A Philosopher's Blog

Confederate Monuments

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2017
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The question “when was the last battle of the Civil War fought?” is a trick question; the last battle has yet to be fought. One minor skirmish took place recently in New Orleans as the city began its removal of Confederate monuments. Fortunately, this skirmish has yet to result in any injuries or deaths, although the removal of the first monument looked like a covert military operation. Using equipment with hidden company names, the removal crews wore masks and body armor while operating under both the cover of darkness and police sniper protection. These precautions were deemed necessary because of threats made against workers. In addition to being controversial, such removals are philosophically interesting.

One general argument in favor of keeping such Confederate monuments in place is the historical argument: the monuments express and are part of history and their removal is analogous to tearing pages from the history books. This argument does have considerable appeal, at least in cases in which the monuments mark an historical event and stick to the facts. However, monuments tend to be erected to bestow honors and this goes beyond mere noting of historical facts.

One example of such a monument is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. It was erected in New Orleans in 1891 to honor the 1874 battle between the Crescent City White League and the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan police and state militia. The monument was modified by the city in 1932 with a plaque expressing support for white supremacy. The monument was modified again in 1993 when a new plaque was placed over the 1932 plaque, commemorating all those who died in the battle.

From a moral perspective, the problem with this sort of monument is that it does not merely present a neutral historical marker, but endorses white supremacy and praises racism. As such, to keep the memorial in place is to state that the city currently at least tolerates white supremacy and racism. If these values are still endorsed by the city, then the monument should remain as an honest expression of these immoral values. That way people will know what to expect in the city.

However, if the values are no longer endorsed by the city, then it would seem that the monument should be removed.  This would express the current views of the people of the city. It could be objected that such removal would be on par with purging historical records. Obviously, the records of the event should not be purged. It is, after all, a duty of history to record what has been and this can be done without praising (or condemning) what has occurred. In contrast, to erect and preserve an honoring monument is to take a stance on the matter—to praise or condemn it.

It could be argued that the 1993 change to the monument “redeems” it from its white supremacist and racist origins and, as such, it should be left in place. This does have some appeal, part of which is that the monument expresses the history of the (allegedly) changed values. To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.

However, the fact remains that the monument was originally created to honor white supremacy and the recent modification seems to be an effort to conceal this fact. As such, the right thing to do would seem to be to remove the monument. Since the monument does have historical significance, it would be reasonable to preserve it as such—historical artifacts can be kept without endorsing any values associated with the artifact. For example, keeping artifacts that belonged to Stalin as historically significant items is not to endorse Stalinism. Keeping a monument in a place of honor, however, does imply endorsement.

The matter can become more complicated in cases involving statues of individuals. In New Orleans, there are statues of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. It cannot be denied that these were exceptional men who shaped the history of the United States. It also cannot be denied they possessed personal virtues. Lee, in particular, was by all accounts a man of considerable virtue. P.G.T. Beauregard went on to advocate for civil rights and voting rights for blacks (though some might say this was due to mere political expediency).

Given their historical importance and the roles they played, it can be argued that they were worthy of statues and that these statues should remain to honor them. The easy and obvious counter is that they engaged in treason against the United States and backed the wicked practice of slavery. As such, whatever personal virtues they might have possessed, they should not be honored for their role in the Confederacy. Statues that honor people who were Confederates but who did laudable things after the Civil War should, of course, be evaluated based on the merits of those individuals. But to honor the Confederacy and its support of slavery would be a moral error.

It could also be argued that even though the true cause of the Confederacy (the right of states to allow people to own other people as slaves) is wicked, people like Lee and Beauregard earned their statues and their honor. As such, it would be unjust to remove the statues because of the political sensibilities of today. After all, as it should be pointed out, there are statues that honor the slave owners Washington and Jefferson for their honorable deeds within the context of the dishonor of slavery. If the principle of removing monuments that honored those who supported a rebellion aimed at creating an independent slave-owning nation was strictly followed, then there would need to be a rather extensive purge of American monuments. If honoring supporters of slavery and slave owners is acceptable, then perhaps the removal of the statues of the heroes of the Confederacy could be justified on the grounds of their rebellion against the United States. This would allow for a principled distinction to be made: statues of slavery supporters and slave owners can be acceptable, as long as they were not rebels against the United States. Alternative, the principle could be that statues of victorious rebel slavery supporters are acceptable, but those of losing rebel slavery supporters are not. Winning, it could be said, makes all the difference.

