When should we replace public monuments?

Nick Geiser
5 min readAug 2, 2020

One problems with the debate over renaming institutions and removing statues is the absence of a coherent set of principles for deciding these cases. Fortunately, there have been some efforts in this direction, and in this post I will discuss and offer some criticisms of one well-developed proposal.

Several years ago, Yale University convened a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. The context for the commission’s report involved a long-running debate over the name of Calhoun College, one of Yale’s residential colleges, and Calhoun’s legacy as a defender of Southern interests and slavery. The report proposed a set of principles to guide future discussions among members of the university regarding re-naming with respect to the meaning or status of the namesake.

The report endorses third general principles. First, there is a presumption against re-naming on account of values, in particular when the namesake has made major contributions to the university. Second, there are specific factors that can warrant re-naming on the basis of values. Third, the decision to re-name or retain a name come with obligations to ensure a complete historical record, to provide context, and to provide a fair and transparent decision-making process.

Under the second of these general principles, the report proposed the following questions for consideration, where an affirmative answer to each is a reason for re-naming on the basis of values (pp. 19–22):

  1. Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
  2. Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?
  3. Did the University, at the time of a naming, honor a namesake for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
  4. Does a building whose namesake has a principal legacy fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, or which was named for reasons fundamentally at odds with the University’s mission, play a substantial role in forming community at the University?

“Principal legacy” here means the lasting effects from a person’s life, where those effects tend to cause that person to be remembered (p. 20). A principal legacy is narrower than all the things someone has done. To take an example that has been in the news recently, Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves through his marriage to Julia Dent Grant. However, it would be a mistake to say this was Grant’s principal legacy rather than, for example, commanding the Union army during the Civil War and being the 18th President of the United States.

One disanalogy with between the commission’s report and recent discussions over monuments is the absence of something comparable to the university’s “mission” in the case of public monuments or buildings. A university is an institution with a particular purpose of its own; my own view is that the state is not the sort of entity that has reasons of its own. Still, even if we accept that there is something analogous to a “university’s mission” in the case of the state, the content of this “mission” will assume a background political theory in a way that a university’s mission doesn’t.

The commission’s report also emphasizes the value of tradition in a way that seems inappropriate in the case of state monuments. Consider the specific arguments the commission gives for the presumption against renaming on the basis of values (p. 18). One argument is from fallibilism: no generation has perfect moral hindsight. The second is that continuity in symbols and names produces bonds among different cohorts of students and members of the university. A third is that the University should not try to simplify the moral complexity of persons who have made significant contributions to the world. A fourth argument is that constant arguments over renaming would distract from other valuable university activities.

One feature of the third argument is that it would be especially bad for an institution dedicated to scholarship to simplify the complex lives of historical figures. Instead, it would be more consistent with a university’s mission to “academicize” debate over a namesake as a default option. This is a compelling argument in the university context (in my view), but note that it 1) is not really an argument about the value of tradition and 2) does not apply to the case of public monuments.

Similarly, the second argument for the value of tradition doesn’t appear to hold in the case of public monuments. Why is it especially important to generate bonds among citizens of different generations, particularly when those generations have very different attitudes toward matters of political justice? In particular, why is it the basis for a default presumption against re-naming in the case of states? Bonds among citizens, instead of being backward-looking, could instead be forward-looking — citizens could instead be joined by the shared knowledge that they will all be judged for their culpable moral failings by future generations. In this case, the default presumption, and the basis of mutual identity, would be that each generation’s decisions about who to honor are temporary and reversible.

The fourth argument similarly loses force when applied to the case of public monuments. The worry about excessive debate is a worry about missing the point — the point of a name is to have a common identity as part of a residential college, not to debate that identity. Consider an analogy with games. The point of a game is not to debate what the rules of the game should be. Instead, the point of a game is to play it. This is not to say that debates over the rules are not important! Instead, the importance of the rules depends on the importance of playing. We would not know what we were debating about if the value of the rules didn’t depend on the value of playing.

With public monuments, however, the distinction between remembering and debating who to remember, or between honoring/debating who to honor, is less clear. Again, this is because the state has no interests of its own but rather claims to represent the interests/judgments of all its citizens. The state is not an agent with an interest in doing certain things or having some identity— rather, people have interests that they try to achieve through the state or by claiming to represent the interests/judgments of others, who may not in fact agree or consent to how they are represented and do not have the option to voluntarily disassociate (political society, unlike membership in a university, is involuntary).

The Yale commission’s report makes a distinction between the University’s reasons for honoring someone and reasons why someone is generally remembered (in other words, their “principal legacy”). This distinction also holds in the case of public monuments. However, in the case of public monuments, giving special weight to the “speaker’s reasons” as opposed to the reasons for honoring someone for their principal legacy is objectionable. While obviously important for understanding the original decision, it would amount to a form of double-counting that we do not accept elsewhere in democratic politics. To give an imperfect analogy, suppose that a legislature is voting to repeal a law passed by a previous legislative session. Someone who opposes repealing the law does not receive an extra vote because she previously voted to support it. Of course votes are not the same are not reasons. However, the problem of double-counting and the violation of political equality is the same.

It’s much harder to propose principles for renaming than it is to poke holes in proposals other people have made, and I admire the effort members of the Yale commission put in to their report. We also obviously can’t reduce decisions to the mechanical application of a set of rules. We can however do better than an inconsistent, ad hoc debate.



Nick Geiser

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.