Sunday, December 27, 2009

The evolution of liberalism (and “conservatism”)

My WWWtW co-blogger Lydia McGrew calls attention to this satire of theological liberalism’s approach to sexual morality. But today’s over-the-top satire is tomorrow’s Righteous Liberal Cause, and as readers of chapter 5 of The Last Superstition know, this is more or less inevitable given the metaphysical revolution that gave rise to liberalism. There is in principle no absurdity or abomination that the liberal cannot convince himself is really good and rational. The only limit is the current, temporary position of the cultural ratchet. This seems like a good time to reprint the following March 2007 post from the old Right Reason blog. (Go here for the original, complete with the combox discussion it generated.) Liberalism repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. And as you marvel at the craziness engulfing the world around you, remember, kids: The horror is just beginning.

Steve Burton (citing David Frum) describes some chilling developments in the UK vis-à-vis the growing conflict between antidiscrimination laws and religious freedom. Chilling, but not at all surprising. The developments in question illustrate a pattern that is characteristic of liberalism as it slowly works out the implications of its underlying assumptions.

To the charge that liberals are (or, given their principles, should be) in favor of X [where X = legalizing abortion, liberalizing obscenity laws, banning smoking on private property, legalizing “same-sex marriage,” outlawing the public advocacy of traditional sexual morality, etc. etc.], the standard liberal response goes through about five stages (with, it seems, roughly 5-10 years passing between each stage, though sometimes the transition is much quicker than that). Here they are:

Stage 1: “Oh please. Only a far-right-wing nutjob would make such a paranoid and ridiculous accusation - I suppose next you’ll accuse us of wanting to poison your precious bodily fluids!”

Stage 2: “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as X. All the same, it’s good to be open-minded about these things. I mean, people used to think ending slavery was a crazy idea too…”

Stage 3: “Hey, the Europeans have had X for years and the sky hasn’t fallen. But no, I admit that this backward country probably isn’t ready for X yet.”

Stage 4: “Of course I’m in favor of X - it’s in the Constitution! Only a far-right-wing nutjob could possibly oppose it.”

Stage 5: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…”

With respect to the severe threat to religious liberty described by Frum, we’re probably already at stage 2 here in the US. But given how quickly “same-sex marriage” has jumped from stage 1 to stage 4, I wouldn’t be surprised if mainstream American liberals start calling in five or ten years for restrictions on the rights of religious organizations to “discriminate” in hiring practices or publicly to teach doctrines that might be offensive to “sexual minorities.” (The theoretical groundwork is already there. See my review of Amy Gutmann’s book Identity in Democracy.) Or at least, this will be the inevitable next step if “same-sex marriage” makes serious headway in the US.

Fortunately, though, we can rely on conservatives to hold the line, and indeed to turn back liberal advances. Right?

Well, no, of course not. (You can stop rolling your eyes, I was being facetious.) For conservatives - or maybe I should say “conservatives” (since there’s very little that they ever actually manage to conserve, unless money is somehow involved) - seem to go through five stages of their own. Here they are:

Stage 1: “Mark my words: if the extreme left had its way, they’d foist X upon us! These nutjobs must be opposed at all costs.”

Stage 2: “Omigosh, now even thoughtful, mainstream liberals favor X! Fortunately, it’s political suicide.”

Stage 3: “X now exists in 45 out of 50 states. Fellow conservatives, we need to learn how to adjust to this grim new reality.”

Stage 4: “X isn’t so bad, really, when you think about it. And you know, sometimes change is good. Consider slavery…”

Stage 5: “Hey, I was always in favor of X! You must have me confused with a [paleocon, theocon, Bible thumper, etc.]. But everyone knows that mainstream conservatism has nothing to do with those nutjobs…”

Nope, they don’t call ‘em the Evil Party and the Stupid Party for nothing.

46 comments:

Burl said...

