Good Works, Bad People



Good Works, Bad People



What should we do about people who do bad things but produce good works of art? What about a child-molesting composer, say? Should his works be banned? The question is not simple and I shall work up to an answer by considering some thought experiments.

            Suppose a man, call him Bill, has produced distinguished musical compositions but is guilty of unsavory and unethical conduct (theft, pedophilia, defamation, what have you). His nefarious deeds were unknown while his musical fame grew; he became extremely popular and admired. Then his bad behavior is revealed (we can suppose that there is no doubt about this). Boycotts are urged. There isn’t any question of rewarding him for his evil ways for the simple reason that he has been dead for ten years, but still some people feel that his work is now tainted and that it would be wrong to play his music, even in private. In fact there was always something funny about Bill, which is brought to light in the midst of the controversy: Bill had a split brain! He was born that way—separate non-communicating hemispheres. Indeed, inside Bill there lurked two distinct selves, one in the left-brain, and the other in the right. And, stranger still, it was the left-brain self that committed the crimes not the right brain self—that self was innocent of all wrongdoing. True, these two selves had the same name, the same birth certificate, and so on, but they were two different individuals sharing the same body. The person who composed that marvelous music was not identical to the person who committed those horrific crimes, despite appearances. Doesn’t that change the situation? We can’t hold the musical individual responsible for the misdeeds of the non-musical individual! So there is no ground for a boycott after all: the composer did none of the things his evil cohabiting self did. The works came from one source, the misdeeds from another.

            Now consider a person, call him Jack, with multiple personality disorder: he contains several distinct selves. When one self is uppermost Jack paints beautiful pictures; when other selves emerge wicked actions result. Should Jack’s paintings be banned or destroyed? Wouldn’t that be blaming one self for the actions of another? Jack can do nothing about which self has control at any given time, and each self is a genuinely distinct individual—so it would be hard lines to punish one of these selves for the misbehavior of the others. Think Jekyll and Hyde: should we refuse to teach the medical findings of Dr. Jekyll just because of the terrible things Mr. Hyde got up to? Again, that presupposes an identity of source, which fails in the present instance. You can’t blame X for what Y did. Given that Jack’s good self produced outstanding works of art, surely we don’t want to deprive ourselves of them just because of his unfortunate association with other unethical persons (over which he has no control). What if everybody was like this? We all go through a bad phase in which we do bad things, but then we get beyond it and turn into model citizens. Maybe a remnant of our earlier bad self survives in our mature good self, but we no longer act in those bad old ways. We each have some pretty nasty skeletons in the closet, but thankfully we grow out of all that to produce worthwhile work. Should we all be banned and boycotted? Wouldn’t that be manifestly unjust and leave us with nothing good to do with our time, culturally speaking? That old self is ancient history, of no relevance to what we are now, so it has no role in creating our good works. The good works don’t come from the same place as the earlier bad actions (we shudder to think of them now).

            Next we have Jill, a world-famous moral philosopher: not only are her works intellectually distinguished, she is also highly regarded morally. She lives a blameless life (outwardly) and dies a celebrated thinker and writer. However, unknown to everybody, Jill had a truly vile imagination: it was a cesspool in there—murder, torture, perversion, you name it. Her dreams were unspeakable and her daily imaginings disgusting. But she kept this secret fantasy life to herself—wise, because if her associates knew about it they wouldn’t want to go near her. Soon after her death, however, Jill’s dairies are discovered and they contain ample evidence of her deranged imagination, so skillfully kept under wraps during her lifetime (though people were sometimes disconcerted by a wicked look in her eye while daydreaming). Now we are made privy to her inner life and we find ourselves repelled. Should we ban Jill’s books and take down her plaque? We should certainly accept the modification in her image that the revelations indicate, but what about the work? It bears no mark of her horrible imagination, stemming from a quite different place in her psyche—the place of reason not fantasy. So we are not endorsing her imaginative excesses by applauding her intellectual productions—these are separate spheres of Jill’s mind. Her atrociousness was localized to her imagination and didn’t spill over into other aspects of her life. If we want to get technical about it, we could say that her intellectual mental module was distinct from her imaginative mental module. Jill had different aspects to her mind that functioned separately, so we shouldn’t pin on one what properly belongs to the other. Intellectually, she was exemplary; imaginatively, she was a monster.  We should not conflate one part of her mind with another part.

