Ethical reasons about the monuments are multiple. One type of reason getting considerable attention involves the monuments’ association with moral and personal ideals.
This type of reason is intensely emotional because ideals convey an intrinsic value – a fundamental and ultimate commitment to which all other values refer. This justification conveys that monuments are an outward symbol of the beholder’s personal identity. Intrinsic value carries a dignity or solemnity derived from the identity of the associated personal ideal.
This type of rationale, however, cuts both ways depending on the moral ideal projected. Varieties of white supremacy fiercely defend confederate monuments based on a commitment (unfounded) that the white race is superior to any other race or ethnic group.
Alternatively, certain civil rights advocates vehemently denounce the monuments. But their thorough repudiation of the confederate heritage, too, is based on an intrinsic value. Their justification for removal appeals to a multicultural ideal.
By contrast, instrumental considerations are a different type of reason. Such reasons are valuable not in themselves but because they promote some ultimate value. They are intellectual “tools” for another purpose. Attaching significance to the monuments for their association with American history is an instrumental value.
Instrumental reasons are not necessarily connected to the personal and moral ideals of white supremacists or multiculturalists. Hence, these types of reasons cannot all be evaluated as either prejudiced or culturally relativistic.
There is a clear third alternative. Instrumental reasons are properly connected to other intrinsic values. For example, monuments ought not be destroyed or relocated because they remind us about a troubling time in American history when our nation was coming to terms with God’s equality for all human beings. More importantly, they remind us to safeguard against “chronological snobbery” (to borrow from C.S. Lewis), which is the normative position that our present age is morally more astute than a previous generation.
The lesson to learn is to be open to assessing the fabric of all value systems to clear them of biases that were once unwittingly held as settled beliefs. Proponents or opponents of the monuments will repudiate the instrumentalist view precisely because it doesn’t embrace certain justifications for ideals held intrinsically, good or bad.
The instrumental worth given to the monuments means that their value rests only with purposes that promote a greater end of historical understanding. To conflate intrinsic and instrumental values is to contribute naively or willfully to our contemporary moral confusion.
Scott E. Daniels, Ph.D. is the former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He served in the administrations of four U.S. presidents, a U.S. senator, and two Virginia governors. He lectures on ethics and public policy in colleges and universities in central Virginia.