Sackler, Tufts, Cancel Culture And The 100th Rationalization: The Reverse Ruddigore

I have been waiting to find the ideal 100th Rationalization, officially #70 (there are 30 sub-rationalizations on the EA Rationalizations list. It’s “The Reverse Ruddigore,” the equally valid opposite of Rationalization #21. Ethics Accounting, or “I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”:

 You cannot earn the right to act unethically by depositing a lot of ethical deeds in the imaginary ethics bank, nor can unethical conduct be erased by doing good for someone else. The illusion that one can balance the ethics books this way is referred to on the Ethics Alarms blog as “the Ruddigore Fallacy.”  Nobody earns the right to be unethical, not even once, no matter how exemplary their conduct. An unethical act is just as unethical, whether it is performed by a saint, a hero, or a villain.

“Ruddigore,” for those of you sadly unaware of the joys of Gilbert and Sullivan, is the unjustly under-rated work by the Victorian geniuses that involved an ancient curse on a family that required a Baronet of Ruddigore to perform a crime a day or die in agony, courtesy of his re-animated ancestors, who otherwise hang around, literally, as portraits in a haunted gallery. One member of the family who has inherited the curse, Sir Despard, believes that he has found a loophole:

“I get my crime over the first thing in the morning, and then, ha! ha! for the rest of the day I do good – I do good – I do good! Two days since, I stole a child and built an orphan asylum. Yesterday I robbed a bank and endowed a bishopric. To-day I carry off Rose Maybud and atone with a cathedral! This is what it is to be the sport and toy of a Picture Gallery!”

Looking back on past posts, I laid the groundwork for #70 when I condemned the decision of Walt Disney World to remove Bill Cosby’s bust from the its Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame of Fame:

[L]ast I heard Bill Cosby was still recognized as a major trailblazer in stand-up, TV comedy, and television integration (remember “I Spy”?), an important positive cultural force for race relations and black community self esteem, and a spectacularly talented comedian with a unique voice and presence. None of that has changed. Those were the achievements that prompted Cosby’s bust’s inclusion in Disney’s Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza, along with celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey who, like the Cos, have been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. O.J. Simpson is still honored in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was one of the greatest college stars ever. His post-career hobby as a murderer, like Bill’s extra-curricular activities as a serial rapist, have nothing to do with the honor, just as Cosby earned and still deserves, his honor for what he achieved on stage and screen.

Subsequent bad acts no more cancel out past good ones than Sir Despard’s cathedral would make up for kidnapping sweet Rose Maybud. The current “Cancel Culture,” however, holds otherwise. In the latest episode, Tufts University announced today that it will strip the Sackler name from the buildings and programs on its medical campus, after a report censured the school for its relationship with the family whose drug company made OxyContin, the opioid blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide.

The Sackler family has given  Tufts $15 million over more than 30 years and in return, had its name prominently displayed on businesses, labs and classrooms throughout the university’s Boston health sciences campus. There is no evidence that the Sacklers used their donations to influence the school, “there was an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers, and Tufts,” according to an outside commissioned by the university. Thus,  Tufts president Anthony Monaco said, the Sackler name has become so intertwined with the nation’s opioid epidemic, it no longer belongs on the university’s medical buildings.

What about all the money the Sacklers gave Tufts? Oh, Tufts plans on keeping that; it just won’t give the family the credit it bargained for.

That may be legal—I’d have to read the agreement behind the donation to know for sure— but it’s wrong. Giving 30 million dollars to higher education is an ethical, virtuous, praiseworthy act, and by itself, it deserves respect and recognition. Now, any university can decide to reject the gift of someone it feels is unsavory under the very dubious) “dirty money” theory, and indeed, sometimes a prospective donor is so unsavory that there may be good reasons to do so. However, once a boon has been received, that virtuous act is in the book, and no subsequent act can or should undo it, or the obligation to give the donor his, her or its due. (Are there exceptions to this principle? Sure, there are exceptions to every ethical principle. See “The Ethics Incompleteness  Principle.”)

I should note here, since I have been very critical of Harvard lately, that it has so far rejected appeals to ban the Sackler name, perhaps because so many rich villains paid for immortality on the Harvard campus that they’d have to raze the place.