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11 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 25, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Abortion supporters are ethically the same as slavery supporters.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 25, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      I’d say there is a difference. There is no rational way to deny personhood to slaves; but the personhood of a zygote can be rationally denied. See, for example, Aquinas’ remarks about killing living things:

      On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 20): “When we hear it said, `Thou shalt not kill,’ we do not take it as referring to trees, for they have no sense, nor to irrational animals, because they have no fellowship with us. Hence it follows that the words, `Thou shalt not kill’ refer to the killing of a man.”
      I answer that, There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection. Hence it is that just as in the generation of a man there is first a living thing, then an animal, and lastly a man, so too things, like the plants, which merely have life, are all alike for animals, and all animals are for man. Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 3).

  2. nailheadtom said, on May 2, 2017 at 6:53 am

    “To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.”

    Perhaps you’re speaking of the Coliseum in Rome, where Christians and others were fed to lions, now a popular tourist attraction. How long does the moral statute of limitations last?

  3. ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2017 at 10:58 pm


    You do realise that after the last Confederate monument has been torn down they will start on the rest? Jefferson will have to go as he owned slaves, along with other founding fathers who committed sins against our current PC culture…………after which all the rest will have to go because they were white.

    • TJB said, on May 8, 2017 at 10:38 pm

      C’mon, Ronster, they are a bunch of dead white guys and they don’t count. In any case, what have they done besides creating the only civilizations that people care to live in? Isn’t that enough reason to tear them down?

      • ronster12012 said, on May 8, 2017 at 11:58 pm

        What is behind the suicide of white societies? i ask that as France has just decided to commit suicide. Too much peace an prosperity leading to apathy leading to self hatred? Cultural marxism( as practiced by George Soros and pals)? Globalist/bankster plans to erase borders? All the above and more?

        • TJB said, on May 9, 2017 at 8:48 am

          Good article on this issue by Bruce Bawer:

          Living in a Muslim neighborhood of Amsterdam in early 1999, I read up on Islam and realized very quickly what Europe was up against. Two and a half years later, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred, I assumed pretty much everyone else would get it, too.

          But it didn’t work that way. Yes, some people did get it almost instantaneously, in both America and Europe. They caught up on a lot of reading, did a great deal of soul-searching, and underwent a major philosophical metamorphosis.

          But even after other horrific attacks occurred – in Madrid, London, and elsewhere – a lot of people refused to accept the plain truth. The plainer the truth got, in fact, the more fiercely they resisted it. And as skilled propagandists began to represent Muslims as the mother of all victim groups, many Westerners were quick to buy into it all.

          How, again, to make sense of this?


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 12, 2017 at 6:33 pm

      While I get that your slippery slope is rhetorical, you do raise a point well worth considering. As you note, most historical figures have sins in their past that offend people. As such, people could certainly push the borders of the purge ever wider.

      • ronster12012 said, on May 13, 2017 at 5:40 am


        I know that you don’t get slippery slopes as they are supposedly a fallacy, but in real life they are everywhere. Say yes once and you will have less reason to say no the next time. Give an inch and they(often) will take a mile etc. Precedent and all that…. Now if life were truly random then there would be no slippery slopes as one action in one direction would inevitably be cancelled or reversed by another equally random action in the opposite direction. However, in human society, there is desire and intent which form trajectories….it’s almost Newtonian as things will keep going till they meet enough resistance.

        And in terms of this question re monuments(and reputations) tear down one and the rest will go as it is simply the logical extension. I can make a good case(in idiot leftist terms) in under 30 seconds that the entire white history of the US should be erased…….they stole it from the american indians and therefore everything that follows is illegitimate. So there!

        All BS of course as the natives would steal land and women and slaves from each other(eek, slavers!!! but of the wrong colour to be criticized)and they simply had done to themselves what they did to others.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 23, 2017 at 7:41 pm

          The slippery slope fallacy occurs when a person claims that X will inevitably follow from Y, without supporting this assertion adequately. If X and Y can be connected by evidence, then there is no fallacy. For example, if there is good data showing that yielding an inch to people will likely result in them taking a mile, then it would not be fallacy if that data was used to support the claim about inches and miles.

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