The Morals of Slavery
Every one must understand that, whatever be the evil of slavery, it is not increased by its diffusion. Every one familiar with it knows that it is in proportion to its sparseness that it becomes less objectionable. Wherever there is an immediate connexion between the master and slave, whatever there is of harshness in the system is diminished. —Jefferson Davis
The worst thing about slavery is that the slaves eventually get to like it. —Aristotle
First off, allow me to assert once and for all that I do not endorse the ancient institution of human slavery. My religion is freedom; and I believe that everyone with a capacity for self-governance should have the right to believe, speak, and act as he or she pleases, so long as he or she does not infringe upon the basic rights of others. Then again, some people are not very capable of self-governance.
That said, I will observe that slavery has become a live issue in western society nowadays, despite its presumed abolition by western societies in the 19th century. Cultural Marxists have begun slamming the American founding fathers, the US Constitution created by same, and western civilization in general using slavery as an excuse. The argument goes that the Constitution was written by patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist European men who dominated and repressed women, massacred native Americans, and enslaved black people, thereby casting shade not only on the Constitution itself but on America as a nation; and that furthermore western civilization was built by slaves unjustly and evilly exploited by white men, and so western civilization is evil and should be abolished and replaced. One obvious symptom of this mentality is the current fashion for wanting to tear down or just vandalize monuments to Confederate Civil War figures like Robert E. Lee, and also to Christopher Columbus, also allegedly a white supremacist slave-owning genocidal villain. So with the likes of Columbus and Lee already in the pillory, it’s a rather small step to take to tearing down monuments of white supremacist slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—and that step is already being taken by indoctrinated members of the cult of Social Justice.
But notice the suspicious circumstance that only white men are accused of being responsible for enslaving their fellow man and woman. The thing is that it’s politically incorrect to blame anyone except white people for injustices, with heterosexual “cis-normative” conservative Christian white males being held up as a universal scapegoat, a convenient alleged cause for all badness and wrongness. The fact is, though, that in the not so distant past slavery was pretty much universal throughout the world, and an accepted aspect of human civilization; and it was primarily the aforementioned Christian white men who systematically abolished it in the west, and throughout the parts of the world (most of it) colonized by Europeans.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) kept slaves, including female slaves taken as spoils of war with whom he mated whether the females desired him or not. (To be fair, though, he did free one of his male slaves and adopted him as his son; and he reportedly was a humane master.) The Christian Bible features a cute little chapter (the Epistle to Philemon) in which Saint Paul sends a runaway slave back to his master; and the Old Testament accepts enslavement of prisoners of war as a matter of course. (I was recently told that a primary cause for the establishment of slavery was the issue of what to do with prisoners of war.) Even Buddhism, as ethically finely tuned as it is, accepts the existence of slavery as an institution; masters are encouraged to be kind and generous towards their dāsā, or slaves, and runaways are not allowed to be ordained as monks or nuns. Probably every major world culture before the 20th century, and every major religious system, allowed slavery in some form or another, and some still allow it, at least unofficially, even now. There are literally millions of people who are bought, sold, and owned as property in Africa to this day; and this is setting aside the idea that totalitarian governments essentially enslave their entire populace, with the exception of those at the very top of the elite ruling hierarchy. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt legally owned every living being under their dominion, along with all the property and even the river water; and authoritarian Marxist governments like those of China and North Korea arguably enslave and control their own populace as well, here in the 21st century.
Obviously, the new left is attacking the USA and its founding fathers, and thus traditional American and western values and ideals, by asserting that America was based on evil slavery, with the founding fathers being evil slave owners and oppressors, and of course racists and white supremacists besides. Also of course this gives leftist black people in America (with white “liberals” white-knighting and whitesplaining for them) a convenient excuse to blame Whitey, and not themselves, for their general failure to prosper at the same level as Europeans and Asians in western society. Slavery was racist! Apparently empirical reality also is racist. The left vehemently rejects (or simply ignores the likelihood of) the very notion that different groups of people have different inherent traits—even such an acknowledgement would qualify as racism—and so any inequality of outcome must be blamed on some convenient villain, in this case Whitey.
True, early modern European slave owners did consider black Africans to be inferior in some respects, especially psychologically, as did many ancient Europeans; although slavery does not necessarily involve racism. Some Irish and Scots were sent to American colonies and forced to work without pay, along with the Africans, and the masters of ancient Classical civilization usually enslaved people of the same (Caucasian) race. There were lots of sophisticated Greek slaves, for example, including famous philosophers like Diogenes the Cynic and Epictetus, and many physicians to wealthy families were Greek doctors owned as property, even owned by other Greeks. The Roman Emperor Diocletian may have been born a slave, and at any rate his father evidently had been one. I wouldn’t be surprised if most white people today have slaves among their ancestors, who were owned by other white people, just as almost all western blacks do.
