Have you heard about the shooting of the Mona Lisa?
The world’s most famous painting was on display at its home—the Louvre—where as usual, thousands of people flocked to Paris to see it. The museum usually kept the Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass, thinking to keep her safe from sabotage.
However, this time, the curators had removed her for an overnight inspection, and were installing the painting again, just before they allowed the next morning’s visitors in to see her. As they slid her into place, a man in the queue whipped out a gun and shot the Mona Lisa four times.
Guards immediately subdued the gunman, who made no resistance. In fact, he dropped his gun even before the guards attacked him. Apparently he had only wanted to destroy the painting. They immediately took him to prison under the charge of destroying property.
The gunman, an ethical theorist named Leonard Vincent, was scheduled to come to trial six months later. In the meantime, people noted that, under French law, Vincent faced a maximum of thirty years in prison and a fine for $150 million. The Mona Lisa had been valued at over $100 million, but in actuality, it is priceless. No other painting matches it in either fame or popular adoration. Surprisingly, Vincent had the money for the fine—his father had willed him several billion dollars—and he immediately expressed a wish to repay the painting’s value. “It’s not my intention to defraud the Louvre,” he said. “I love Mona Lisa, and it tore my heart to destroy something that so many others also loved.”
When asked why he destroyed the painting, the ethicist replied that he felt the Mona Lisa was given a status in today’s ethics that humans could not reach. “We should value even the lowest human—even the youngest child—far beyond the value of what a human has created. Our ethical theories today merely call us means to an end—they consider humans only machines of pleasure or of selfishness. Every day, I weep for the people wounded and killed by those who support these theories. If we truly valued refugees, we would willingly give up our imperialism for them. If we truly valued children, we would desire to have children as much as we desire our pleasures. I wanted to show ethicists the absurdity of theories that do not consider humans to be glorious and noble beings.”
Journalists savagely attacked his poor arguments. After all, ethics has never been better off than it is now. In the United States, the conservatives saw that Vincent was undermining U.S. involvement in world affairs, and the liberals saw that he was making a statement against abortion. It was maddening to know that anyone had ever given him a voice. One news outlet called him “a reactionary, a terrorist, and a woman-hater.” They dug up his past in hopes of finding some dirt.
Actually, they found that he had given millions of dollars to refugee aid organizations, crisis pregnancy centers, minority groups, women’s rights activists, and adoption agencies. He had even turned his own home into a homeless shelter. These facts were quickly hushed up, since they weren’t important. Investigators also found that Vincent had miscalculated his taxes in 2001. (He had overpaid by nearly $15,000.) Shockingly, he had also committed more than a dozen traffic violations. Such a man deserved to be jailed already, even without having made such hateful comments or having destroyed the Mona Lisa.
Reporters asked him whether he felt that it was worth going to jail for getting his point across. “Absolutely,” he said. “Of course, I know I’ll be given the longest sentence possible under French law, but I’m only thirty. When I get out, I’ll be sixty. But I’ll still have time to destroy the Sistine Chapel before I die.”
At this, art lovers all around the world rose up in arms. Enraged, they flocked to Paris to demonstrate. They demanded that Vincent be sentenced to life imprisonment. “If this Luddite lives,” said one, “it will be the death of art!”
Of course, everyone saw the quandary. If Vincent were sentenced to life imprisonment, the law would be broken. But if he were set free, the world would lose yet another of its greatest treasures.
The obvious answer to this conundrum was to try Vincent not for destruction of property but for murder, thus making it possible to give him a life sentence. People argued that the Mona Lisa was worth as much as any person, and that destruction of her was murder. After all, she was beloved by millions of people. Likely, more people knew of her than knew of any other single person in the world, other than perhaps Donald Trump. And she was certainly more uniformly loved and respected than Trump. Wasn’t her murder just as bad as the murder of anyone else?
Art lovers petitioned defenders of various ethical theories, pleading for arguments as to why murdering the Mona Lisa was just as bad as murdering a person. They received a lot of support from the ethics community, most of whom considered Leonard Vincent to be out of date.
Dr. Greg Hummer, a leading utilitarian, had this to say. “What is moral is what makes for the happiness of most people. Shooting the Mona Lisa resulted in the needless pain of millions of people—far more people than would, for example, mourn the death of a baby. Thus, Vincent has committed a far worse crime than infanticide. The law should be altered. Leonard Vincent should certainly be imprisoned for life.”
Utilitarians who were more passionate and less wordy simply said, “Kill him. We want to watch him die.”
