Another criterion for judging whether to “cancel” someone

September 15, 2020 • 11:00 am

Although I don’t spend a lot of time calling for people to be unpersoned, canceled, or have their statues toppled or namesakes changed, I do try to discern whether “cancellation” calls are justified or unwarranted. Clearly there’s no good criteria that will work all the time, so it usually comes down to a judgment call.  In general, I tend to side with those who want history left as it is, but sometimes qualified, as with statues of Confederates famous for defending the South. (I favor “counterstatues” or explanatory plaque.) But in many cases, such as the Teddy Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History, I see no need for revision (see Greg’s post on that here).

My criteria so far have been twofold. First, is the statue celebrating something good a person did rather than something bad? So, for example, Hitler statues fail this test, though I hear that some Nazi statues are simply left to molder and degenerate rather than having been pulled down. Second, were the person’s contributions on balance good or bad? So, though Gandhi was a bit of a racist towards blacks as a barrister in South Africa, the net amount of good he did in bringing India into existence through nonviolent protest seems to me to heavily outweigh his earlier missteps. Gandhi statues should stay.

What if someone was bad on balance but did a good thing—should that person be celebrated? That would be a judgment call.

In general, I err on the side of preserving history, for statues and buildings are a mark of history—of times when our morality was different from what it is today. And it’s useful to be reminded of that rather than simply having our past, especially the bad bits, erased. History, after all, isn’t all beer and skittles. We don’t want a lot of Winston Smiths operating in our culture.

Now, in an article in Quillette, Steven Hales, described as “Professor and Chair of Philosophy of Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania”, and author of The Myth of Luck: Philosophy, Fate, and Fortune, has added another criterion, one that seems sensible to me.  Well, it’s not really a criterion for determining who should be cancelled, but a way to look at the supposed missteps of figures from the past. I have tweaked it to make it a criterion.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Hales analyzes morality as analogous to science. Science has improved over time in helping us understanding nature, but we don’t denigrate scientists who made honest errors in the past. (Miscreant scientists, like Lysenko, are a different case.) Similarly, morality improves over time. (I don’t think there’s an objective morality, but surely the way we run society has allowed flourishing of more people over the past few centuries.) To Hales, it makes as little sense to denigrate those who went along with the morality of their time as to denigrate those scientists who accepted the “received wisdom” of their time. As he says:

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.

And so we should judge people by the “average” moral standard of the time, which I interpret as meaning that if someone wasn’t considered immoral in their own society, but had values and beliefs that were fairly standard, then we can’t fault them too much today, for people are products of their genes and environments.


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.

By these lights, Hume, who gave approbation to a slaveholder, wasn’t the monster he seems to be today, as acceptance of slavery wasn’t seen as immoral back then as it is now. Morality has evolved for the better. I think it’s misguided, then, to “cancel” Hume, as they’re trying at Edinburgh with a building name, because of one “misstep” in a life that was otherwise very useful and salubrious.

Now of course this criterion has its own problems, the most obvious being “what was the ‘received’ moral wisdom of the time?” For example, Darwin was not in the majority of Brits of his time in being an abolitionist. Should we expect people of Darwin’s era, then, to adhere to the “best” morality, or simply to an “average” morality—one that wouldn’t get its adherent labeled as immoral in his society? Since there are always some angels in society, however rare, I’d go with the latter criterion.

This doesn’t solve all the issues, for of course the Nazis adhered to the average anti-Semitic morality of their times, and we don’t want people to put up statues to Nazis or label buildings “Goebbels Hall.” How do we judge an “average” morality? Morality among all humans on the planet in a time when people can read, learn and think, or the morality obtaining in one’s immediate surroundings? I have no answer.

Nor do I know how to combine Hales’s criterion with the ones I’ve held previously. All I know is that I have a mental algorithm about who should be canceled, and few people fall on the “yes” side, mainly those with no redeeming lives, acts, or thoughts.  Nor should we laud people today for things that were once considered okay, but now are seen as bad. Hume deserves to stay because he was not only a great man and a great philosopher, but also because he wasn’t the equivalent of a Nazi.  Finally, I don’t have problems getting rid of art that shows things that really are considered universally offensive: like a mural showing a lynching in the South.  Clearly, we will never get everyone to agree on these issues.