But what has primarily inspired me to write about all this is the fact that I am on the mailing list of Dr. Bruce Gilley, and recently he published an extraordinarily politically incorrect article, “Was It Good Fortune to be Enslaved by the British Empire?,” published, surprisingly, by the National Association of Scholars. Some of you may recall that about two years ago Dr. Gilley was Damored, that is, howled against and punished by hysterical leftists in academia, for publishing an article entitled “The Case for Colonialism,” in which he put forth the argument that European colonialism wasn’t all bad, and may well have been more positive than negative in its effects for the colonized peoples. (Please refer to my earlier post, “The Case for Colonialism: or, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’” posted 22 October 2017, the link to which is here.) In his new article he claims that not only are black Americans better off in almost every way than blacks still living in Africa, but even black slaves in America hundreds of years ago were healthier, and often treated more humanely, than the supposedly still free Africans! Ha! What glorious blasphemy against the dogmas of the new social cult. To give just one juicy excerpt from Dr. Gilley’s article:
In 1892, the British had persuaded the king of Benin [in Africa] to sign a pledge to eliminate human sacrifice and slave trading. [The British of course had already abolished the slave trade in their own Empire by this time.] He did not comply and in 1897, when British troops conquered the world’s worst tyrant, the King of Benin, they witnessed an African scene that was one of the accounts used by Conrad for his Heart of Darkness: “Huge pits, forty to fifty feet deep, were found filled with human bodies…everywhere sacrificial trees on which were the corpses of the latest human victims, everywhere, on each path, were newly sacrificed corpses,” a British officer recalled. “On the principal sacrificial tree, facing the main gate of the kings compound, there were two crucified bodies, at the foot of the tree seventeen newly decapitated bodies, and forty-three more in various stages of decomposition.”
So at the very least one could say that in many respects enslaving black Africans may have been the lesser of two evils. I assume that it was a real slap in the face to academic neo-Marxists that Dr. Gilley’s article was published by the National Association of Scholars.
One reason why black slaves in the west were treated relatively well was the fact that slaves were expensive, and so they were well fed and cared for as a means of protecting an investment. Also, the now vilified Europeans have for centuries been more concerned than most about human rights in general, and have even passed laws against cruelty to animals. And of course the Europeans were the first to end slavery, and many white Americans died in the US Civil War, partly to free the slaves.
All this talk of humane slave-owning leads to the recognition of the fact that there was often considerable loyalty and affection felt towards masters by their slaves, and vice versa. Many freed slaves stayed with their former masters after Emancipation, adopted their ex-masters’ family name, and were practically members of the same family. One of my own great or great-great grandfathers (I don’t remember which) was a slave owner until Emancipation, and one of his emancipated slaves, an old fellow called Uncle Henry, stayed with him until death as a member of the family. I’ve heard that Henry was the only person who could rebuke the old plantation owner to his face with impunity. This leads to the devil’s advocate’s question of, Was slavery necessarily always immoral? And remember: from the perspective of Buddhist ethics, whether an act is moral or immoral depends upon subjective volition, not mere outward acts—and sure as hell not on 21st-century standards of political correctness.
Again, I consider a free society to be more civilized and more humane and better than one that includes slavery, but even so, slavery was not simply based upon hatred, contempt, racism, and evil. Not all or even most slave owners compelled the work of their slaves with snapping whips, or raped the most attractive black slave girls. Probably a lot of slave girls were quite willing to share a bed with Massa, as they would receive more benefits and maybe even get to wear pretty clothes in the big house. I consider it extremely unlikely that the average American black person enjoys 20-25% European ancestry due entirely to rape, let alone post-emancipation intermarriage.
I’ve already mentioned that slavery still exists even today, even in sophisticated western civilization. One preliminary point is the case of domesticated animals, which animal rights activists assert is indeed slavery. Does owning a dog necessitate evil, or hatred towards dogs? Is buying, selling, and owning dogs, cats, or horses as pets immoral? Or how about training a dog and commanding it, as is done with hunting dogs, sheepdogs, and police dogs? They are fed and taken care of, sometimes even loved as members of the family, but the same was true of black slaves in the west (and might still be true of black slaves even today in African countries like Mauritania). Here’s something to consider: A few hundred years ago in America, a plantation would have horse stables and also slaves’ quarters, and both the horses and the slaves were bought, owned, and sold, and were valued pretty much in the same way at a purely economic level. Consequently it is a safe assumption that there was not necessarily any more hatred or contempt for the slaves than there was for the horses.
The idea that the horses and the slaves were better fed, healthier, and longer-lived than free, “wild” horses and black Africans may be viewed as irrelevant so long as enslaving and owning other conscious beings is immoral and implies evil motives—and again, militant animal rights activists like PETA radicals may say that even keeping a house cat or parakeet is immoral. Then again, the case of small children is not so different, as they are practically the slaves of their parents. But this is one reason why “progressive” leftists are opposed to traditional family values and would prefer that all small children be wards of the State; although now we’re veering back towards the socialist ideal of pretty much everyone being wards of the State, and arguably slaves as well. At least in the feminized west we’d probably all be relatively well treated slaves, or most of us would.
