The Duty to Remove Statues of Wrongdoers

Journal of Practical Ethics 7 (3):1-31 (2019)

Authors
Helen Frowe
Stockholm University
Abstract
This paper argues that public statues of persons typically express a positive evaluative attitude towards the subject. It also argues that states have duties to repudiate their own historical wrongdoing, and to condemn other people’s serious wrongdoing. Both duties are incompatible with retaining public statues of people who perpetrated serious rights violations. Hence, a person’s being a serious rights violator is a sufficient condition for a state’s having a duty to remove a public statue of that person. I argue that this applies no less in the case of the ‘morally ambiguous’ wrongdoer, who both accomplishes significant goods and perpetrates serious rights violations. The duty to remove a statue is a defeasible duty: like most duties, it can be defeated by lesser-evil considerations. If removing a statue would, for example, spark a violent riot that would risk unjust harm to lots of people, the duty to remove could be outweighed by the duty not to foreseeably cause unjust harm. This would provide a lesser-evil justification for keeping the statue. But it matters that the duty to remove is outweighed, rather than negated, by these consequences. Unlike when a duty is negated, one still owes something in cases of outweighing. And it especially matters that it is outweighed by the predicted consequences of wrongful behaviour by others.
Keywords Ethics  Historical Wrongdoing  Duty
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