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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Rossi

Should We Tear Down the Monuments?

Their monument sticks like a fishbone

in the city’s throat

-Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”

Across the world today, societies are roiled by controversies surrounding the decision about who should be counted as a hero worth honoring with the erection of a monument. Nowhere is this more evident than the United States, where in recent years monuments to the leaders of a short-lived slaveholding republic called the Confederate States of America have become flashpoints in debates between conservatives and progressives over the very meaning of American history.

These controversies raise fascinating philosophical questions: who should society honor, and why? Who should be empowered to erect monuments? When and by whom should monuments be taken down? In this article, I hope to make progress toward answering some of these vexed questions. I will primarily focus on the American context, and in particular upon Confederate monuments, although what I will say here should have application to monuments controversies in other societies.

What is a monument? In a nutshell, a monument is a type of public, honorific art. It is public in that it is intended by its sponsors and creators to be located in a public space, on view to the general public. And it is honorific in that it is intended by its sponsors and creators to express admiration or esteem—usually for some person, but occasionally for a place or a concept. As we will see, it is because monuments are essentially honorific that they tend to raise so much controversy. And it is because they are essentially public that removing them from their public place of honor drastically changes their meaning.

Both sides of monuments debates tend to reduce the point at issue to a simple binary: to remove or not to remove. The reason is easy to see, given the above definition of monuments: to remove a monument from its public place of honor is to act in a manner directly contrary to the monument’s purpose. Yet there are actually a wide range of recontextualization strategies short of removal that might constitute adequate responses to worries about a particular monument—for example, the addition of signage or other works of art. I will return to this point when I consider arguments against removal.

[P]ublic art and architecture are important means by which society and government can provide assurances to members of vulnerable groups that their rights and constitutional entitlements will be respected.

Supporters of removal of Confederate monuments argue that they unavoidably harm people of color by conveying messages of support for white supremacy. This argument is based on a claim about what the monuments mean. In this regard, the intentions of their sponsors and creators are a particularly important source of their meaning, since they determine such basic facts as what and whom they represent, as well as the values they express. Most monuments to the Confederacy were erected either in the wake of Reconstruction or during the Civil Rights movement, when Blacks in the South were fighting for greater political power and social equality, and they were intended to express opposition to these developments. Even apart from this history, monumental, idealized depictions of leaders of a state dedicated to the perpetuation of racial slavery are reasonably interpreted as endorsements of the values the Confederacy embodied. And when these monuments are sited on public land, as most are, this can be reasonably interpreted as conveying the endorsements of the public and the state.

Why does this matter? As the philosopher Jeremy Waldron points out, public art and architecture are important means by which society and government can provide assurances to members of vulnerable groups that their rights and constitutional entitlements will be respected. Such assurances are an important part of people’s sense of safety and belonging. But when the public art of a society instead conveys endorsements of subordination and discrimination, this robs members of vulnerable groups of these assurances, transforming the public world into a hostile space and encouraging withdrawal into the private sphere. Imagine for a moment living in a society in which individuals who approved of, or took part in, rights violations against members of the group to which you belong are the subjects of public art expressing admiration for their virtues or deeds. Surely, this would make you doubt whether your society took your rights seriously. Thus, vulnerable groups that are intimidated by monuments that express approval for their subordination may be less able to advance their political, social, and economic interests. Importantly, none of these baneful consequences turn on anyone’s being merely offended by Confederate monuments.

The upshot of this argument is that there is a strong prima facie case for removal of Confederate monuments. In the absence of compelling countervailing moral reasons not to remove, the argument supports an all-things-considered judgment that they morally ought to be removed.

However, there are at least three conservative arguments that even monuments to Confederates should not be removed from their public places of honor. I will consider these in turn.

[W]hen the public art of a society [...] conveys endorsements of subordination and discrimination, this robs members of vulnerable groups of these assurances, transforming the public world into a hostile space and encouraging withdrawal into the private sphere.

The first argument captures, I hope, the “slippery slope” concerns voiced by a number of conservatives, including the last President. The idea is that there is some moral threshold below which it is clearly impermissible to honor a person with a monument. Activists who call for the removal of Confederate monuments set that threshold too high; applied consistently, their preferred threshold would make it impermissible to honor not only Confederates but many worthy figures from history, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Abraham Lincoln. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “if purity is the threshold…there will be no monuments.”