Dr. Simon Stone, a proponent of contractualism, disagreed with the premises, but came to the same conclusion. “Morality is based on an imagined contract between rational agents,” he said. “Thus the Mona Lisa, not being a rational agent, has no direct moral standing. However, in practice, we also value any non-rational agents whose destruction would destabilize society. For example, if we allowed either infanticide or the killing of cognitively disabled humans, people who have familial attachments to the infants and to the cognitively disabled would cause an uproar. Society would fall apart. Of course, people have an even stronger attachment to the Mona Lisa, and society is already falling apart due to her death. Thus, killing her is not morally different from murder.” He concluded that life imprisonment was a reasonable sentence.
While Kantian ethicists found it hard to agree with these conclusions, a few were willing to argue that destroying the Mona Lisa was murder. Dr. Jane Jessup, who had previously argued that infanticide is immoral despite the fact that is not the killing of persons, said, “Just as infanticide is wrong because it is both unnecessary and would potentially harm human ‘bearers of dignity’ who care for the child’s life, killing the Mona Lisa is wrong.”
Leonard Vincent wrote a paper in response to these statements, saying that they simply demonstrated his worst fears about contemporary ethical theory. “It has lost interest in people and in the truth,” he said. “It is ad hoc; each theory is the servant only of its author’s scruples.” The paper, which was called a “jeremiad” and “an essay in alarmism,” was not published by any journal, though some newspapers printed it.
The long-awaited trial finally came, and when it came, all the art world was disappointed. The judge, a blind man, sentenced Vincent to fifteen years in jail on the charge of destruction of property and fined him for the equivalent of $150 million. “I find it ridiculous,” said the judge, “to imprison a human being unjustly, when the cause is merely the loss of a painting. Leonard Vincent has broken the law, and the law will punish him. We will not punish him beyond the law.” Obviously, the judge had never seen the Mona Lisa, and thus didn’t understand the full extent of the world’s loss. Vincent was taken to a maximum-security prison. Fearful art connoisseurs began counting the days until the Sistine Chapel was endangered.
In retaliation against the unreasonably light sentence, one art critic dressed herself up as Mona Lisa and set herself on fire outside the doors of the Louvre. She had set up video cameras to record her ghastly death, and the resulting video, when displayed in the U.S. National Gallery of Art, drew huge crowds. The video was termed “the greatest artistic endeavor of our time.” In order to see the video, people even missed a simultaneous exhibit at the MOMA in New York, where a famous performance artist presented a life-sized sculpture of Leonard Vincent being chopped into small pieces in a very unflattering way.
When told of the art critic’s death, Vincent said that he was extremely sorry. “I never meant any harm to a human being,” he said. “My hope was to demonstrate the failure of contemporary secular ethics—that it is biased and ad hoc. I wanted to show that people would use their theories to justify treating me, a human being, unjustly—all for the sake of a painted canvas. Now I find, to my sorrow, that people are willing to treat even themselves unjustly for the same cause. It deeply saddens me to be proved right.”
For years, the Louvre displayed the Mona Lisa in her old frame, even with the four bullet holes that defaced her quizzical mouth and folded hands. Millions of visitors journeyed to the Louvre to weep in front of her. One art lover said, “With the death of the Mona Lisa, my heart has been broken. How could anyone disrespect her enough to kill her?” A prison guard reported that, every night, Vincent talked in his sleep, saying, “Lisa, Lisa” and “Why did you have to die?”
Nearly fifteen years later, two months before Leonard Vincent was to be released, he was found dead in his prison cell. He had been shot in the chest four times. The perpetrator or perpetrators escaped, and the police have not yet found them. Vincent was buried in an unmarked grave.
One news outlet called the perpetrators “the greatest unknown heroes of our time.” These brave killers had saved the Sistine Chapel from certain ruin. A newscaster compared their service to the world to that of Mahatma Gandhi.
Leonard Vincent’s will left all his property to his brother, except for the contents of a safe-deposit box, which were to be presented to the Louvre. When the executors opened the box, they found this note:
Dear Mona Lisa—
Forgive us! Every time a man hates his brother, we have hated you. Every time a woman is murdered, we have murdered you.
Your value is dependent on the value of humanity, because a human created you. How can we see you as you are, unless we see humanity for what it is? When we devalue ourselves, we devalue you.
If we saw you, then perhaps we could see that human ethics begins with the reverence of nature as it was meant to be. Then we could see each person, not as a pleasure-machine, but as the beauty of a consummate eternity. Then we could know what should have been, and what may still be—the wolf dwelling with the lamb, and the leopard with the young kid, and the calf with the lion, and a little child leading them. If I should wish to die, it would be for this.
In a small package under the note, they found the Mona Lisa, carefully wrapped and perfectly preserved. The damaged painting had been an exquisite forgery.