I submit that the 5 conservative stages of reacting to a progressive idea - say, immunization against smallpox - are precisely what Pat Churchland shows to be the sheepish manner in which organized religion has so often ignored its theological resistance to good science.

Crude said...

"Organized religion has so often ignored"? Come on, Burl. So if any religious group did something silly - no matter how small, how specific to a given sect - then "organized religion" is responsible?

Meanwhile, I suppose irreligious types who war against science - Lysenko, various "alternative" medicine types, etc - those are merely cranks?

Was the Catholic and general religious opposition to eugenics yet more "reacting to a progressive idea"?

mpresley said...

I'm doing this from memory, and memory (at least mine) is not the most reliable arbiter sometimes, however a short while ago I finished reading the transcripts of Strauss's graduate lectures on Symposium. This had to be in the '50s, I'm guessing (Google reports 1959).

Anyhow, one of the students (some questions were transcribed, too) began talking about "values" in Plato. Strauss interrupted the participant indicating that "values," at least in the modern sense of the word, were not a part of Plato's vocabulary. Instead, we should think of standards. It seems that even in the late fifties the idea of an objective standard was beginning to be displaced by whatever one decided to choose, perhaps simply arbitrarily.

TheOFloinn said...

It seems that even in the late fifties the idea of an objective standard was beginning to be displaced

I think Jacques Barzun thought so in The House of Intellect. He noted at the time already people were beginning to say "I feel that..." instead of "I think that..."

TomH said...

"Good science" has given us unnecessary tonsillectomies, adenoidectomies, and appendectomies.

"Good science" has given us "junk" DNA, which turned out to be a research stultifier.

Christianity gave us Bacon and Boyle, among _many_ others, whose experimental philosophy led to so many technological benefits.

"Good science" gave us Marx, Freud, and Keynes.

Give me Christianity over "good science" every day.

bgc said...

Were you referring to this?

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/articles/a0000704.shtml

What you predicted is happening now.

Maolsheachlann said...

The problem is that the slavery example is a good one. Or the Dreyfus case. Or all the "better Hitler than bolshevism" rhetoric in the thirties. Or female suffrage. Also remember leftist rhetoric can grow more moderate, too. You don't get many liberals urging people to turn on, tune in and drop out these days. I agree with the spirit of the post, but it's a double-edged argument.

Anonymous said...

Maolsheachlann,

Considering western slavery was something that reappeared, rather than was a holdover "value", couldn't the same case be made that slavery's rise was a liberal value itself?

I can't help but think slavery (and other examples) aren't good examples at all of any positive effect of "liberalism". Unless it's cast in a way such that suddenly institutions like the Catholic Church, pursuing policies that are age old to it, are instances of liberalization too.

Edward Feser said...

Maolsheachlann,

You're missing my point. Of course getting rid of slavery was a good thing. What I'm ridiculing is the knee-jerk liberal tendency to compare every cause du jour with abolitionism and to smear those opposed to said causes as no better than apologists for slavery. (Cf. the contemptible Harry Reid's recent remarks about those who oppose his health care bill.)

Maolsheachlann said...

Apologies if I misunderstood. I thought you were making the same point people make when they ask, for instance, if after gay marriage sibling marriage and plural marriage is the next logical step. I mean, I think you're right about the general erosion of decency and standards that liberal implies. But it's hard to make that argument without being open to the counter-argument that a conservative of the past might have held opinions no conservative today could subscribe to, for instance, opposing extension of the franchise to the working class. The liberal appeal to progress and precedent has, arguably, the same flaw as the conservative appeal to custom and tradition. That's all I meant; in any case, I'm sorry if it wasn't relevant.

Maolsheachlann said...

"I'm sorry if it wasn't irrelevant". Maybe that's all-too-appropriate!

Ilíon said...

Crude: "Was the Catholic and general religious opposition to eugenics yet more "reacting to a progressive idea"?"

Yes, because eugenics was (and will yet again be) an ultra tres progressive idea.

