Can You Separate A Man’s Contributions From His Actions?

So I have a few motivations for this post – Chris Benoit, Tookie Williams, Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant.  All 4 of these men, in some way, have been important in the past 100 years.  And all 4 of these men made some sort of contributions to their respective fields (Williams is a special case but still fits), and all 4 of these men had a serious problem attached to them.  So the question becomes, can you separate the man and his contributions from his actions?

Kant portrait

Kant portrait

Let’s start with the one who inarguably had the biggest impact – Kant.  Every philosopher of the late 19th century onto the present is familiar with his work, either intimately or in passing, simply because the history of philosophy funnels through Kant.  His conception of synthetic a priori knowledge as a middle ground to the epistemological problem is but one of many things Kant brought to philosophy.  He effectively contributed significantly to every possible field of philosophy.  He was the end of the modern philosophical period that was filled with responses to the theory of knowledge and he was the first major middle ground between the rationalists and the empiricists.  The Critique of Pure Reason is easily one of the top 5 most important philosophical works in history.  He’s the biggest thing to come out of the Enlightenment.  I could go on and on and on, but he was (and still could be considered) the single most important philosopher since the ancient trio of Socrates/Plato/Aristotle (and I’m not even a Kantian, as far as I know).

But he had his problem – he was a known anti-Semite.  There are works out there that show that many of the prominent Enlightenment German thinkers were anti-Semitic and racist.  Kant is not excluded from this distinction, and in fact, is the target of many of these works.  I did a little digging, and here are some quotes from Kant regarding Jews and non-whites, as well as a summation of his opinions of Jews and non-whites.

Every coward is a liar; Jews for example, not only in business, but also in common life.”

Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.”

In a book from Michael Mack, Mack asserts that Kant produced his transformative philosophical ideals by positing them as the opposite of the Jews.  He considered Judaism a materialistic religion, based on a quid pro quo with God.  Now, whether or not his anti-Semitism was an influence on his philosophy isn’t what I’m worried about.  It’s certainly something to think about, but not the principle issue here.  The question is, can you separate the racist anti-Semite from the groundbreaking philosopher?



The same trend comes with Martin Heidegger.  Being and Time can be considered one of the most important works of the early 20th Century, and a development in phenomenology and a beginning to existentialism.  His addressing of the fundamental question of “what is being?” came to the forefront of 20th Century continental philosophy, his destruction of the history of philosophy after Socrates was something I held a reserved appreciation for, and the concepts of “fallenness,” “Dasein,” “thrownness,” “authenticity,” and other terms really changed philosophy.  Again, he’s a big time philosopher.  And again…he had his issues with Jews.  More to the point, he was a member of the Nazi party.  He defended Nazism and promoted it, and showed no remorse when his mentor, Edmund Husserl (a Jew), was forced out of a job essentially.  One could say Heidegger wasn’t a very good person.  But the question again gets asked – can you separate the major contributions to philosophy from the fact that Heidegger was at one time a proud Nazi?

Tookie Williams

Tookie Williams

Tookie Williams was a 5 time Nobel Peace Prize nominee.  Though he was in prison from 1979 until his execution in 2005, he renounced his former gang affiliation and even wrote anti-gang children’s books.  He helped broker a 2004 peace agreement between the Crips and the Bloods, two of the most infamous gangs in America.  He was even commended by President George W. Bush for his social activism.  Tookie also had a very checkered past, one that began with his co-founding of the Crips (though he wrote an apology for his role in creating the Crips), and included a number of robberies and murders, which ended up with him in prison and ultimately executed by the state of California, even though his supporters cited his changed life as a reason to keep him alive.  But can you separate his anti-gang work from the fact that he helped found one of America’s major gangs?

Finally, the most recent of the 4 men (and really the primary impetus for this writing), Chris Benoit.  I grew up as a big fan of wrestling, starting with the Ultimate Warrior (little did I know he actually was a crappy wrestler), I was a Hulkamaniac, but I always held a special admiration for the guys who were “technical wrestlers.”  The guys who made it look so effortless and really honed their craft.  The Mr. Perfects, the Bret Harts, and towards the turn of the century, the Kurt Angles, the Chris Jerichos…and the Chris Benoits.  As a wrestler, he was a true in-ring artist.  He could sell any moves, he could perform any move and damn, he just knew how to wrestle.  His match in Canada vs. Bret Hart for the WCW Championship was great to watch.  His Wrestlemania 20 triple threat match with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, great wrestlers in their own right, is considered one of the top Wrestlemania matches in history, which is saying something.  He could work great as a heel, great as a face, and was just a great ring storyteller.  Most wrestling fans enjoyed watching Benoit work, and I had the pleasure of seeing him have 3 great Pay-Per-View matches with a then up and coming Montel Vontavious Porter at Wrestlemania 23, Backlash 2007, and Judgment Day 2007 in person.  The man knew how to work.

Chris Benoit

Chris Benoit

But then there’s the whole murder-suicide of his family just outside of Atlanta later that summer (it actually all went down on my birthday, June 22).  Wrestling fans everywhere were in an outrage and this is where it is most evident recently about the separation of one’s professional career and one’s personal life.  Benoit, up until June 22, 2007, was world-renown as a world class professional wrestler.  Immediately following the revelation of the events that led to his death and his family’s death (that he killed them), there were fans who said they couldn’t watch wrestling anymore.  There were fans who could separate the insanity behind the curtain and the entertainment in front of the curtain.  And there were those who hated everything Benoit stood for, in wrestling and otherwise.  Can there be fault taken with any of those positions?