But as for Darwin, Gandhi, Jefferson, George Washingon and yes, with qualification, Robert E. Lee—let them stay. As they say, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

65 thoughts on “Another criterion for judging whether to “cancel” someone

  1. I agree with our host completely on this one. What’s considered moral to one generation might be deemed obviously wrong to a later generation. If over time, for example, Roe vs Wade is reversed and the “received moral wisdom” swings to consider abortion to be murder, then every current politician who supports abortion rights would need to be “canceled,” regardless of any good that person might have accomplished. I would consider this grossly unfair, but it isn’t that much of a stretch.

    1. … it isn’t that much of a stretch.

      I recognize that many a man’s fighting faith (including my own) has been upset by new data, Gary, but I think it would require quite the discovery — something along the lines of the ensoulment of fetuses — to cause such a reversal of polarities in the moral arc of the universe.

  2. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

    I know more about physics than Newton. I am more ethical than Jefferson. But I am barely an ant compared to their brilliance.

  3. Hiding information never works.

    Monuments of any kind can have information added later. There is nothing wrong with explaining that adulation at the time of creating the monument might be tempered by additional facts and the passage of time and changing of societal values along the way.

    I think that those additions could expand knowledge in ways that “cancellation” never could.


  4. Seems to me it always comes down to a judgement call, some easier than others. If we judge historical figures by what the majority believed at the time, then we give no value to progress and those that saw a better path. Judging historical figures by modern standards basically denies history. Somewhere in the middle makes the most sense.

  5. Makes sense. Best analogy for modern days to me is around meat eating.

    Assuming we’re all vegetarians in 50 years, for moral reasons, we shouldn’t pull down statues on the basis that people were meat eaters. (A norm of this time)

  6. I cringed when I saw American troops pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein. After which, they had the arrogance to set up an American flag, as though claiming the area for the good ole USA!USA! Damn, how stupid are we? (Oh, yeah, Tr*mp.)
    Anyway, one of Jesus’ reported sayings was “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. I don’t think these cancellers can reach that high bar.

    1. True. Though on “Judgement Day” Jesus and his dad will be hurling a few rocks with impunity, being by definition “without sin” regardless of what we mere mortals might make of dad’s various actions such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    2. Anyway, one of Jesus’ reported sayings was “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

      Notwithstanding causing the fig tree (out of season) to wither and the demon-infested swine to run off the cliff.

  7. There is a big problem with the concept of the average morality of society. Namely, what do we mean by society? Jefferson, in particular, illustrates the dilemma. What was Jefferson’s society – the state of Virginia or the United States? You may come to a different determination of average morality based on your answer. Actually, it makes no difference how you answer the question – both areas considered slavery immoral in Jefferson’s time. Jefferson, himself, considered slavery immoral. Yet, he did little to nothing to end the institution in Virginia or on his plantation. Other southern slaveholders of his time manumitted their slaves at a great cost to themselves. It was only after Jefferson’s death that the idea of slavery as a “positive good” began to take hold throughout the South. So, Jefferson, in my opinion, is one of the most overrated Founders. He was good with words, but not action.

    1. Since making judgments seems to be more important that studying history I suppose we all have joined the judge and execution cult. I ask, why is it necessary for this critical moral review of every person we come across in history. Just learn and leave the dead alone.

      Jefferson’s life in Virginia was totally within planter class of his region. From birth he lived and grew up in this society of owners and slaves. His father and all their friends were part of this culture. You married within your class and you accepted these facts. There is nothing wrong with throwing a few darts at Jefferson or Madison or even Washington. But throwing them under the bus because they don’t live up to your standards is simply BS. If anyone here lives in this pure and clean moral idealism that seems to have been created, please step forward and we will all praise you. It is kind of ironic that Jefferson was probably the most idealistic of all the founders, yet because of slavery, today he gets to be a bastard.

    2. Question: If you’re good with words but not action, and your words inspire the people who come after you to better actions, does that count for anything?


    3. I disagree, in that I think he did a lot of important actions in other areas. Bringing the French in on our side was a pretty important action. Fashioning and defending the constitutional concept of freedom of religion was a pretty important action. Slavery, however, seems not to have been a subject he cared much about. We can certainly fault him for that, as it’s a pretty poor misarrangement of priorities, but still, IMO not overrated historically merely because he didn’t tackle that problem. After all, neither did George.

      1. Slavery was a subject he very much cared about, if for no other reason that he was a large slaveholder and managing his “people” was always in his mind. Until his death, he reiterated that he considered slavery an evil and that some future generation would deal with it. As I pointed out above, manumission was not unheard in Virginia in the post-revolutionary period. However, Jefferson took no action against slavery in his personal life. Keeping his slaves for the benefits they afforded him was more important than any principles.

