What medical ethics can teach us about the #Rhodesmustfall debate

Protests are continuing at Oxford over a statue of Cecil Rhodes. John Stillwell/PA Wire

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur, it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove a statue of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes? Debates over whether to use medical research that has been carried out unethically – including by the Nazis – can offer some helpful parallels.

Current effects matter

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures.

Perhaps one could argue that erecting a statue sends a stronger message than leaving an existing one in place. But this is not always so. Whether preserving a statue implicitly condones past immoral deeds will depend on how bad the wrongdoing was (Rhodes’ wrongdoing was not as bad as Hitler’s).

And whether it contributes to further injustices will depend on its relevance to those alive now. No one objected to the removal of memorials to the late BBC presenter, Jimmy Savile. Though his sexual crimes were morally not on a par with those of Hitler, many of his victims are still alive, and sex crimes remain a major social problem. Leaving his memorials in place could have had a considerable negative impact.

Even where reasons to keep a statue in place win out, there may be a significant moral cost, and this should be recognised and where possible, rectified.

Using unethical research

But we can learn something from medical ethics here. Many ethicists argue that it is alright to use and benefit from past unethical medical research. For example, some have argued we may use data from cruel Nazi or Japanese medical experiments carried out during World War II, or unethical research in developing countries as long as we take steps to distance ourselves from it.

We could do this by explicitly acknowledging the wrongness of the experiments, by compensating or apologising to the victims and their families, and by implementing concrete measures to prevent unethical medical research in the future.

The Max Planck Society in Germany could serve as an example as we think about how to deal with statues of Rhodes and other controversial historical figures. Many of the scientists of the Society’s predecessor organisation – the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS) – were involved in Nazism during WWII. This involvement ranged from sympathising with National Socialism, to advocating problematic forms of eugenics, to collaborating with the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele.

Twins at Auschwitz kept alive for medical experiments. USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography/Wikimedia Commons

In 1997, the Society appointed a committee to address the history of KWS (a 10-year project resulting in 17 volumes of research), organised a symposium about the results (surviving victims attended), and apologised to the victims. It also recently started up a research project to study the history of the Society from 1948 onwards and will investigate any other ethical lapses so as to be able to prevent them in the future.

This approach could be especially relevant to the ongoing debate at the University of Melbourne, where students are demanding the renaming of buildings that honour eugenicists. The most notorious is the Richard Berry Building. Berry was an anatomy professor in the early 20th century who argued for the sterilisation of “the inefficient”, including homosexuals, alcoholics, those with small heads and low IQs, and aborigines. He also inspired the Eugenics Society of Victoria. In this case, renaming the building seems to involve little cost, and it could help the university to distance itself from its problematic past. The case for renaming seems strong.

Oriel’s way forward

In the case of Rhodes, it might be appropriate to add a plaque to the statue that briefly mentions his problematic past and contains a brief statement distancing the college from his values. The plaque mentioning his name could simply be removed so that the statue becomes less of a memorial to the man, and more an artistic object. A deeper investigation into the injustices perpetrated by Rhodes and their long term effects might be appropriate.

So, should Rhodes stay or should he go? If he stays at Oriel there will be trouble. But this trouble could be minimised if the college explicitly distances itself from any problematic values Rhodes stands for and, crucially, makes a serious effort to tackle the current injustices that Rhodes and those sharing his values contributed to.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.