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.
Comment (from this Blueprint): This paper highlights several important things. First, statues are blunt tools and express pro-attitudes to the persons they represent as a whole. Second, it sets out a clear standard for removal, and defends the conclusion that we should remove many or even most existing statues. Third, to the question “what if removal incites violence?” this paper provides a good answer. Fourth, a legitimate question is what we should do about statues of wrongdoers of the distant past? The discussion on this here is insightful.