The University Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming can publish two sorts of principles in its report. The first concerns procedure: For how long after the University announces that it might rename a building should it solicit thoughts, and in what forum? Don’t underrate this first unsexy sort. Anyone can get outraged about procedure. “The University didn’t take the time to listen to our voices!” Or the reverse: “Action, bold action, is long overdue!” But procedural questions are questions of prudence. Procedures in one instance of renaming might not be wise for the next. Moral constraints aside, these types of situations vary too much for us to expect good answers in principle to questions of execution.
Speaking of moral constraints: The second sort of principle concerns just why a name ought to be changed. And not so secretly, this is the question of who is too much of a scumbag for Yale to honor. Before I address this, there is one maddening piece of advice that the Committee will probably have to offer: don’t change names “lightly” or “frequently.” This isn’t bad advice. But it doesn’t belong in a document meant to guide actual decisions. Conservatism is a virtue or a disposition intended to direct one’s judgment away from change toward preservation. It is a species of modesty. But you’re unlikely to inculcate any virtue in someone while she is making an actual decision — the time for that will have passed. For an actual decision, a person needs tools to distinguish good counsel from poor counsel. Here’s my attempt to provide the first sort.
First, reject historicism: The view that what’s good and right changes with time. This view is implied in expressions like, “in 2016, we should have marriage equality.” The progressive variant of historicism says that we’ve made moral progress, so the present makes more moral demands or is a somehow more moral time in virtue of its lateness in history. Or something like that. I don’t know how the present or any other moment in history could make such demands or acquire such a status. But let’s see the problem this way: “In 2016 — equal pay for equal work!” Does that mean unequal pay for equal work was right at some other time? Would it have been right to support it in 1920? 1820? The implications of the progressive logic are absurd. The logic should just be rejected.
Closely related is a point often made by conservatives — that we should not judge what folks did in the past by today’s moral standards. Why not? Knowledge of right and wrong is available to anyone with reason. Death and history do not hallow immoral acts. It seems oddly leftist for the conservative, in the name of epistemic modesty, to refuse to judge the past by today’s moral standards when she is perfectly happy to judge, say, other cultures’ practices by America’s moral standards. So let’s have no historicism, from left or right.
Second, reject moral populism — the view that an opinion’s popularity indicates its truth. Everyone knows majorities can be wrong. Democracy rots (everything else just rots more). But still moral populism is often smuggled into the debate in attitudes like, “our University should reflect our values.” Of course that’s true — if we have the correct values. But we might be wrong, so that we happen to hold a particular value should not count in its favor.
Third, judge actions, and leave souls to the Lord. We all judge who is good and who isn’t. In a friendship, those judgments can be revised. Considering whether to name a building for someone seems to require one total evaluation of his or her character. Impossible. Was Thomas Jefferson a bad person? He owned slaves, so yes. But he was also a great man because he helped to found our country. So he was a great bad man. Is greatness an amoral quality? Was Lenin a great man just as Gandhi was? This is all very complex, and can be avoided if the committee recommends that we restrict judgment to the relevant portion of someone’s life.
I have not tried to answer the central question, which is of course what makes a person worthy of honor. But the Witt Committee will have to try to answer this central question, or the exercise will have been useless to anyone interested in someday actually renaming a building. The committee will have to say therefore that certain traits and therefore certain people (or parts of their lives) are dishonorable. The task is no younger than civilization. Godspeed.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .