A better application of the Ethics Incompleteness Principle would be difficult to find than the decision by Memphis, Tennessee to remove a huge monument to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and an even larger heroic equestrian statue (above) of Nathan Bedford Forrest, swashbuckling Confederate general and (allegedly) the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, from two public parks.
As we have discussed here in great detail, I am unalterably opposed to the current mania among our Left-leaning friends and neighbors of tearing down statues, monuments and memorials honoring past historical figures because their lives, beliefs and character do not comport with current day standards or political norms. This primitive exercise in historical censorship has been especially focused on famous and notable figures from the Confederacy, although recent efforts have targeted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and even Theodore Roosevelt. Of the attacks on memorials to Confederate figures, I wrote,
[ Union veterans] didn’t think of the former Confederates as traitors, or racists, or slavery advocates. They, like the Union veterans, were just men of their times, caught up in a great political and human rights conflict that came too fast and too furiously for any of them to manage. They were caught in the same, violent maelstrom, and knew it even 50 years earlier. Soldiers on both side wrote how they admired the courage of the enemy combatants they were killing, because they knew they were, in all the ways that mattered, just like them. It was the Golden Rule. After the war, these soldiers who had faced death at the hands of these same generals, officers and troops, did not begrudge them the honor of their statues and memorials, nor their families pride in the bravery of their loved ones.
Yet now, self-righteous social justice censors who never took up arms for any cause and in many cases never would, employ their pitifully inadequate knowledge of history to proclaim all the Civil War’s combatants on the losing side as racists and traitors, and decree that they should be hidden from future generations in shame. We have honored men and women for the good that they represent, not the mistakes, sins and misconduct that are usually the product of the times and values in which they lived. In doing so, we leave clues, memories, controversies, differing views, and stories for new generations to consider and better understand their own culture and society, and how it came to be what it is.
Those who want to tear down monuments to the imperfect, whether they know it or not, are impeding knowledge, perspective, wisdom, and understanding. They want only one view of history, because they will only tolerate one that advances their ideology and values—just as the Americans of the past believed in their values. Foolishly, I suppose, they trusted future generations to act on their own ethical enlightenment without corrupting the historical record.
I feel strongly about this, as the tone of that post, far from my first on the subject, shows.
For you see, in ethics there is always a but. No matter how valid, well-reasoned or important an ethical principle or system may be, there will always be a situation or three where its strict application creates an unjust, unethical, or absurd result. This is the Ethics Incompleteness Principle at work…
The Ethics Incompleteness Principle: Czech-born mathematician Kurt Gödel’s two Incompleteness Theorems, which relate to mathematical proofs, are the inspiration for this observation that applies to normative rules, systems, moral codes, laws and other principles. The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will achieve its desired effects, that is work, in every instance. There are always anomalies around the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle demands that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to temporarily abandon the system or rule and return to basic principles to find the solution. No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a predetermined formula for determining what is right breaks down.
Thus I have to approve of the Memphis decision. While it should not serve as a general justification for historical airbrushing, the city’s action is fair and reasonable because of the unusual, indeed unique circumstances surrounding it:
1. Memphis was where Martin Luther King was assassinated by a white racist.
2. The city is fast approaching the 50th anniversary of that 1968 tragedy, and is planning events to honor the memory of the civil rights martyr.
3. The city is now 65% African American.
4. Davis and Forrest are not exactly Jefferson and Washington. Davis may have been a statesman with some accomplishments before the Civil War, but he wasn’t even a successful leader of the rebellion he chose to lead. Forrest was a brilliant military strategist, but leading the KKK [NOTE: the original version of the post erroneously said “founding.” EA regrets the error and apologizes to its readers.) should have obliterated any claim he had to a public honor: it’s like saying John Wilkes Booth deserves a statue because we was such a talented actor. The suspicion would linger that the real reason Booth was being immortalized was because of what he did in a theater that April night in 1865, just as it is widely believed that Forrest got his statue because of the KKK, not in spite of it.
Balancing all the factors operating in Memphis, I have to conclude that in this case, removing those Confederate statues is ethical. The immediate harm of allowing them to stay, embarrassing the city as it tries to honor Dr. King, far outweighs the usually valid arguments against historical air-brushing—provided, of course, that proponents of politically correct statue-toppling don’t try to make Memphis a precedent rather than the anomaly it is, and use the Memphis exception to go after Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the rest.