While I try to remain neutral in some respects, I find it very difficult in many instances to reconcile the advances each man made in the public sphere while having very contentious private lives.  But can I really discount Kant’s impact and advances by swiftly dismissing him as a racist anti-Semite?  Can I wipe Being and Time from my memory because he was a Nazi?  Do I forget about Tookie’s work promoting anti-gang work because he killed a bunch of people and started one of the most infamous gangs in America?  Do I forget about Benoit’s amazing in-ring work because of how his life ended?  Which one overvalues the other?  Which is the more important?

Honestly, for each person I hold a different view.  Kant’s anti-Semitism is to be deplored, but his philosophical advancement I won’t remove because of it.  His racism means the same for me – one’s vices doesn’t prevent one from making a great contribution.  Heidegger took it a step further by joining the Nazis, and that part of his life is to also be deplored.  But I can’t ignore the impact of Heideggerian phenomenology on my personal philosophical interests nor on philosophy as a whole.  It is possible to dislike the man and what the man stands for and not his philosophical outlook.  Tookie is a special case, as he took lives and I am ardently anti-gang.  Murderers apologize for killing people, with real remorse, and apologize for their wrongdoings, also with real remorse.  I believe he held remorse for those actions, but what he spun into existence – the Crips – just angers me.  But I still value and appreciate his activism after the fact.  And finally, Benoit.  I hate what he did.  But his in-ring performance is still something I can appreciate.  I love his matches to this day and I don’t want to remove him, or any of these other men from history because of their poor decisions.  Even assholes can contribute to society, but still inevitably be the asshole they are.  Bad people can do good things (though I’m not going to make moral judgments about these men right now), and racists can make non-racist contributions to society, a killer can make a difference, and a steroid-using wife and child killer can create entertainment.  So I have separated a man’s contributions to the world from his personal actions, provided that the contributions weren’t fueled by the actions (so Heidegger’s Being and Time isn’t Nazi propaganda but has true philosophical merit, the Critique of Pure Reason also isn’t anti-Semitic literature, Benoit’s matches weren’t an endeavor to kill people and Tookie Williams’ anti-gang work wasn’t just a ruse to create more gangbangers), which is a fairly specific and yet open criteria. What I fear is that people perform unnecessary criticisms of these mens’ contributions because of their problems, which is a bit of an ad hominem fallacy unless they can show the connection that their vices contributed to their input.

So the question comes to you, my public – can you separate a man from his actions?

(Oh, and women/transgendered/unknowns also apply to this question, but I just used the patriarchal tradition for ease.)

6 thoughts on “Can You Separate A Man’s Contributions From His Actions?

  1. boagie says:

    Mr philospher,

    To get back to the aspect of judgement one must keep in mind the context of the times, it is one thing to judge the ideas and behaviours of people of your own culture and time frame quite another to judge those who are of another culture and time. Again the important thing to the relative immortality of culture is ideas, and one evaluates those by the standards of the present. One thing that amazes me when considering the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and their views on women, is how culturally context defined those views were in part and how neither of those great minds could raise above both cultural context and their personal experiences of women–they failed to think out of the box.

  2. @boagie – I recently read a paper that spoke to another famous historical figure, John Locke, and his relationship to slavery. Locke’s natural law theory went completely against the grain of slavery of nearly any sort, and yet he was not just knowledgeable of the fact that race-based slavery was happening – he was someone who had stock in the enterprise! And yet, at that same time, there are people arguing against slavery’s ethical merit. Kant is no different with respect to his historical placement – many people in Europe knew that race based discrimination and racism and inequality was bad, so Kant cannot be shielded by his epoch.

    @Johnny – you’re right on the money regarding judgment, but to use boagie’s terminology, it’s more or less become (whether or not it was to begin with is up for grabs) human nature to judge. What we do with the judgment is where people probably differ, but ought we judge? Probably not. Will we judge? Probably so.

    @John T – hey, I’ll take a .500 average any day. But all 4 guys will be remembered – it just depends on who you ask.

    Thanks for the comments guys, really interesting stuff.

  3. John T says:

    Well, two of the four will be remembered, but you’re still batting .500 which is major leagues (IMHO).

    All the best.

  4. Johnny says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with seperating the two, but you should remember both. George Washington had slaves, does that make him not a great person for being the USA’s founding father?? NO.

    Americans can’t seperate personal lifes of celebrities from their public lives, look at the tabloids. To me, it’s no different than my boss firing me because he doesn’t like that I’m a swinger or something.

    It comes down to what’s relevant, the PUBLIC opinion should be on the PUBLIC persona. Personal should remembered, but not the dominating factor in judging a person, which should we be doing anyhow?!?!

  5. boagie says:

    Actually the human condition is such that even knowing the name of a individual that has made a great contribution does not tell us much. What is or what was an Immanual Kant, we can only know out of what we ourselves are. It is and always has been ideas that count, ideas and the life thoughs ideas breath into a culture. Knowing the man/women is never quite possiable, accept to know them as but one possiablity for the human condition and that is vague indeed. Also one must remember the context of the times, racisim in Europe has been historically popular, today we are subject to political correctness, how much of your own beliefs are alined with this pervasive conditon of the present culture. It does not matter the source, you take the good and leave the rest.

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