Mark Alicke Ph.D.

Why We Blame

Heroes, Statues, and Moral Standards

Judging people by the norms of their time is more complicated than it may seem.

Posted Aug 22, 2017

Source: Yellowspacehopper/Wikimedia Commons

I received my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and walked by the Silent Sam statue hundreds of times. I am embarrassed to say that I never gave it much thought at the time—I don’t think I even read the inscription. But in later visits to the university, I did begin to wonder why so little fuss was made about this statue that commemorates Confederate soldiers on the campus of a leading center of learning. Now that the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has anteceded a deadly riot instigated by white supremacists, and protesters have toppled a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers at the Durham County courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, the question about the propriety of statues commemorating the Confederacy has reignited a national debate.

Silent Sam is purportedly an homage to the 321 UNC alumni who died during the Civil War. By itself, this might be less objectionable than some other Civil War statues in that it does not honor a specific “hero.” But the fact that the statue was donated by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who many view as a white supremacist group, muddies the waters and leads one reasonably to suggest that the statue, dedicated in 1915, was erected in support of Jim Crow laws rather than to honor duty as “the sublimest word in the English language.” As psychologists have recognized at least harking back to Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience to authority studies, duty and obligation can also be the ugliest words in the English language.

From a psychological standpoint, an important aspect of the debate concerns the moral standards that we believe should be imposed on the Confederacy and its military leaders, which is part of a larger question regarding the moral standards we choose to impose on anyone, including ourselves. Present controversies center predominantly on military figures involved in America’s Civil War. But the war was a culmination, and certainly not the beginning, of America’s abominable racial history. At its outset in 1861, even Russia—not usually thought of as the vanguard in human rights—had just freed its serfs, and England had abolished slavery much earlier with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. By contrast, slavery had been a staple of the southern American economy since the first colonists arrived, and by the time of the Civil War, most southern political leaders and planters had dug in their heels and extolled it as a virtue for the people who were enslaved.

The corner-stone belief of the Confederacy, according to its vice-president Alexander Stephens, was that slavery was the natural and normal condition of black people. So even if we believe that individuals, including historical figures, should be evaluated according to the standards that prevail in the times that they lived, in 1861, Americans who supported slavery were, morally, lagging far behind most of the civilized world.

Whatever satisfaction Americans can take in the strides that have been made on racial progress—which is itself a matter of debate—there is little doubt that racial equality is a long way from being unanimously embraced in America. That the statue removed at the University of Virginia was that of Robert E. Lee, incontestably the most significant leader of the Confederate military, brings the moral issues involved into sharp relief. Lee’s views on slavery are a matter of some contention, but it is fair to say that his view of African-Americans may have been no more or less enlightened than that of the average Northerner. Lee was not in favor of disunion, and after the war, was an influential voice for healing past wounds, particularly in his role of university president in what eventually became Washington and Lee University (and yes, Washington refers to George, thereby linking these two from 1870 to the present).

Does Lee deserve to be commemorated with statues? Lee’s family line was one of the most distinguished in America at the time, including signers of the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War heroes, and state governors. Lee graduated first in his class at West Point, and was Abraham Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Northern armies in the Civil War. Claiming loyalty to his home state of Virginia, Lee led the Confederate army instead. Historians have recently argued that this makes Lee a traitor who was lucky not to be executed. This might be extreme, but I agree that the frequent attempt to draw a moral equivalence between Lee and George Washington is a non-starter: Washington dedicated his life to the creation of America; Lee fought a war to sunder it. As Lee was fully aware, if his side had won, slavery would have continued for the foreseeable future.  

Nevertheless, Washington did own slaves, had them hunted down when they escaped, and freed them, conveniently, only after he died. Does this mean that the Washington monument should be torn down and that Americans should stop celebrating his birthday? I am guessing that relatively few black or white Americans would support this movement. And I think the reason is that slavery was, regrettably, a “normal” part of George Washington’s world, even if more morally evolved individuals recognized its evils. Although neither Washington nor Jefferson could be considered moral paragons, not even by the standards of their era, few Americans at the time viewed them as morally bereft. Robert E. Lee, by contrast, for all his virtues, led the military attempt for disunion. Only recently have all the Americans killed in other wars this country has fought exceeded the numbers killed in the Civil War. Robert E. Lee had impressive positive qualities—he might even have been a hero—but heroes, going back to Greek mythology, were not always worthy of being honored. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of Robert E. Lee’s villainy, but even he had no wish to be honored with statues.

Still, when evaluating moral character, it is always useful and instructive to keep in mind the norms that exist in a cultural group. Suppose, in a couple of centuries, morality evolves to the point where personhood is extended equally to all animals. In fact, research in animal cognition is making it extremely difficult to maintain the belief that humans are the only animals that possess conscious awareness. If, in the year 2217, people look back at meat-eaters from 2017 with horror and disgust, what will that say about us present carnivores? As somebody who cringes when he throws a live lobster into a pot of boiling water, I cannot claim to be unaware that I might really be doing something quite awful. And I’m pretty sure that if nobody else did it—if it weren’t normative in my culture—I wouldn’t do it either.

Which brings up one last thorny point: Cultural normativity may help to mitigate our blameworthiness, but it does not completely excuse it. That is, while the moral standards that prevail in any historical era influence the way we view the behavior of the people who existed in that era, it is no free pass. I would probably be an even worse person if I were the only one who threw lobsters in pots, ate foie gras, or enjoyed a rare ribeye, but I have the nagging suspicion that the abundance of other merciless carnivores does not exonerate me.

Silent Sam photo by Yellowspacehopper (CC BY 3.0)

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