Are such gifts often examples of so called “reputation laundering”? Sure—except that they don’t actually erase past wrongdoing; thus sayeth the Ruddigore Fallacy and Rationalization #21. If doing good makes a past miscreant feel better, so what? That’s a small price to pay for all the good done by the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations in the names of their robber baron founders. We still know about the evil they did, and those who don’t have only themselves to blame (or their parents and schools). Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller didn’t make them ignorant.

Everyone should be very wary of going down the Reverse Ruddigore path, for it is strewn with the toppled statutes of patriots, geniuses and heroes. We now have strong evidence that Martin Luther King sexually abused women, but the nation’s debt to him remains. A new book argues persuasively that President Franklin Roosevelt failed to save the lives of many thousands of Jews out of bigotry, yet he was indispensable in saving our nation, and perhaps the world. There should be accountability for wrongdoing, but erasing important contributions to society and civilization by the wrongdoer ought not to be among the consequences.


3 thoughts on “Sackler, Tufts, Cancel Culture And The 100th Rationalization: The Reverse Ruddigore

  1. Once the check clears, some levels of respect should not be reneged. Especially if others with the same name contributed like lineages of Rockefellers or Kennedys.

    But I think a name on a building is not the same as a bust in Disney space for Cosby. It’s more the enshrining of the face along with a group of heroes or examples for kids to look up to and emulate. Admiring him for groundbreaking TV despite screwups is a bit more nuanced than kiddies trooping through a park. It’s the visual depiction of the person among an example group I see issue with His depiction in a hall with cultural heroes should be removable as as counterexample as his actions were considered wrong when he did them. The statues pulled down were honored for things that were not shameful at the time, judging based on changed morals is just a cheap shot. But using drugs to have sex with others was not known or accepted when it happened.

    • marie,

      You have drawn a line here: the evil of Bill Cosby is a bridge too far, yet the (supposed) evil of Sacklers is not. How do we judge where the line is? As I understand it, either we do not judge accomplishments in light of misdeeds, or we never honor anyone (for who is without sin?)

      A researcher who discovers the cure for cancer had an ugly divorce in his past, let us say. Should we not honor his name if the wokescolds say so? Should we refuse to allow his research to save lives, since it is ‘fruit of the poisonous tree?’

      Did we eschew the idea of Interstate Highways, simply because of the enormous criminality of a failed artist, a corporal who came up with the Autobahn and ‘made the trains run on time?’

      Do we not land on the moon, because the scientist who developed the Saturn 5 booster once bombed London? What about the collateral good that came from the efforts, which track right down to the cell phone in your pocket?*

      Bill Cosby contributed greatly to understanding between the races, using comedy as the medium to show how alike we are. He exhorted men to be responsible, to not father children and leave, to not rely on government handouts and be satisfied with living below the line of our potential. His example of earning his place and livelihood showed it could be done, at a time where this was much harder than any time since. His comedy transcended race, even if it referenced race and mocked those who dwelled on it.

      Cosby has (finally) payed a price for some of his sins. His good works are now being destroyed when they should stand alone. What of all the men who had better lives, and their wives and children, their grandchildren, simply because they learned from a flawed man? Should they disregard what they learned and return to less of a life?

      This cancellation culture, had it been applied to Wernher von Braun, would have impoverished us greatly in the years since his ‘sin.’ It is arguable that reaching the moon pushed our technical capabilities in millions of little improvements that might not have been developed without the contributions of Wernher, and men like him, who were flawed in other areas in their lives.

      People make mistakes. People take advantage of others. Where possible, justice should prevail. Yet we cannot refuse to recognize that which is laudable, that which is profitable, or that which benefits mankind.

      “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

      *Socialism uses cancel culture. The reason the USSR lagged behind in discoveries and development, at least in part, is they refused to use the brilliance of those who were judged ‘ideologically impure’ Their history is rife with patently stupid ideas that only were attempted because of who proposed them, and because they supported a worldview they wished was reality. We see the same seeds sprouting in our recent cancel culture.

      • Oh, yes there is a line. I’m a big believer in repentance and redemption. But there are limits and relatism has should not be taken to extreme. The trick is to make a line that we as a group can agree on that balances the value of exemplar heroes with in exception that are warranted in an incomplete system.

        But at some point some things are no longer just mistakes anymore.

        Naming a building is a non-visual honor. That is a different thing and boring to the youngsters who might idolize in some hero-land in a ‘safe’ Disney park. Just like action figures of the Cos would not fly. Some honors are forfeit when you screw up badly enough.

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