesn’t cut against blame.

Walsh’s position is very bad, but there are more subtle alternatives in the discussion that are worth considering.

A similar version of the argument is advanced for the imperialism and racism of Winston Churchill.

Churchill played a significant role in English colonial institutions throughout his political career — as an under-secretary of state and later as prime minister during the latter days of the Indian independence movement, though not in office when India became independent. Churchill, like Columbus, is a celebrated historical figure. Unlike Columbus, there are elements of Churchill’s history that clearly deserve some level of moral praise, perhaps his leadership during World War II.

Similarly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has elements of his political career that are deeply shameful — racism and his legacy on segregation, the internment of the Japanese and other ethnic groups during the war, for starters. (As the descendant of the persecuted Jews Roosevelt kept out of the U.S. during the war, I bumped on Dean’s characterization.)

Still, one of the arguments advanced in defense of monuments to these figures is that, while they had deep moral flaws that were themselves more prevalent in their day and age, they were also great with respect to some historical events we want to memorialize.

For someone like Howard Dean, the recognition of Roosevelt’s accomplishments is enormously important. For a large portion of British political figures, Churchill is similarly significant. These are aspirational figures, people who achieved things while in office that most political figures could only dream of. Their best moments intersect with, and contribute to, high points in recent world history — and not just world history, but the particular historical identities of the nations they led.

But as members of a broader community, a society, we should continually interrogate the inclusion of figures whose track records include doing massively wrong things, even if they also did good. And why should this be so problematic? Revisiting the legacies of figures we’ve memorialized in the past is just part of living in societies that involve democratic, public participation.

Memorializing figures is complicated. People are not perfect, and political figures have ample opportunities to make consequential errors in moral judgment. Most Americans, after all, were not in a position to decide whether to intern Japanese-Americans or bomb Dresden; as such, we don’t hold them accountable for those events the way we do FDR or Churchill.

But if that’s so, then perhaps we would do well to focus our civic identity and sense of moral character on acts rather than people. One can celebrate the passage of the New Deal while criticizing mass internment and perpetuation of American racism (including Jim Crow); one can have a reflection on Roosevelt’s character in recognition of these, but without the need to absolve him of the various failings.

All social movements desire to prop up charismatic figures who can be appealed to as embodiments of moral aspiration. That is hardly unique to conservatism.

The problem is: conservatism tends to pick historical figures in positions of political power who did some work to maintain certain historical institutions on which their political power (or the political power of institutional roles they occupied) was built. For Churchill and Columbus, that meant imperialism. For Jefferson and Washington, that meant slavery.

Contrary to Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., or figures who might be venerated by radicals, the tradition of big-C Conservatives is one of small-c conservation of institutional power. As such, things those institutional powers did, what they implicated in their creation and sustenance, require exactly that moral apologia.

Conservative veneration of Churchill is predicated (in part) on Churchill’s preservation of British order and national identity; that order and national identity emphatically and explicitly included the idea of “Empire.” To preserve the moral standing of the former (which such conservatives want), some apologia is offered in defense of the latter.

This frequently includes the appeal to mitigating factors of culture, time, and place. But this is incongruous with the moral and philosophical commitments of those same conservatives, the view that what was right is always right, and that being in a particular cultural environment is not blame-mitigating. It is not blame-mitigating for Stalinists; it is not blame-mitigating for the Jacobins. It should not, by extension, be blame-mitigating for Columbus or Jefferson or Churchill, especially when each was (in fact) presented with exactly the moral critiques we recognize now as decisive.

One can adopt the commitment to a robust, attitude-independent moral truth, where moral truth is not relative to indexers like person, time, and social context. One can adopt the view that we should soften our judgments towards historical figures based on those indexers. (We could even adopt neither, which is my own view.) But one cannot adopt both.

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