TheOFloinn said...

Chesterton once said that the purpose of liberals was to go on making mistakes while the purpose of conservatives was to ensure that the mistakes were never corrected.

Ilíon said...

Maolsheachlann: "I thought you were making the same point people make when they ask, for instance, if after gay marriage sibling marriage and plural marriage is the next logical step."

But, the truth is, incestuous "marriage" and plural "marriage" *is* the next logical step from "gay" "marriage."

Sometimes, there really is a slippery slope.

mpresley said...

I want to write in reply to a poster, and I hope what I write is acceptable, but it is not clear to me the bounds of what is construed appropriate in these very unliberal liberal times. Please do not misunderstand what I write, since the topics introduced by Maol... are quite volatile, sometimes. Also, I respect the blog owner and do not desire to cause problems.

Maolsheachlann: The problem is that the slavery example is a good one.

It is almost impossible to speak of slavery and its effects openly or honestly, today. This in spite of so much being written about it, but is essentially due to a political view that delimits argument in favor of what is "commonly" agreed upon from the get go. Surely slavery was, in retrospect, the worst practical decision white American settlers ever made. However, it must be remembered that American slavery was hardly a "whites only" phenomenon, but required the active participation of blacks in Africa (on the supply side). Ironically, with the coming mechanization of agriculture, slavery was an institution destined to become redundant. Also, slavery has been (still is somewhere) a very common human institution. This is not meant as a justification, but only to put the practice in its historical perspective.

The moral aspect of slavery could only be justified by those thinking that blacks were not fully human. Otherwise, as Christians, or moral people in general, they could never have engaged in the practice given the prominent idea of natural right as fundamental to our new government. At least I do not know how they could have justified it to themselves.

Today no one talks about the historical idea of repatriation in conjunction with emancipation, although at the time the notion was not uncommon, and viewed as a kind of reparation for their being wronged. I suspect that most ex-slaves, being torn from their indigenous homeland and not really knowing much about it in any case, would not have welcomed the idea. In any case, the historical thrust was, as we know, for granting legitimate (legal) rights to all ex-slaves with the idea that this would effectively pay whatever debt was owed.

One question that is not usually asked is whether the ancestors of American slaves are better off as a result of their progenitor's slavery? That is, would it have been better if American slavery had never happened? In spite of the horrendous degradation heaped on them by slave owners one wonders whether, given the chance, they would have chosen to remain in Africa and face that reality?

Of course none of this is really up for discussion, because we are told that there is really only one acceptable way to approach the idea.

Or female suffrage.

You speak as if it is certain that universal suffrage is a good thing on its face. Today, anyone not believing this would be guilty of an anachronism at best, or more likely considered morally deficient in their thinking. However, given the general level of knowledge and understanding of the electorate, can anyone really argue that universal democracy has been a good thing for the country? It is as if people have already agreed, or that they somehow know a priori, that since everyone should be equal, it really doesn't matter at all whether whatever results from said equality is substantially better, or even practically desirable, than what went before.

The point I want to make is that your arguments presuppose a certain liberal outlook that takes for granted not only what is not self-evident, but what cannot even be very openly discussed in a liberal society.

Maolsheachlann said...

"But, the truth is, incestuous "marriage" and plural "marriage" *is* the next logical step from "gay" "marriage."

Sometimes, there really is a slippery slope."

I agree, Ilion. But if you make an argument such as "marriage between men and women has been the accepted norm for millennia", then the inevitable response is "slavery was considered the norm, female inferiority was considered the norm". But if you base your opinions on some form of philosophically defensible natural law, as most of the writers here do, then you're not relying on those frail arguments. That's why I read them, (and try to understand them!) since I've come to think that a coherent case for conservatism needs a philosophical basis, not just a Burkean appeal to tradition.

Burl said...