            Here is another kind of case: a popular singer, Paul, is secretly an active pedophile. He is an icon of popular culture, his music much loved. He dies and his pedophilia is exposed. Should we say that his music module was separate from his erotic module as a way to preserve his musical legacy? But suppose that, in the light of the new revelations, several songs once regarded as innocent can now be interpreted (correctly) as expressions of pedophilia—so that’s what he was talking about! Should those songs be banned? I think we are inclined to say yes, because those songs tap into his unsavory immoral side: they can no longer be listened to in the same spirit, and enjoying them endorses their repugnant content. Here the work comes from the same place as the bad part of the person: the lyrics directly reflect the emotions and activities that characterized Paul’s secret life. Similarly, if Jill’s fantasy life incorporated anti-Semitic tropes, which found their way into her published works, those works should be boycotted. That is, we are inclined to treat cases differently according as they separate or connect the good and the bad: if the work is insulated from the author’s bad character, we are okay with it; but if the bad character feeds into the work, we are far less tolerant. Call this the insulation principle: then we can say that works should be banned (boycotted, frowned upon  [1]) if and only if they are not insulated from the badness of the person producing them. That principle is clearly reflected in cases of numerically distinct persons, as with Bill and Jack, but it also applies to single persons and their multiple faculties, as with Jill and her evil imagination. Paul is the test case because here we stipulated that the insulation principle is violated. The very trait that constitutes Paul’s badness contributes to the works in question. But when there is insulation we have grounds for leniency. To put it differently: persons are not simple unitary entities but complex assemblies of traits and faculties; and a work can result from one of these and not the others. We can endorse some of a person’s traits without endorsing all of them. Since everyone has some bad traits, this allows us to preserve their meritorious works, because we are not thereby showing any toleration for what is bad in a person. If we are inclined to accept multiple selves as the correct account of so-called personal identity, this becomes a lot more straightforward—all the interesting cases then approximate to the cases of Bill and Jack. At any rate, there is always a question about who created what: the self that created the great work may be distinct from the other selves that constitute what I refer to as “me”. Thus ethics connects with metaphysics: you can only be blamed for things that you do, not some prior self or simultaneous self existing alongside the self at issue. If Paul actually had two selves, an artistic self and an erotic self, then the productions of the former self would be insulated from the bad actions of the latter self. Hence we should not prohibit his works because of his dirty deeds, because they weren’t really his. But if Paul has one self that simultaneously writes songs covertly about child sex and indulges in it, then the right response is to let disapprobation fall on the songs as well as the person. Expressions of evil inherit the evil of what they express, and the same person is doing both.

            In actual real-world cases there will no doubt be difficulties, empirical and conceptual, as to a person’s guilt and its implications for his or her work; but the general principle that we must keep in mind is that if the work is separable from the heinous aspects of the person whose work it is, then it is not in general a good idea to ban that work. By all means boycott work that is intrinsically unethical, or which springs directly from unethical traits, but don’t extend this principle to work that stems from some source other than the bad traits in question. A person may have good parts and bad parts, and his or her work may partake purely of the good parts. No one should have their work judged by their worst traits, but only by the traits that generated it.  [2]


  [1] I am trying to avoid the question of legal prohibition because that raises questions of free speech; for my purposes here we can limit ourselves to self-policing, i.e. what you allow yourself to consume.

  [2] I have not attempted to adjudicate the numerous actual cases in which the issue comes up; that would require considerable factual knowledge of the details of such cases. I have restricted myself to teasing out the general principles that should guide our judgment, by considering hypothetical cases in which the facts are clear.

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