At this point, before going any further, I would recap the previous vaguely expressed argument by reiterating that keeping domesticated animals involves speciesist discrimination, but considering that their owners often love and cherish them it is hardly a case of rampant evil. Likewise, parents disciplining their small children is arguably a case of ageist discrimination, but obviously parents tend to love their children very much, and few sane people would go so far as to say that parents raising and disciplining their children is evil slavery. So with regard to black slaves before the US Civil War, no doubt there was much evil and abuse, but the institution itself did not logically imply any more evil than in the former two cases. The evils of slavery did exist, but are now exaggerated for political, propagandist reasons.
Setting aside the debatable cases of domesticated animals and small children, still slavery exists in the 21st-century US of A. Some years ago I discovered that the enslavement and trading of women is practically a subculture in the morally darker regions of America, for example in BDSM dungeons. I have read in what is apparently a reliable source that women are essentially tortured and humiliated (for example by being repeatedly raped in all three sexual orifices, beaten, and force fed their own excrement) until their spirit is completely broken and they become totally passive and submissive to whatever man happens to be their master. They tend to be very emotionally traumatized and messed up, and some of them were willing from the beginning, possibly through some extreme low self-esteem issues. But this is already illegal, at least in cases where the women are unwilling.
Legal slavery, though, still exists in the USA and is expressly allowed in the very same Constitutional amendment which allegedly freed the slaves. The 13th Amendment says this, with my emphasis:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Thus slavery, or at least involuntary servitude, is constitutional, and can be found in cases of prison labor gangs like that portrayed in the old movie Cool Hand Luke. Luke was essentially a slave of the State. It seems to me that this is one danger of privatizing the prison system in America, as it could easily result in a slave labor force owned by private corporations, lobbying to increase prison terms in order to maximize profits. American Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris received some blame over this same issue because, as a state prosecutor in California, she made partly successful efforts to keep men in prison in order to maximize the state’s free labor force. (Also, although she identifies as black, some of her ancestors in Jamaica also reportedly were slave owners.)
The military draft is another plausible case of legal slavery in the USA, since US citizens are compelled, sometimes against their will, to enter the armed forces, subject themselves to rigorous discipline, and risk severe injury and death. And then of course there are anarcho-libertarians claiming that taxation and laws are slavery, and also some Marxists insisting that working for pay is wage slavery. (Ironically for the Marxists, there is more blatant slave labor in Marxist and quasi-Marxist nations than in the humanitarian west. Consider the political concentration camps in China and North Korea, for example, even setting aside the idea that the entire population is essentially compelled to obey the dictates of the authoritarian governments in such places.)
Returning to the moral issues involved in slavery, a key aspect of morality, or rather of immorality, is volition, and thus to some extent also awareness of wrongdoing. In some cases this very awareness is the dividing line between doing something wrong and not doing something wrong; for example it would determine whether or not using words like “nigger” or “queer” or “broad” or “fascist” is a hostile slur or just a word used without ill intent. Although many acts are immoral or unwholesome regardless of a person’s justifications for doing them, still it can be a mitigating factor. For example in Christian culture hunting and fishing are completely allowable and socially acceptable, despite the fact that Buddhist ethics condemns these acts as unethical. Even beating one’s wife or children has received religious endorsement, and in some cases may be seen as a religious or ethical duty—Spare the rod and spoil the child, and all that. On the other hand, in today’s ultraliberal, secular culture even spanking one’s own naughty child may be seen as a criminal act of child abuse sufficient for the State removing said child from his or her family and home.
Part of the trouble is that the new left, which is taking over the mainstream left lately, has roots in Marxist ideology, not in actual morality, much less spirituality, and is in no position to dictate a new moral code. Despite all the histrionic moral outrage coming from the left, that same left is leading western civilization into a state of moral degeneracy and spiritual bankruptcy, in which pretty much everyone except for a corrupt globalist ruling elite will be essentially enslaved, not only physically but mentally.
So the moral of the story is that slavery is more bad than good, at least with regards to infringing upon some people’s right to freedom of speech and action, regardless of whether or not it is legal. But nevertheless it does not logically necessitate evil intentions, hatred, contempt, or even racism. The founding fathers of the USA were, for the most part, wiser and better than the mob of leftists howling against them lately, regardless of the fact that many (though not all) of them owned slaves. As for myself, as I’ve already stated, freedom is my religion; and if I were a slave in, say, ancient Rome I might willingly commit myself to being tortured to death in recompense for the few moments of glory in which I told my fat slob of a master what an arrogant little pompous ass he was. But then again, my master might be a really nice guy who considered me to be part of the family. He might have me tutoring his kids, like Diogenes.
|(alleged) slaves in modern Mauritania; they're owned mainly by Moorish Muslims|
Dr. Gilley’s article (well worth reading)