Crude

I left off the term ‘good’ w/r to science for a more general and less contentious statement:

“I submit that the 5 conservative stages of reacting to a progressive idea - say, immunization against smallpox - are precisely what Pat Churchland shows to be the sheepish manner in which organized religion has so often ignored its theological resistance to science.”


Ed

Pat Churchland makes unassailable claims that a conservative, authoritarian Church guided by medieval, pre-scientific theology went thru your 5 step program over a period of decades, and never owned up to the thousands of lives it destroyed as a result of its anti-scientific posture. They never acknowledge that, once again, theology hampered science.

The progressives of the era were doctors trying to save lives, and the conservative counter-force was busy watching its people dying while excommunicating those who received the shots or preached that they should.

So, “[w/r] the knee-jerk liberal tendency to compare every cause du jour with abolitionism and to smear those opposed to said causes as no better than apologists for slavery,” what should Pat compare the Church to in this smallpox case?

Crude said...

Burl,

No, your statement is not 'less contentious'. In fact, I'd like you to spell out exactly how the Church (I assume you mean the Catholic Church) was opposed to the immunization of smallpox, and why.

If you don't mean the Catholic church, specify who you do mean. And explain precisely the grounds on which they, whoever they were, opposed immunization against smallpox. I already know what you're talking about, but I'd prefer that you be the one to explain this out in your own words.

I think we're going to quickly find that the claims you're "generally" alluding to here are anything but unassailable. In fact, they disintegrate the moment we move from general railing about vague 'anti-science' attitudes against a vague 'organized religion' as a whole to specific details.

Crude said...

Incidentally, for those of you curious about what may be a related or unrelated "Catholic Church and smallpox" claim, I suggest this entry over at Quodbileta.

Some quotes:

The response of the Papacy to the arrival of vaccination in Italy has been documented in Pratique de la vaccination antivariolique dans les provinces de l’État pontifical au 19ème siècle, an article written by Yves-Marie Bercé and Jean-Claude Otteni for Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique. When smallpox struck Rome, vaccination was endorsed by Pope Pius VII. At the hospital of the Holy Spirit in the Borgo Santo Spirito between the shore of the Tiber and the Vatican, the papal authority established a vaccination centre which received 800 newborns each year. This was operated by doctors like Dr. Alessandra, who had previously been an ardent propagator of smallpox inoculation, Domenico Moricchini the Neapolitan chemist (1773-1836) and the young Alessandro Flajani. 'Almost all the new born children are vaccinated’ Sacco reported to Baron in 1824 ‘so that we now know no fear of the smallpox’.

...

In conclusion, Leo XII’s alleged ban of vaccination is a whiggish myth which has been repeated and promulgated slavishly ever since, despite having absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever. No doubt in cyberspace it will continue to take on a new lease of life amongst those who will swallow any myth as long as it is anti-catholic or anti-religious.

The whole article is worth reading, of course.

Burl said...

Crude

Kinda hopin' Ed would weigh in on how folks like the Churchlands are set up for ridicule by folks like him, but empty space - no response - when they are right on.

I have come to perceive Ed's style of responding to dead on criticism when it sheds a bad light on his thesis-du-jour. Way less than adequate or honest.

Also your article only addresses what happened in one instance...I did find other sources that are not mythic indicting all christendom, not just the Catholics.

I'll share if you guys play fair in responding to commenters.

Crude said...

Burl,

Thus far, you've made claims about "organized religion" that in your own words are "general and less contentious", despite particularly mentioning immunization against smallpox. At the same time, you've said these claims are unassailable. Now, I ask you to please specifically cite what these claims, and go through the trouble of giving a reference to a historian's blog post that features footnoted and linked references to a debunking of a smallpox vaccination myth re: the Catholics.

What's your response to my asking for you to back up your claims?

"I'll share if you guys play fair in responding to commenters."

So here I am (on Ed's blog, which he can run as he damn well pleases), responding to you. And your response that you're not going to "share" (as in, provide data to back up your claims) unless people respond to criticisms - which is precisely what I'm doing?

