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Dr. Seuss and David Hume

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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. . .

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News source: A Philosopher's Blog

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