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As Statues Fall, What’s the Best Way to Evaluate History’s Heroes?

The United States is in the midst of an orgy of literal iconoclasm, with activists and local officials toppling the statues of not only Confederate generals, but even Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. And Princeton University has scrubbed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Are these long-overdue corrections in the name of social justice, or simply ideologically driven acts of anti-historical vandalism? The answer depends on how we judge the moral actions of figures from the past, a question that in turn requires us to consider the nature of morality itself.

One possibility is that morality is dependent on local circumstances and facts about social order and organization. Ethical codes and rules of accepted behavior are the organic outcomes of cultural terroir, and wither when transplanted into unsuitable societies. The laid-back free love mores of the Trobriand Islanders were never going to be suitable for the warriors of Sparta. There is no one absolutely true morality any more than there is one absolutely proper style of painting—photorealism was never going to be the right style for Picasso. The cubists and the photorealists don’t condemn each other; they just peaceably do their own thing. If that’s the nature of morality, then it makes no sense at all to either criticize or praise the behavior of those in the alien societies of the past. We’re each just doing our own thing.

The alternative view is that correct morality is objective and timeless, and we should consider the history of moral thinking in the same way that we treat the history of science: despite the occasional misstep, it is the march of progress from beliefs further from the truth to ones closer to it. It was once commonly held that women were inferior to men, slavery was permissible and even divinely sanctioned, animals have no moral status, and practitioners of other religions deserve no respect. Now the tide has turned, and the majority consider those views not just outmoded, but heinous. We’ve replaced an old, bad morality with a new and better one. If that’s right, then we should think of moral actors in the past the same way that we do scientists of the past.

Scientists at any period of time can be broadly grouped into the great, the average, and the bad. Great scientists aren’t infallible, but they are making important discoveries, formulating fruitful theories, and advancing their disciplines. Average scientists are the vast majority, working out problems in the course of normal science. They aren’t the architects of the scientific cathedral, but they are its bricklayers. The bad scientists are the cranks, the quacks, the frauds pushing perpetual-motion machines. We expect, however, that the ideas of even the great scientists will be superseded in time, since that’s exactly what the advance of knowledge looks like.

Trofim Lysenko (left) speaking at the Kremlin in 1935

We remember Trofim Lysenko because of his crackpot biological and agricultural views, and how his doctrinaire rejection of Mendelian genetics decimated Soviet science under Stalin. His critics were turned over to the secret police, and millions starved due to the farming methods he promoted. All of his ideas and practices were at odds with received scientific knowledge, which Lysenko dismissed as the bourgeois tools of imperialist oppressors. We remember Andrew Wakefield for a paper he published in the medical journal the Lancet, claiming a link between vaccines and autism, based on a study of 12 children. When it was discovered that Wakefield had faked the data in the hopes of cashing in with lawsuits and by selling his own “diagnostic kits,” the paper was retracted and Wakefield stripped of his license to practice medicine. But the harm he did lingers on in the anti-vaxxer fringe. Both Lysenko and Wakefield deserve condemnation—not for being wrong, but for failing to be minimally competent scientists according to the scientific knowledge and standards of their times.

What of the great scientists in the past? Didn’t they make plenty of mistakes, too? Einstein’s theory of relativity showed Newton’s theory of mechanics to be incomplete at best; Democritus’s atomism failed to accommodate fields; Boyle didn’t take temperature into account when formulating the law of gases; Darwin didn’t know what the unit of natural selection was. And Copernicus—what a dope. How could he not see that planetary orbits are elliptical? Basically, everyone from Aristotle on down missed truths that are now taught to high school students.

Science is hard. Any advance at all is the result of real effort and struggle. It is only in retrospect that Hippocrates’s humorism is known to be wrong, root and branch, and that there are far more than four basic elements. Yet it is perfectly coherent and entirely proper to admire these scientists even while acknowledging that they got some things wrong. Knowledge is a relay race. It is a fundamental misunderstanding about how it works to criticize a swift runner who effectively passed the baton because he did not complete the race on his own.

All of which to say, there is a vital difference between being wrong and being blameworthy. Einstein struggled to admit the fact of quantum entanglement, but that does not entail his blameworthiness as a scientist. In one clear sense, he was on the “wrong side” of quantum history, but that doesn’t necessarily merit demotion from the pantheon. Scientific praiseworthiness or blameworthiness is determined not by the standards of our times, but of theirs. While you can hardly blame Darwin for not knowing the unit of natural selection, you would certainly blame a modern biology undergraduate if she did not know about DNA. Nonetheless, it is Darwin who deserves our admiration and praise, even if today’s undergrad knows more than he did.

