The estate of Dr. Seuss decided to pull six books from publication because the works include illustrations that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” This was taken by some on the right as an example of “cancel culture” and it has become another battleground in the culture war manufactured by the right to distract from the numerous significant problems faced by Americans. There has been considerable speculation on the motives of the decision makers. They might have been motivated by sincere moral concerns, they might be motivated by woke marketing (sales did increase after the announcement), or they might be (as the right suggests) yielding to the threat of “cancel culture.” While questions of motives are interesting, my main concern is with the philosophical matter of re-assessing works of the past in the context of current values.
This is not a new problem in philosophy and our good dead friend David Hume addressed the matter. As Hume sees it, we can and should make allowances for some differences between current and past customs. He says, “The poet’s monument more durable than brass, must fall to the ground like common brick or clay, were men to make no allowance for the continual revolutions of manners and customs, and would admit of nothing but what was suitable to the prevailing fashion. Must we throw aside the pictures of our ancestors, because of their ruffs and fardingales?” Hume is right to note that elements of past art will be out of tune with our time and that some of these differences should be tolerated as being the natural and blameless result of shifting customs—such works can and should still be enjoyed.
As an example, movies made and set in the 1960s will feature different styles of clothing, different lingo, different styles of filming, and so on. But it would be unreasonable to look down upon or reject a work simply because of these differences. Hume does, however, note that a work can cross over from having blameless differences in customs to being morally problematic:
Hume thus provides a rough guide to the moral assessment of past works: when a work’s content violates contemporary ethics, this is a significant flaw in the work. Hume does note that such works can still have artistic merit and one can understand that the artist was operating within the context of the values of their time but these flaws are blameworthy and diminish our ability to enjoy the work. Put in marketing terms, the work loses its appeal to the audience. Hume’s view can easily be applied to the Dr. Seuss situation.
When Dr. Seuss created these works, the general customs, and ethics of America (and the world) were different. While there were people who held moral views that condemned racist stereotypes in art, there was a general acceptance of such things—in fact, many people would not even recognize them as being racist. Since I hold to an objective view of morality, I think that racist images have always been wrong—but I do recognize the impact of culture on moral assessment. There are, of course, ethical relativists who hold that morality depends on the culture: so, what was right in the earlier culture that accepted racism would be wrong now in a culture that is more critical of racism. There are also theories that consider the role of cultural context in terms of what can be reasonable expected of people and that shapes how people and works are assessed. That is, that while morality is not relative, it can be harder or easier to be good in different times and places. So, a person trying to be a decent human being in the 1930s faced different challenges than a person trying to be a decent person in 2021. Harms also need to be taken in context: while racist stereotypes in drawings are seen as very harmful today, in the context of the racism of the past, these drawings would pale in comparison to the harms caused by racist violence and laws. This is not to deny the existence of racist violence today; it is just to put matters in context: things are bad, but not as bad as the past (though the future might be worse).
Whether we think that morality has changed or that more people are moral, these racist stereotypes are now broadly rejected by people who are not racists. As such, it makes both moral and practical sense for the estate to take these books out of print. From a practical standpoint, racism taints a business’ reputation today and unless one focuses on marketing to racists (which could be a profitable option) purging racist content makes sense. In terms of ethics, racist images are wrong. One could advance a utilitarian argument here about harms, a Kantian argument about treating people as ends and not means, or many other sorts of arguments depending on what ethical theory you favor. As such, removing the products from sale makes sense—especially since they are books for children. We generally accept that children need more protection than adults—while adults can (sometimes) make informed decision about possible harms from content, children generally have not learned how to do this. So just as we would not allow children access to firearms, alcohol, or pornography, it is ethical for a company to decide to protect them from racism.
While it is tempting to see children’s books as just amusements, children can be profoundly shaped by the content of such works. This is, perhaps, why many parents and groups have been instrumental in making Captain Underpants the most banned (cancelled?) book in America. Just as they are shaped by all their experiences. Children will generally pick up on racist stereotypes and can internalize them. Even if they do not become overt racists, these stereotypes will impact how they think and act throughout their life. As Plato argued, “true education is being trained from infancy to feel joy and grief at the right things.” Our good dead friend Aristotle developed this notion in his Nicomachean Ethics and he makes an excellent case for how people become habituated. Assuming Aristotle got it right, the estate made the right choice in discontinuing these works.
In closing, it is worth wondering why the right is so concerned about these works. If they were consistent defenders of freedom of expression and freedom of choice, then they could argue that they are merely applying their principles of freedom. However, they are not consistent defenders of these freedoms and one must suspect that they are fighting for racism rather than freedom.