There is evidence to suggest that the slippery slope created by setting the moral threshold high is actual, and not merely theoretical; many cities are considering removing monuments to important historical figures, not just Confederates. For example, Chicago’s Monuments Project, a city committee tasked with reevaluating Chicago’s commemorative landscape, released a list of 41 prima facie “problematic” monuments that included statutes of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and William McKinley. The co-chairs of the committee suggested that the statutes of Lincoln and Grant were included because of their role in the forcible removal of Native Americans from their land. Evidently, the threshold for removal has been set at something like involvement in the oppression of historically marginalized groups, and unfortunately, many important Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries were so involved—even those who in other ways made outstanding contributions to civic life (think Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

If the basic case against Confederate monuments is correct, then there is good reason to reconsider how we honor figures like Lincoln and Grant. It’s not just that they were both morally flawed; more importantly given the considerations highlighted above, both of them played well-known roles in the oppression of Native Americans. To honor these individuals without acknowledging these roles could undermine the confidence of Native Americans that society is committed to upholding their basic rights and constitutional entitlements. Therefore, these roles should be emphasized in any monument to these men in order to convey a properly balanced admiration tempered by acknowledgement of the injustices to which they contributed.

However, as I suggested above, this does not entail removal of the monuments, since there may be good moral reasons why recontextualization is a better strategy than removal in these cases. Notably, monuments to Lincoln or Grant may help provide assurances of respectful treatment to certain historically marginalized groups—for example, American Blacks—at the same time that they undermine others’ confidence. These varying interests must be balanced, and the outcome of that balancing exercise may be a decision to recontextualize rather than remove.

[T]he movement to change the commemorative landscape should be about upholding the dignity of those who are currently marginalized, not punishing historical figures for past injustices.

Another argument aims at capturing the charge that advocates of removal are guilty of moral arrogance, with a twist. Plausibly, a hypocrite is someone who either (a) is guilty of broadly similar kinds of wrongdoing as those she holds others responsible for or (b) would be guilty of such wrongdoing were she in circumstances similar to those of the people she blames. On this definition, many of the people who call for the removal of monuments are hypocrites, for they either unknowingly engage in or endorse moral wrongs that will in the future be viewed with the same sort of abhorrence as the wrongs of the monumentalized (for example, eating meat or putting the elderly into nursing homes), or they would have engaged in the same wrongdoing as the monumentalized had they had the moral misfortune of being born in the same time and place. But hypocrites do not have the standing to blame others. So, if calling for the removal of monuments is an expression of blame, then many those who so advocate do not have the standing to do so. And if they lack the standing to do so, then they presumptively should not do so.

There are at least two plausible responses to this argument. The first is to see it as a reductio of the proposition that hypocrites lack the standing to blame: if this implies that most people presumptively ought not blame historical figures for any wrongdoing, then so much the worse for that proposition. Another response is to see it as a warning against thinking about removing monuments in terms of blaming those they represent for wrongdoings. The case for removal I laid out above makes no reference to the blameworthiness of the monumentalized; rather, it is predicated on the effects of monuments on current members of society. Put another way: the movement to change the commemorative landscape should be about upholding the dignity of those who are currently marginalized, not punishing historical figures for past injustices. We need not stand in smug and perhaps hypocritical judgment of these figures in order to be concerned about the effects of honoring them.

Some claim that removing monuments constitutes an erasure of history, comparing it to burning books. If “erasing history” simply means “destroying something that existed in the past,” tearing down a monument erases history in precisely the same way as tearing down an old house. But as this example suggests, there are many cases of erasing history that seem morally unobjectionable, and the mere fact that something from the past will cease to exist is not in itself a reason to preserve it. Opponents of taking down the monuments sometimes argue that they teach us important lessons about our shared history. This argument at least offers a reason why it might be desirable to preserve this particular class of objects. The trouble is that the story they tell is often distorted and misleading precisely because they were intended not to educate, but to intimidate one group of citizens and cultivate admiration for the Confederacy in another. Monuments are more like billboards than books. Museums can educate the public more effectively than monuments, and without the negative consequences described above. Indeed, in some cases, monuments have found new homes in museums, where they can be properly contextualized for public consumption.

Abstract moral arguments for or against removal can seem far removed from the practical politics of removal, which raise interesting ethical questions of their own. As I write this, there is a struggle in statehouses across the United States over who controls decision-making about monument removal. In an interesting twist on the usual pattern, progressives tend to favor more localized forms of control, while conservatives favor a process that delegates authority to the states rather than cities or counties. The reason is that since at least 2015 progressive cities in conservative states have been busy removing their Confederate monuments while statehouses look helplessly on. On its face, it would appear that devolving decision-making to the most local governmental body is the better option because that body is typically more responsive to local concerns and values. Here the Chicago Monuments Project can provide a template for how cities should deal with controversial monuments. One can only hope that the deliberations of such committees include at least some attention to the moral issues raised above.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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