To be dead honest, you're starting to come across as childish. What's more, confused. So you're going to throw at claims about people getting excommunicated for getting smallpox vaccinations on the grounds that no one is responding to you, then when someone responds asking for data, you reply that you'll only give the response if people stop ignoring you - meaning, if they start responding to you?

Think that through.

Ilíon said...

mpresley: "However, it must be remembered that American slavery was hardly a "whites only" phenomenon, but required the active participation of blacks in Africa (on the supply side)."

So true. The European slave-traders didn't march into the jungles and capture the Africans -- that would have been sure death for them. Rather, they bought Africans on the coast who had already been enslaved by other Africans. This does not excuse the Europeans, of course -- the Christianity they claimed to follow had long condemned slavery and slave-trading as wicked sin.


I've read that the first person to *explicitly* purchase another human being as a slave within those English colonies which became these United States was himself a black former indentured servant.

Ilíon said...

"One question that is not usually asked is whether the ancestors [sic] of American slaves are better off as a result of their progenitor's slavery? That is, would it have been better if American slavery had never happened? In spite of the horrendous degradation heaped on them by slave owners one wonders whether, given the chance, they would have chosen to remain in Africa and face that reality?"

Some of my ancestors were Cherokee, others Miami. I can assure you that *I* am better off for "European imperialism" than some alternate me (who, of course, could not have existed absent the mixing of the races in America) would have been had the Europeans never come to the Americas.

Of what use is it in the here-and-now of my life, or in the lives of black Americans, to bitch about the failure of Europeans four and five centuries ago to live up to the religion and morality they professed?

Ilíon said...

... moreover, at the time the US was established, the ancestors of most white Americans were still in Europe. Generally as serf, themselves.

Even IF the children are guilty of the sins of the fathers, the fathers of most Americans were not in these shores at the time.

Moreover, the sons of the fathers paid in blood for their fathers' sins. The debt has been paid. In blood.

Edward Feser said...

Burl,

The usual, I see. "Respond to what I, Burl, say, and do so within the next few hours, otherwise you'll prove by your silence that my objections are so brilliant that you've been stunned into sheepish speechlessness."

Uh huh. That's it all right. Crude, mpresley, Ilion, TheOFloinn, TomH, and bgc don't get a response from me either, because I'm too busy doing other things. But in your case, it's 'cause your comments are just so damn clever that I'm stunned into silence.

Well, either that, or maybe it was instead because your comments were, in this case (and as Crude has already pointed out) too silly and ill-informed to waste time on. Either way, get over yourself.

Tell you what. You obviously don't like it here much. So there's the door. Don't let it hit you in the ass...

Ilíon said...

Mr Feser rarely directly responds to my posts (and, now that we're not speaking to one another, he can't ;) ) ... who knew he rarely responds because I'm "too clever for my shirt."

Anonymous said...

I've never quite understood what underlies the eagerness to point out that black Africans were complicit in the slave trade. Who doubts this? I suppose you can find some nitwit somewhere who doesn't know this, but so what? There are nitwits across the political spectrum.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Ilion,

We are on speaking terms as far as I'm concerned. Water under the bridge and all that...

Anonymous said...

As for the post, what could happen, or is happening (I don't know), is that religious groups which have certain hiring practices (no gays, for instance)) may find themselves unable to avail themselves of government grants. Boohoo. I sort of doubt that the liberal totalitarian state of your nightmares is likely to happen. I'm a lefty myself (with some sympathy for some of what you guys are doing, as I'm also a Christian tired of the new atheists) and I hang around far lefty sites and it was pretty common to find the more, ah, enthusiastic leftists talking about how there might never be another fair election in the US--you conservative types were certain to steal them from now till doomsday.

Indulging in this sort of speculation about the Evil of the other side must be titillating for many, because it's such a popular pastime.

