Friday, August 10, 2018

The Wrongness of Slavery

I posted this on Facebook. I thought I would put a copy here for future reference:

[I]From the dawn of civilization until about 150 years ago, people widely approved of slavery.

Yet, slavery was always wrong.

Slavery was always wrong because it was always the case that people generally (including the slaves, including any who may be enslaved, including anybody who cares about somebody who may be enslaved, including anybody concerned by those harmed by the harmful effects of approval of slavery, had many and strong reasons to promote a universal condemnation of slavery.

This view does not require that everybody has overwhelming reasons to promote an aversion to slavery. Some people may have more and stronger reasons to support slavery - the slave masters, for example. Yet, in such a situation, it would also be true that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who approve of slavery - to condemn the masters. It s still the case that slavery is wrong.

Furthermore, the wrongness of slavery does not depend on people believing it is wrong.

The fact that a particular view is held within a society - even if it is unanimously held - does not make it right. A society can believe that they have reasons to sacrifice a virgin by throwing her in a volcano. They can unanimously agree that they have such a reason. Yet, they can still be mistaking.

Similarly, the reasons that people generally have to promote an aversion to slavery exist regardless of whether the people believe that they exist. There is a fact of the matter - a fact to be determined if we were to look at the implications of living in a society where people had an aversion to impose such harms on other people for their own benefit as is represented by the institution of slavery.

Indeed, one piece of evidence that suggests (though does not prove) that slavery is wrong is that, if there were a single person to emerge in that society who were to claim, "slavery is wrong," and to give those reasons, then he would be correct and everybody else would be mistaken. This is not true unless it is the case that everybody was still mistaken even if this person did not exist.

Now, the next question that comes up is the culpability for slavery in those times and places where it was considered permissible. Are those people living in societies that endorsed slavery morally blamable for being supporters of slavery?


There are non-culpable errors. We cannot blame Ptolemy for having a false belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.

However, blaming and praising are actions that we perform. This means that we have to look at the reasons we have for performing them to determine if they are justified or not.

This means that the question of blame is a question about whether we are justified in condemning.

On that measure, we have many and strong reasons to make it clear that the attitudes that those people had towards slavery were attitudes are to be shunned. People ought not to adopt to those attitudes. To fail to blame the slave owner is to say that, under those circumstances, slavery is permissible. One is not saying, "slavery is wrong but they did not know it". To fail to blame them is to say "slavery was not wrong - and they were correct to their judgment."

Thomas Jefferson regularly raped his young teenage slave Sally Hemmings. Do we say that such actions deserve no condemnation - that it is morally permissible to rape young teenage slaves in the situations like those that Thomas Jefferson was in? Even if we note that others at Jefferson's time, would have condemned the action as adultery, they did not condemn it as rape.

Furthermore, if we are not to blame them for their faults, then consistency demands that we not credit them for their virtues. We praise them for their virtues as a way of promoting those virtues today. For the same types of reasons they deserve our condemnation for their vices - to promote the idea that having such attitudes makes one worthy of condemnation.

One final consideration to throw in here is that we praise and condemn fictional characters. It is absurd to think that our moral judgment of fictional characters depends on the thought that we can change - or they could have had - a different attitude than the author assigned to them. We praise and condemn fictional characters as an expression of - and as a way of promoting - certain attitudes among living people. The praise and condemnation of historical characters follows suit.

So, then, this is how desirism handles the wrongness of slavery, and the culpability of slave owners.[/I]

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