The proper assessment of the science of the past is a subset of more general common-sense rules we apply in daily life. We all know that one can do the wrong thing by innocent misunderstanding, and not deserve criticism; just as one can do the right thing by accident, and not deserve praise. An example of the former would include a bombardier who is ordered to bomb an enemy target, carefully follows his orders exactly, and hits the target dead-on, only thereafter realizing that he’d bombed his own side because his commanders had supplied him with faulty information. An example of the latter would include a thief who steals your car and thereby prevents you from driving to a vacation home that ends up being destroyed in a natural disaster. When it comes to praise and blame, intention and context matter, not just a snapshot of the final result.

Anyone who thinks that right moral thinking is obvious, and is incredulous at the horrible beliefs of the past, is the unwitting heir to a philosophical fortune hard-earned by their forebears. The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it is a long arc. As with scientists, moral actors of the past also fall into the great, the average, and the bad. Our judgment of them shouldn’t be by the standards of our own times, but the standards of theirs. By the moral understanding of his day, Vlad the Impaler was still a monster. But should we say the same of St. Paul, who in his Letter to Philemon, returns Onesimus, a runaway slave, to his owner instead of providing the slave with safe harbor? While Paul’s letter includes a request for Christian mercy, he omits condemnation for the horror of slavery. Paul was no slave trader, but the moral views displayed here were typical for his time.

“Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish envoys,” painted by Theodor Aman (1831–1891)

Newton wrote to Robert Hooke that if he saw further than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. That was a medieval metaphor that went back to before the 12th century, when John of Salisbury wrote in his Metalogicon, “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

Medieval humility has been inverted in the modern era with the hubris that we are moral giants on the shoulders of the dwarfs of the past, wicked dwarfs who deserve our eternal scorn. As we tear down more monuments to former heroes and erase their names from our buildings, we ought to think about their blameworthiness by the standards and expectations of their own era. Those supposed moral dwarfs we now decry may have been giants of their time. And you don’t have to be a scientist to know that even the largest persons look small when seen from a distance.



Steven D. Hales is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His newest book is The Myth of Luck: Philosophy, Fate and Fortune.

Featured image: Statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London.


  1. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
    (Luke 23:24)

  2. A very interesting and well-written essay on the current hubris—thank you.

    In cognitive psychology (and behavioral economics), there’s a tendency to misjudge referred to as “temporal myopia”—failing to accurately weigh a higher long-term benefit when a lesser short term benefit is at hand.

    A common example includes making an important dental appointment for three weeks ahead and cancelling the appointment the day before (or day of)—the importance of the decision (dental health) is easier to recognize from a ‘distance’ (3 weeks ahead), but not the day of, since the immediacy of a task at hand may seem more important.

    Another common example is registering for an important course in the major program you’re pursuing—the course is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. and you have every intention of attending classes, but more often than not, you oversleep and miss classes. The importance of the course for your degree program is easy to see from a ‘distance’—and every time you set your alarm the night before, you recognize that, but when the alarm rings, you shut it off and fall back to sleep—that’s most important right at that moment.

    The hubristic, short-sighted “giants [of today] standing on the shoulders of [the past’s moral] dwarfs” have only the present as a focus, compounded by the relentless immediacy of social media.

    An ability to self-reflect and to gain knowledge allows a person to step out of the immediate and create strategies to prevent being caught in temporal myopia ‘traps’. Ulysses, for example, had himself tied to his ship’s mast (and had the crew block their ears) so he could hear the Sirens but not steer the ship into danger. That foresight also requires humility—a capacity sorely lacking in those finding fault in everyone and in every era prior to today.

  3. I think we in the modern age underestimate just how much of the moral landscape of previous times was driven by cruel, hard necessity. The Malthusian trap ensured that almost the only way to escape a life of back-breaking labour, paired with sustenance levels which could only be described as borderline malnutrition, was by holding some form of captive human labour, be it through serfdom or slavery.

    Similarly, many Nations were forced into institutions like colonialism, because when the world was more clearly subject to the inevitability of ‘Might makes Right’- every nation had to live with the fact that a neighbour which possessed more wealth than your own nation could easily conquer you and steal your wealth in order to extend their own power and relative luxury.