Which is not to deny that there are people on my side of the spectrum with totalitarian tendencies--I forget which of the New Atheists said that raising a child with religious beliefs is a form of child abuse. If that viewpoint starts to become commonly voiced I'll start worrying. But then there are a fair number of folks on the right who think torture is no worse than fratboy pranks. Politics has a way of bringing out the inner dictator in some people. I don't think the majority of people on either the left or the right are like this. I hope.

Maolsheachlann said...

I wish I could feel as sanguine as you, Anonymous. I don't think anyone could deny that, at the moment, conservatism is the ebbing tide and liberalism is the rising one. Conservatives might WANT to fix the rules of the game to suit themselves, but the power is all the other way. A government minister in Britain has recently warned churches to prepare to be sued under new equality legislation. Dawkins's flyer about raising children in a religion being child-abuse, though he rather retracted it later, is perfectly logical given his beliefs, and the beliefs of a growing number of secularists. Perhaps it IS hysteria-- I hope so-- but I really do fear that equality legislation and an ever-burgeoning list of discovered rights is going to bring about a new oppression. Who's to say that not having a quota of gay characters in a TV drama might lead to it being dropped? Or that there might be an absolute ban on any religious statement being made as a statement of fact, even in a fictional setting? This might seem fanciful, but I genuinely fear that the world is going that way, and it's not simply a kind of masochistic fantasy on my part. I already find myself biting my tongue in a whole range of social situations; perhaps Ed would say, rightly, that I've been "PC-whipped".

Crude said...

I doubt it's necessary, but I can also attest to the fact that I bug Prof. Feser often, and often don't get a reply. Why take it personally? And I'm someone who largely agrees with him.

As to the latest anon: I'm against needless fearmongering as well, and while I'm very conservative, I have plenty of complaints of conservativism or what passes for it. I think Ed himself, by virtue of being an A-T philosopher, would find himself at odds with a lot of conservatives as well.

But sometimes, threats are real, and do not bode well. I mean, to hear some people talk, the very idea of a totalitarian state, an outright attack on religious values or institutions, etc, is all the stuff of fantasy. Not "things that actually happened, and recently".

Ilíon said...

Anonymous: "I've never quite understood what underlies the eagerness to point out that black Africans were complicit in the slave trade."

I've never understood the eagerness to imply (and even explicitly assert) that there was something especially loathesome about slavery in America vis-a-vis slavery in other times and places, nor the eagerness to imply (and even explicitly assert) that white Americans carry blood guilt for the sins of persons who meay not even have been their ancestors.

Some of my ancestors ... some of the half-Indians, no less ... held other human beings as slaves. So what? *I* did not ... and the ancestors of most white Americans were still in Europe at the time of the Civil War.

Besides, I'm poor, so the reparations folk can't hope to get a cent from me.

Ilíon said...

"... Water under the bridge and all that..."

Good, 'cause I really didn't want to talk at you.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly new here even as a lurker. What's an A-T philosopher? (I'm guessing Aquinas and something or other, but can't think of anything that works.)

Anonymous said...

Ah--well, I think there's an argument that American slavery sometimes was worse than it was in some other places. I'm no expert. I think it was worst of all in places like Haiti, where slavery was akin to a death sentence. Which is also why the slave rebellion there was so apocalyptic, virtually genocidal on all sides.

As for reparations, there's an argument for taking money from some rich corporations or people whose money might have come from slavery, but I don't know what I think about that. There wouldn't be an argument for taking it from you, unless you had a lot of money that could be shown to stem from ill-gotten gains a couple hundred years ago, but that doesn't sound like it's the case.

Crude said...

A-T = Aristotlean-Thomist. I see it used for (I think) shorthand for the general classical theistic / scholastic and associated greek worldviews.

Ilíon said...

Anonymous, it's impossible to "take money from corporations." Corporations are legal fictions, they're not real and they don't have money.

Only really existing human beings have money. Only from really existing human beings can money be taken.

