Konrad Lorenz, 1903-1989 , was an acclaimed Austrian zoologist regarded as the founder of modern ethology, which is the study of animal behavior. His research explained how behavioral patterns may be traced to through evolution, and he made major contributions to the study of aggression and its roots. Lorenz shared a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 with the animal behaviorists Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
It seems that documentation surfaced proving that Lorenz joined the Nazi Party in 1938, however, and for that, Austria’s Salzburg University last week posthumously stripped him of his honorary doctorate.
Your Day Before The Night Before Christmas Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…
Is this the right thing to do?
One fascinating thing about ethics is that the minute you think you have nailed down a certain principle, life, aided by chaos, will come up with a variation you hadn’t thought of.
The problem of separating someone’s private life from his or her public accomplishments in determining their appropriate , honors and legacies has been a frequent topic on Ethics Alarms this year, notably in the matter of Bill Cosby’s vile conduct. Also emerging this year has been the demands for removing honors of those whose values and causes some regard as no longer honorable or even tolerable, regardless of their historical importance.
Let’s do an ethics inventory, shall we?
Over the past year, Ethics Alarms has asserted that…
1. Bill Cosby is a serial sexual predator, who denies the gravity of his conduct and is systematically attempting to discredit his victims. Going to his concerts to chuckle at his family-friendly tales of fatherhood and human foibles interferes with proper societal shunning of the man and his hypocrisy.
2. Cosby’s contributions to comedy, civil rights, TV and entertainment, however, are real, substantial, undeniable and deserving of recognition. His personal conduct, even his personal crimes, should not cause his achievements to be ignored or forgotten. Artists’ personal conduct should not change the understanding of the quality of their art.
3. Disney removed a bust of Cosby in a TV museum placed there specifically and only for his artistic contributions to television. Unethical. This is photoshopping culture and history. Cosby is TV pioneer in multiple ways. If you are going to honor pioneers of the industry, the fact that one of them turns out to be a rapist is irrelevant.
4. Pete Rose’s recognition as an epic baseball great is correctly cancelled out by his gambling on baseball as a manager and player, in part because he knowingly violated a rule that said it would be, and gambled anyway. Moreover, his misconduct related to baseball, and risked great harm to baseball.
5. The wave of icon toppling and statue defiling in the wake of Dylann Roof’s mass murder as a Confederate flag-loving white supremacist is unethical, because it endorses constantly altering history and the memorializing of historical figures according to current passions and changing values. Whether or not a Confederate general was originally honored for his military valor and achievements or his defense of a political and ideological cause now regarded as indefensible, the honor in such forms as school names and statues should be respected as part of the duty to preserve continuity and to have prominent cultural records of the full range of history.
6. The contention that the wave in #5 created a slippery slope with no apparent or obvious stop was illustrated by a growing movement to eliminate the honoring of Democratic Party founders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson because they were slaveholders. This is presentism at its worst, and also ingratitude. Jefferson, Jackson, Washington and other figures were not originally honored for their slave-holding, but other significant achievements. Those achievements still deserve the honors, and always will. (See #3).
7. Various universities have withdrawn their honorary degrees for Cosby. That is the correct course. As I wrote on this topic:
“As Brown’s president notes in the release, Cosby was specifically honored in Brown’s citation bestowing the degree for his “ability to integrate [his] personal character into fictional personae that simulate real life while embracing such cherished American values as honesty, fair play, love of family, and respect for humanity.” It’s hard to even read that now without giggling, gagging, or going mad. It was a degree achieved under false pretenses. Universities withdraw real degrees when it turns out that a grad cheated or lied to get one. This is no different. Cosby’s whole public image was a lie.”
8. Princeton, spurred by black students, is now beginning to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name away from buildings and more. Wilson was a racist, but he was also a major political theorist, historical figure and an important President who was instrumental in building Princeton into the institution it is today. Historical figures are honored for their best characteristics and achievements, not their worst. There is plenty to honor about Wilson’s career, and Princeton should no more disown him because he was a racist than the U.S. should disown Jefferson and Washington.
Confused yet? I believe 1-8 can all be reconciled with each other, but I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. Yet another wrinkle just surfaced last week. From the Washington Post:
[Fairfax County (VA)] has amended its school-naming policy, opening the door for changes to schools that honor Confederate generals and evoke the school system’s legacy of resisting integration. Students, community members and alumni in Fairfax County have been agitating to change the names of two high schools named for Confederate generals — J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee — and a third honoring a past superintendent, W.T. Woodson, who was an opponent of desegregation.
The school board voted unanimously Thursday to alter the policy that barred officials from changing the names of school buildings unless the building was repurposed. Under the new policy, the board also can change a name “where some other compelling need exists.”Those who lined up to speak in favor of changing the names linked to the Confederacy and segregation said they definitely have a “compelling need.”
Lee and Stuart high schools opened in the late 1950s, as Fairfax County battled desegregation orders. Many believe that the naming of the schools for Confederate generals was a way to send a message to black students that they were not welcome. Stuart did not admit black students until 1961.“Make no mistake; J.E.B. Stuart High School was not named to honor a Confederate general’s role in the Civil War,” said Stephen Spitz, a neighborhood resident who has litigated school desegregation cases. “The school was named as part of Virginia’s massive resistance to school integration.”
Hmmm. So the argument is that because of the motive for naming the schools, the honorees no longer deserve the honors. If, I gather, Lee and Stuart were honored because Lee was a brilliant general who fought on the side of the state he considered his “country” despite opposing the war itself and the Confederacy’s cause, and because Stuart was a brave and brilliant cavalry officer who died in combat fighting for Virginia, then there would be no reason to change the schools’ names. However, because the same men with the same careers and accomplishments now as then were honored to protest integration—neither Lee nor Stuart had any published positions on integration, I should note—six decades ago, “many believe,” that argues for wiping their memories from public view. Really?
Fun Fact: Did you know that the Washington Monument was really intended as a representation of George’s renowned and massive external organ, many believe? The thing is obscene: it doesn’t honor him for leading the nation when it was uncertain and vulnerable.
All right, I made that up.
Now back to Lorenz. Set aside the debate about how much real choice prominent Germans had about joining the Nazi party, or what Lorenz believed in his heart. He was a scientist, his scientific contributions have nothing to do with his personal life or history, and the honorary degree was meant to recognize the scientist, not the man.
Salzburg University was wrong to revoke the degree.