    It wasn’t that the Founding Fathers didn’t suspect that slavery was wrong- the original draft scheduled for July 2nd implied as much, they simple knew that without the universal consent to ban slavery and the solidarity is represented, their own only recently won freedom from the British Crown would have been sacrificed on the altar of noble, but vain, idealism. To not teach these axioms is awful. It belies the very real progress we have made in the two hundred plus years since the Enlightenment began.

    But, of course, that’s the whole point. The Leftist doesn’t want kids to know that the natural state of humanity is scrapping a dollar a day from the ground, with no relief or end in sight. If we knew this fact, we might be a good deal more cautious in trying to jury rig the machine of capitalism to produce results of which it is incapable.

    Nobody knows, for instance, that the wealthiest Nations of the world spent more than enough of their revenues to bring the Developing World out of poverty many times over since the seventies, but that is simply failed to work because the only way out of poverty is through the trading of surpluses of productive labour with others, and anything which fails to generate this productive labour is doomed to failure. By contrast, the free market paired with technologically aided access to banking facilities, halved the total number of people living in absolute poverty in twelve years, between 2000 and 2012.

    Greed succeeded where generosity failed for over fifty years. Gandhi was wrong when he said “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” He should have said “there is enough for everyone’s need, only when there is enough greed.” In Africa, when Aid Agencies return to see whether the wells they provided are still working, the only thing that guarantees whether or not they are still functioning, is whether the wells are linked to the economic prosperity of the village- if not, the well will be broken, with women and children back to carrying disease-infected water from the local river, miles away.

  4. Could I ask a question or two about Lee and the Confederacy? Did Lee resign from the US Army before he took up his command in the Confederate Forces? Secondly, were the Confederates breaking up the union or seceeding from it? Was the fact that slavery was the cause of the Confederacy’s secession the thing that really made it wrong? Would things be different, say, if California tried to secede now on the basis that the rest of the country wasn’t woke enough?

  5. @quillette: Medieval humility has been inverted in the modern era with the hubris that we are moral giants on the shoulders of the dwarfs of the past, wicked dwarfs who deserve our eternal scorn. (…) Those supposed moral dwarfs we now decry may have been giants of their time.

    How true.

    And I take comfort from the thought that today’s woke supremacists and self-appointed moral supergiants will one day be universally recognized as the disgusting destructive malevolent evil dwarves that they really are.

  6. Excellent stuff.

    I would add that what the new class of SJW really doesn’t care about is his or er country. They want lots and lots of government, but they don’t give fig about Canada. All they care about is their identity group. Thus any statue or memorial that glorifies the creation of Canada is evil to them. They know no real history, except for the tale of ‘‘oppression’’ that their half-educated teachers tell them.

  7. The good professor averts his eyes from the enemy. :slight_smile: (I’m not mad at him.)

    There is a civic procedure for putting them up. The same civic procedure exists for taking them down. I would have zero tolerance for mob action.

    The mob does not appear to me, unless I’m mistaken, much interested in finer distinctions of any sort. It is on a quest for power and plunder, motivated by envy and hatred. The rhetorical mishmash generated by the rabble rousing demagogues are not serious thoughts and principles----they will say whatever lowers the bar of reason, and raises the temperature of the mob. No conversation is being invited.

    Quillette is entitled to preach to the choir, of course. So far, I am not aware any of our intellectuals has taken the only proper position. The mob must be shut down with the force of government, because that is what government is for.

  8. What you’ve stated here is a ‘Kafka trap’—something that cannot be disagreed with, because disagreeing implies agreement with ‘celebrating and honoring accomplishments of slavers.’ However, disagreement with statue-toppling is unlikely due to people today wanting to celebrate or honor slavers or slavery. That’s why ‘Kafka traps’ are disingenuous—they push thinking in a particular way and make one ‘right’ way seem obvious.

    History of nations (as of individuals) is full of many details, some morally praiseworthy, and some not. Erasing history means erasing memory. My approach is to learn to live with the memories of a nation’s (and a person’s) history—it is ultimately better, imo, to confront the good and bad of nations/people and learn about what is important in life.

  9. So you think the world would be better off today if the Europeans had just stayed in Europe? Or if the Romans had just kept to their city and not tried to expand? After the first people migrated into Europe should no one else have tried to migrate there because it was already taken? Humans are wild animals and the world is a brutal place. We’re incredibly lucky to be living in the tiny sliver of history and in the particular parts of the world where we are able to mostly escape such brutality. It seems unfair to judge people of the past who lived in more brutal times for not behaving the way you would expect people today to behave, people who are living in luxury unimaginable to even kings of the old world.

