Confederate Statues and the Slippery Slope Argument

Confederate Statues and the Slippery Slope Argument August 17, 2017

Those who want to keep statues to Confederate leaders on public grounds love their slippery slope arguments. Trump made one on Monday, asking if next they’ll want statues of Washington and Jefferson removed because they owned slaves. Libertarian law professor Ilya Somin debunks that argument.


In fairness, the slippery slope argument is sometimes advanced by more intellectually serious advocates than Trump. It is wrong, even so. The argument fails because there are obviously relevant distinctions that can be made between Washington and Jefferson on the one hand and Confederate leaders on the other.

One crucial distinction it misses is that few if any monuments to Washington, Jefferson and other slaveowning Founders were erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding. By contrast, the vast majority of monuments to Confederate leaders were erected to honor their service to the Confederacy, whose main reason for existing was to protect and extend slavery…

Some try to justify continuing to honor Confederates because we honor many other historical figures who committed various moral wrongs. For example, many of the Founding Fathers also owned slaves, just like many leading Confederates did. But the Founders deserve commemoration because their complicity in slavery was outweighed by other, more positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution. By contrast, leading a war in defense of slavery was by far the most important historical legacy of Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders. If not for secession and Civil War, few would remember them today.

True. But he also notes that there is a reverse slipper slope argument that works just as well on the other side:

Endorsing the slippery slope case against removing Confederate monuments also creates a problematic slippery slope of its own. If we should not remove monuments to perpetrators of evil for fear that it might lead to the removal of monuments to more worthy honorees, that implies that eastern European nations were wrong to remove monuments to communist mass murderers like Lenin and Stalin, and Germany and Italy were wrong to remove monuments to Nazi and Fascist leaders. After all, there is no telling where such removals might lead! By Trump’s logic, taking down German monuments to Hitler and Goebbels might lead to the removal of monuments to Immanuel Kant, who expressed racist sentiments in some of his writings. Getting rid of monuments to Lenin and Stalin might lead people to take down monuments to Picasso, who was also a communist. Where will it all stop?

The legacy of some of the founding fathers and slavery is a very problematic one and something that we simply have to deal with. But there’s nothing positive to balance that out at all with the Confederate leaders, who tried to break up the country for the sole purpose of being allowed to go on owning black people. If you can’t make a positive case at all for why they should be honored, there’s no reason for those statues to be there at all.

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