        1. Just throwing this in for thought. During Jefferson’s last years he could not sell any slaves even if he wanted to. He was in such debt, as many of the planters in his region were, he no longer owned them to sell. They all were sold after his death to repay creditors.

    4. Two points.

      1) Words themselves can have great value and importance in our judgement. MLK’s promissory note explicitly referred to the Declaration of Independence. Churchill is another imperfect man whose rallying words of 1940 should be weighed against his sometimes seriously defective policies and decisions.

      2) In addition to the problem of deciding what is the relevant society when determining ‘average morality’ (even more so in 1861 than in Jefferson’s time), is how we should respond to those whose political and social views do not change over a long life while society’s average morality slowly changes around them.

    5. “Actually, it makes no difference how you answer the question – both areas considered slavery immoral in Jefferson’s time.”

      But did an actual majority of Americans and of Virginians consider slavery immoral? If so, like Jefferson they may have thought so but also believed slavery would eventually die out. Did a majority of southern slaveholders at that time manumit their slaves at a great cost to themselves? Such questions determine the concept of average morality in such a society. From what I have read and understood, Jefferson was not an outlier to the average morality of his time, when understood as the views held by a majority of the population.

      1. Which population are you talking about – Virginia, the South, the entire United States? Obviously, in an age without polls, one cannot speak with absolutely certainty, but it’s likely that in post-revolutionary America, most Virginians (even slaveholders) considered slavery immoral and evil. As I stated above, at least some Virginian slaveholders manumitted their chattel, although probably far from a majority. Jefferson was very good at rationalizing why he could not do it, despite the fact that some of his fellow slaveholders did do it. In fact, an associate of Jefferson, Edward Coles, took all his slaves to Illinois and freed them. As Wikipedia describes him: “The Coles party arrived in Edwardsville, early in May 1819, and Coles began his service as Register of Lands. He also completed the manumission process by purchasing land so as to give each freed head of family 160 acres (0.65 km2). Coles also provided employment and other ongoing support for those he had freed.” He became the second governor of that state. Now, he is a person who deserves a statue.

  8. Olivet Cromwell is a target for some – possibly Irish – which is funny really as I bet Charles II would survive, yet Cromwell for example allowed Jews back into Britain, & he made sure when painted he was depicted in a painting, it was “warts & all”. This suggests to me he would be happy to be considered in the round.

      1. “Oliver apple crumble” as Joe Grundy (RIP) would say in The Archers. I bet he’d have it with custard and not ice cream, but that’s an issue for an earlier post…

    1. Exactly what I was going to say. He’s a real bastard in my mind, but England has 5 statues of him. I wonder if the royalty and other bums are offended when they see them?

      But this is a tricky question no matter how you slice it.
      I guess that I think that people need to get over themselves and stop being offended over everything. The past, the present, and the future is full of bastards. People, as the 90’s bumper sticker said, suck. Having said that, honestly, I’m not too terribly offended by the removal of the confederate statues. They should have never been put up to begin with, but now that they are there, perhaps they could be traded out for different people, but not destroyed. Maybe we can have a “Museum of Bad Ideas and People Who Followed Them”, sort of like the communist statue “graveyards” in some former soviet-controlled countries. Tearing them down satisfies a rather impulsive and infantile urge but doesn’t count for much in my book. But people like Churchill, Gandhi, Washington, and the like, people who have done real and tangible good, but don’t fully measure up to woke idealism, no, they stay. But it’s all subjective and our nations will continue to grow and change and reevaluate our place in history. To destroy that history is theft from the future generations. better to mohtball it and let them decide.

      1. I should have said Charles I!

        Cromwell may have been a bastard in Ireland, but he was needed in England. He curbed the power of the king…

        The Irish tragedy, in my view, stems from a failure to form a united kingdom in the tenth century, then inviting in Normans, who were REAL bastards & had already wrecked England. The Normans created the class system we still have. From that we were dragged into the French world rather than the North Sea world.

  9. The effects of cancellation are not clear. If people did not know about the holocaust what that help prevent other types of genocide? It think it goes both ways. Some will use the knowledge as a method to try and repeat. Others will use it to build a moral society that avoids such outcomes.

    On the whole, the more knowledge we have the better. So cancellation is generally not good. Hitchens would say so, too. Better to make one’s mind stronger to refute arguments than avoid them.

  10. I agree that balance is likely the key to preserving history, while simultaneously not glorifying (intentionally or otherwise) figures who shouldn’t be glorified. As with anything, there are people getting out of balance with this “cancel-wave” we’ve been experiencing.