  10. Incorrect. The sins of the father should never be inherited by the son. And every attempt by well intentioned Left-leaning politicians to make redress for the damage caused by the past have always ended up making the situation worse rather than better. The one exception might be a historic Black entrepreneur project, that I believe happened in the late seventies, which I keep meaning to look into.

    It’s a bit like TOMS shoes- the intention was noble- provide people in Africa with western-style shoes for free. But instead it ended up putting tens of thousands of African cobblers out of work, with generosity. Of course, the company did eventually come to understand the damage they were doing, and shifted a portion of their manufacturing into Africa- but if they had really wanted to help they would have shifted all of it there, and instituted a fair trade policy ensuring equitable pay for all of their African labour and supply chains.

    The problem is that Critical Race Theory mindset blinds people to very real and obvious solutions which can be gathered by empirical evidence. A prime example, it the Criminal Justice System in the UK- on the surface, it looked as though there were sentencing disparities by race. But upon more detailed investigation it was found that almost all the discrepancy lay in BAME individuals not availing themselves of the substantial reduction in sentences for pleading guilty, because they believed the system would treat them unfairly on racial grounds. So the belief in mythical racism, created very real systemic racism.

    Now, to a moderate liberal the solution would be to create a bureaucracy of community liaison officers to hand hold, and coax them into pleading guilty. A better solution would be more BAME solicitors and barristers guided towards this role. But here’s the thing- we want to avoid creating perverse incentives both with diversity quotas and creating perverse incentives for persuading innocent people to plead guilty.

    So here’s what we do- we perform an economic analysis which looks at the percentage increase of defendants pleading guilty with a BAME solicitor or barrister, compared to a white one, and then work out all the additional court costs, including expert witnesses and police, as well as the costs of additional prison time for custodial sentences. We then pay the Chambers or Legal Firm providing legal services a percentage of the notional cost savings to the taxpayer. Not only would we eliminate much of the disparity and reduce costs to the taxpayer, but also it wouldn’t be long before every Chambers and Legal Firm across the country specialising would suddenly have Black and Brown legal professionals ready to deal with these cases.

    You just wouldn’t get these solutions with an intersectional or Critical Race Theory approach, because to begin with the ideology blinds to empirical evidence- but even if the ideological activists did discover the truth behind the disparity, they wouldn’t want it made public or ‘solved’, because it would rob them of a narrative tool in fighting their pernicious struggle… To allow human suffering to perpetuate in the name of some dubious future greater good, is always ultimately evil- like the Socialist who says that it doesn’t matter if a few die in bloody revolution if it hastens a promised utopia that never comes. Sometimes sacrifices can be justified, if the return is real, tangible and saves more human suffering, in the now, but anything which pins its hopes on a future utopia, is a Faustian deal, in essence.

  11. I thought so.
    It’s a terrible idea and one I would never support in a million years. I have worked my whole life to build an estate to leave to my son specifically because my father left me with absolutely nothing. The “state” deserves next to nothing of what I have earned in this life. My son, on the other hand, will stand to inherit what meager funds and property I can amass before my death. How dare any man propose that “the state” should be authorized to steal what I have worked so hard for my whole life? The “state” be damned.

  12. Yes, be your own gatekeeper. I see a lot of liberals drawing deeply on all their patience, all their knowledge of history, all their faculties of reason and all to reach across the aisle, to persuade the communists why they are wrong. It can’t be done. There is an epistemological divide.

    Non empirical assertions are made as a priori axioms, and a whole sequence is constructed from theory. It is all self evident, so any refutation can only be confirmation of one or more of the neologisms — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It is all infantile and magical, but clad in the moral armor of a crusader for blacks, and women, and homosexuals, and the oppressed everywhere.

    It is a mistake to reason with them. You have to treat them as mentally ill people. Do not use their vocabulary, do not enter their frame, do not treat them as a peer. Ignore them. Dismiss with contempt, if you must.

    Some will grow up. Some will learn reason.

  13. My poor Jewish ancestor who came to the US from Germany just before the civil war and set up a mercantile shop? He did end up making decent money, and his kids even more later on, though they had very little to start with, but I’m not sure on what basis you say they stole it. Seems rather slanderous.

    the kind of trauma severe poverty inflicts in the developmental years on people that messes them up so bad they can’t possibly be productive in the same sense as a privileged person

    Do you have any factual basis for anything you’ve said in this thread whatsoever?

  14. Funny, my holocaust surviving grandparents didn’t think the world is so awful, nor does my father, a veteran of a few wars, nor do I, who also lost friends in those wars. My biography is quite typical of Israelis my age, incidentally.

    This weltschmertz is, rather, the selfishness and lack of control of a spoiled child, who throws a tantrum when his stupid dad cuts his PJ sandwich the wrong way. He, too, feels himself at that moment the victim of a cosmic injustice cause by the older generation.

    Modern “humanitarian” education is making adults into mental six year olds screaming “it’s not faaaaaaaaaiiiiiirrrrrr!”, instead of the other way around, like it should.

  15. I just finished a post responding to @Librarian on this subject. The data just doesn’t back your assertions up. Whether we look at Google searches, implicit association data at a population level (which is the only level it’s useful at), or views on interracial marriage, America has moved on from the place you describe. Best estimates of the total percentage of people holding even modestly overtly racist views at between 5% and 10% of the total population. Of these, two-third are Republican and one-third are Democrats, and two-thirds are 65.

    One of the problem which occurs is the Left has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to redefine what racism means. Whilst many like myself acknowledge that systemic racism exists, we don’t see it as arising from some struggle between power groups with people acting as glove puppets for some racial hierarchy enforced at a group level. The systems which give rise to systemic racism are incredibly complex, could not operate at the behest of any group, however subconsciously, and more often seem to manifest out of a poorly conceived desire to help.

    For example, under Obama the Department of Education took a higher tendency to discipline Black kids as evidence of implicit bias on the part of white liberal schoolteachers. This is despite the fact that they are more likely to be poor, a portion will live in high crime neighbourhoods with poor role models, single mothers are nine times more likely to experience domestic or sexual violence than married women, which has horrendous impacts on children, and the youth crime figures largely reflect that these tendencies, without intervention, can cause an escalation which results in prison.

    The net result of the deliberate attempt to reduce the percentages of Black kids being disciplined, will be a whole generation of Black kids with substandard educations caused by classrooms that are disrupted. Even moderate disruptions in classrooms can result in two years worth of lost education by the end of K-12, and perversely kids can see a lack of justified discipline as proof that they are second-class citizen that nobody cares about- reducing their sense of agency and increasing their narrative disenfranchisement. Good intentions, gone horribly wrong- and the system is replete with such examples.

    On a broader note, the reason why white liberals see racism where little exists is because, as previously mentioned, they have a distorted view of what counts as racism. This source wil help you understand.

    Only a minority of American and British respondents consider it racist for
    people to want immigration reduced or selectively increased to give their
    group a demographic advantage. A majority of all racial backgrounds
    consider this a racially self-interested rather than racist preference.

    73% of white Clinton voters say a White American who wants to reduce
    immigration to maintain her group’s share of the population is being racist,
    but just 18% say a Latino or Asian American who wants to increase
    immigration from Latin America or Asia to boost her group’s share of the
    population is being racist.

    The other thing to bear in mind, is that the stronger in-group preferences shown in all poorer demographics in the West, tends to operate on the basis of culture rather than race. So the Black Harlem resident won’t resent the White Hipster entering their community because they are White, but rather because they won’t integrate to the existing social fabric, and, as a group, will be bring changes that alter the tenor and culture of the community which will make it feel less like a community and less like home.

    The tendency of recent poorer migrants to self-segregate through choice, because they, like all psychological conservatives draw comfort from associating with the familiar, only exacerbates the situation. Often this tendency to self-segregate leads to entire communities being displaced, making a natural conservative feel as though they have lost a cherished family home. Culture, not race, is the main driver of this phenomenon, as shown by the fact that poorer Western communities can be very inclusive on the basis of race, but are decidedly less able to handle the large-scale imposition of foreign cultures.

    This is why the umbrella of shared language, national identity, cultural history and civic nationalism are so important for Western societies- because for those born in the bottom two-thirds of society, it is only these common bonds of a shared national identity which allows the less fortunate to look beyond race, and draw a larger circle of common humanity. Universalism is a uniquely Western concept, it would be a shame to lose it, simply because cosmopolitan liberals don’t understand the foundation it is built upon.

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