    That being said, the more critical view of history that has emerged is ultimately a good thing. My experience of history education—and I know I’m not alone here—usually boiled down to good guys versus bad guys, heroes and villains; this approach to history castrates the moral lessons that can be learned from history. Humans are complicated creatures, and examining the negative and positive aspects of historical figures makes them (or should make them) more relatable, which makes history more relevant. Not knowing the complicated details of history seems nearly as (if not just as) bad as not knowing that history at all.

    1. Expanding on your observation that humans are complicated creatures, I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s book, The Relativity of Wrong, which has had a big influence on me. Perhaps we can apply Asimov’s scientific argument to morality and recognize the Relativity of Bad.

      1. This site is bad for my budget. That’s a book I’ve not read, nor had I even heard of it and now feel compelled to hit up the interwebs for a copy. I should probably buy new underwear first, but I’ve still got one pair without holes so…

  11. Honestly I think your two original criteria were fine without the add. I have some reservations that citing the “average morality” of a past time might in fact still be focusing the discussion too much on the personal beliefs of the statue-ee, and not enough on the singular and/or general contributions for which they are honored.

    But in general I don’t get too upset about these replacements, as this is an area where IMO local control and opinion should lead. I.e. unless I’m part of that city/state/university/whatever community, it’s IMO their choice to make, not really mine. Let Charlottesville decide on Charlottesville’s civil war statues, let Boston decide on Boston’s Lincoln statue, etc.

  12. > The arc of the universe may bend towards justice

    If there is no such thing as free will, and if evolution has no teleology, how can the universe have an arc, moral or otherwise?

      1. Part of the problem with “the arc of the universe bends toward justice” is that “universe” really means only human culture in this context. Justice and free will are purely cultural concepts. They live in the universe just as everything does but if we don’t acknowledge the much smaller context in which they hold sway, we risk making category errors.

    1. Perhaps a due regard for fairness is evolutionarily adaptive in the long run.

      We find it in rudimentary form in our fellow great apes — and in human children, even before they acquire the language skills to express it.

    2. Sam Harris might argue there is a moral arc.

      To my knowledge, one can not derive a naturalistic morals (arc or landscape) from Nature.

      If, however, a premise is ‘minimizing suffering’ then there are predictive steps that make measuring such an arc a falsifiable endeavor.

      Although complex and not always agreed upon, there are ways to quantify ‘suffering’ and there are ways to ‘minimize’ said suffering. That could be an arc.

  13. It is difficult to think of any redeeming feature of Henry VIII apart from his being by most accounts a more than passable musician, composer and poet. It is easier to categorise his daughter Mary I as being utterly bereft of redeeming features. Nevertheless, she may very well have been more sincere in her beliefs than had been her father. Her dispatch of some 300 Protestants through the flames was in her eyes for the best of reasons, indeed a matter of absolute duty.

    1. Henry VIII told the RCC to get bent and legalized divorce; both were pretty precedent-setting things with probably very long historical consequences (even though he did them for selfish, horrendous reasons).

      Interesting factoid; IIRC, after Henry, the next British royal to get divorced was Princess Margaret, in 1978!

      1. Princess Victoria a daughter of Prince Alfred a son of Queen Victoria , and Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse by Rhine divorced shortly after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Princess Victoria remarried in 1905.

  14. In Crete there is/was a good example of a monument being left to moulder.

    1984, I’m riding on a bus in Chania, and what should appear but what was unquestionably a Nazi war memorial of some sort. A diving falcon perched on a square fixed on its corner – unquestionably a swastika that had just been filled in to turn it into a square.

    On asking around it turned out that the Nazis had mounted a major assault there, with considerable losses, and after they gained control made the locals build this monument to their casualties.

    A storm came along nearly two decades ago and knocked the bird over. Apparently they’re still trying to decide what to do about it. My guess is they’ll still be considering it two decades from now.

    Anyone else ever see it?

  15. “As they say, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.”
    But if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that people do not learn from history.
    (Not a utopianist anymore, moi.)

    1. I think Pinker would argue that we have learned something from history. Most criteria suggest that taken over several centuries many violent or oppressive things are significantly reduced or less likely to happen. Not everything, but a lot things. I think he shows the derivative ‘up’ which implies, if we are not learning it, we are adopting lessons from the past in order to avoid them.

  16. I think that pointing out the faults (even if by contemporary standards) of historical “heroes” is okay as a corrective to our tendency to engage in hagiography. But cancelling? No.

  17. The main question for me when it comes to statues is whether the statue is necessary for society. Consider religious statuary — Notre Dame and the other great gothic cathedrals have statues inside and out. Churches are named for saints or biblical figures. Streets, cities and towns are also named for these people.

    Not one statue, church, street, city or town is named for Pontius Pilate, but every Christian knows the name.

    In the U.S., historical political and military figures have been treated the same way. Confederate statuary was erected decades *AFTER* the end of the civil war, as a way to continue fighting that war in the era of Reconstruction and afterward. Statues were erected to celebrate the heroes of the Confederacy, not because they were great people, but because the people who erected those statues believed in the values of the Confederacy. They didn’t erect statues to other famous Americans – just Confederate figures. In 1940, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after a Confederate general who became a KKK grand dragon (and died in 1906).

    So yes, those people were a product of their times and of their culture, but their culture was in the wrong, and those statues are part of an info-war to recast the civil war as a just war.

    Those statues can go to a museum if they are artistically worthy. There’s such a thing as the internet today. Moving or destroying a statue won’t erase history. Sending a signal to the people who are alive today that the people who enslaved their ancestors and lit crosses on their lawns are not our heroes, and we won’t celebrate them as saints of history.

    1. Most of the Confederate statues were erected in the early years of the 20th century shortly following and overlapping a wave of statue-building in the North honoring Union Civil War military leaders and the men who served under them. The Daughters of the Confederacy was largely responsible for statue building in the South. This was approximately 35-50 years, half a century, after the end of the war, a time when the South’s economy had mostly recovered and society could set about honoring the fathers, uncles, and brothers who had died during the conflict.
      Confederate Memorial Day was widely celebrated at the time. Something around 300,000 Confederate soldiers died during the war (along with a similar number of Union soldiers), figuratively on their front lawns, and it is little wonder that many citizens, North and South, donated to remember and honor the dead in the form of statues of battlefield “heroes” or commanders of their military units. Of course, if you consider them war criminals . . .
      There is little to suggest that this early statuary was built with the purpose of glorifying the Confederacy (or rebellion against Washington, which by that time was only a little less racist than the South), promoting Jim Crow or intimidating black people. That, like today, was the job of police departments, city governments, and social clubs.

  18. Some slave owners and others created a document that began with the three greatest words ever put down on paper: “We the people…”. Not “I the King” or “We your proletarian vanguard”. These imperfect men moved society forward and created the idea that the individual was the unit of morality, the individual is worthy in and of himself. They laid the basis down for in time ending slavery. For this they are worthy of a monument.

  19. I want to take issue with a couple of minor points:

    For example, Darwin was not in the majority of Brits of his time in being an abolitionist.

    The slave trade in the British empire was abolished before Charles Darwin was born and slavery itself was abolished when he was in his twenties. For most of his adult life, “abolitionist” was an irrelevant term amongst the British because the matter was already settled.

    the Nazis adhered to the average anti-Semitic morality of their times

    I do not think that what the Nazis did to Jews was remotely near the average. Yes there was antisemitism in Europe but nobody else denied the Jews their citizenship or made them wear yellow stars on their clothing or rounded them up and shipped them to death camps in cattle trucks. What the Nazis did went far beyond what was acceptable even in mid 20th century Europe.

  20. Sorry, messed up the quotes. Let’s try again.

    I want to take issue with a couple of minor points:

    For example, Darwin was not in the majority of Brits of his time in being an abolitionist.

    The slave trade in the British empire was abolished before Charles Darwin was born and slavery itself was abolished when he was in his twenties. For most of his adult life, “abolitionist” was an irrelevant term amongst the British because the matter was already settled.

    the Nazis adhered to the average anti-Semitic morality of their times

    I do not think that what the Nazis did to Jews was remotely near the average. Yes there was antisemitism in Europe but nobody else denied the Jews their citizenship or made them wear yellow stars on their clothing or rounded them up and shipped them to death camps in cattle trucks. What the Nazis did went far beyond what was acceptable even in mid 20th century Europe.

  21. I’m quite sympathetic to Hales’ additional criterion. It is a good one, albeit not always very clear in practice.
    Mr Columbus was considered a bloodthirsty maniac, even by his contemporaries. He was even thrown in jail for his harsh treatment of the natives, but was quickly freed by Ferdinand, who thought he could profit from Columbus’ ‘works’.

  22. Reminds me of a poll a school board had to rename a school because the person it was named after became persona non grata.

    “Hypothetical perfect person” one of the suggestions and by today’s standards, I suppose the only legitimate one.

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