"Reparations" is just another word for "liberals" working to enslave everyone ... while claiming it to be justice.

Burl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TheOFloinn said...

Burl sez:
address my concerns relative to Pat Churchland before you cop out

These were:
I submit that the 5 conservative stages of reacting to a progressive idea - say, immunization against smallpox - are precisely what Pat Churchland shows to be the sheepish manner in which organized religion has so often ignored its theological resistance to good science.

But the idea that "organized religion" (whoever that was) reacted against immunization against smallpox is a myth. How can a mythic occurence be evidence for anyone's sheepishness save that of the avid believer in the myth?

Edward Feser said...

Another lunatic troll. I told you to get lost, Burl. From here on, I hit "delete."

bgc said...

Slavery and especially its abolition are widely misunderstood (understanding being distorted by focusing on the US situation); but it is a very important topic and I will summarize the main facts.

Until about the mid 18th century it was universally accepted as an institution, all major civilizations had slaves, and was found in all historically-recorded societies (except simple hunter gatherers).

At that point the British Empire was probably the largest slave trading nation (although there was also a huge amount of Islamic slave trading in North Africa, magnitude uncertain).

If people do know anything about the abolition of world slavery it is restricted to William Wilberforce and the parliamentary acts in the UK, or black slavery in the USA.

The steps by which slavery was abolished seem quite well established.

1. Around the mid 18th century, English Quakers (Society of Friends) first began to question slavery and decided it was an evil that required abolition. The British were not exceptional in being slave owners and traders - that was universal - what was unique was that the British first decided that slavery was an evil.

2. Late 18th century a group of evangelical protestants in London (The Clapham sect - William Wilberforce being the most famous) began to organize to abolish slavery - initially the tactic was to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire but the goal was universal.

3. Over the next few decades the moral conviction that slavery was wrong spread throughout Britain and became a mass moral movement (a mass pressure-group) leading to a series of pieces of legislation which banned the Slave Trade in the British Empire (1807), then slavery in the British Empire (1833).

4. But that was just the beginning. Making laws does not make it so. The British Empire then embarked upon many decades of unrelenting pressure to abolish slavery throughout the world - by whatever means necessary: moral persuasion, diplomacy and treaties, and by military force - especially by the Royal Navy.

(contd. below)

bgc said...

(Contd. from above)

These decades of effort consumed a great deal of money, and many lives of British sailors, soldiers, missionaries and explorers - as well as slave traders and - tragically - slaves themselves (who were for instance sometimes thrown overboard to drown when slaver's ships were stopped by the Royal Navy - to hide the evidence). But the crusade had massive and sustained support among the British population.

Eventually, the goal was (almost) achieved, and slavery was universally condemned - and (almost) universally abolished.

Why is this successful, heroic and admirable story so little known?

Probably because abolition was initiated by evangelical ('born again') Christians - and these people are not popular among the liberal and leftish commentators who are most-often concerned with issues of slavery nowadays. And - although legislation and treaties were important, and although many abolitionists and abolition societies were pacifists (eg. Quakers) - in practice, world slavery was abolished by coercive force deployed my a major world power. This is an uncomfortable fact for moral activists to swallow.

Probably, the lesson of the abolition of world slavery is one which only relatively tough-minded people wish to take on board. To rid the world of a great evil required a sustained and single-minded moral crusade of a kind which many intellectuals find simplistic and narrow. Maybe slavery could have been abolished without this kind of 'fanaticism' - but in fact slavery was abolished by a kind of moral fanaticism.

To rid the world of slavery also involved military imposition of the will of the British Empire on the rulers of societies who resisted abolition, and who saw nothing wrong in the institution of slavery. Abolishing slavery involved the death and extra suffering of many people of many types. Maybe slavery could have been abolished with less death and suffering, but in fact it was abolished by a kind of 'the means justifies the end' moral reasoning.

Slavery was (mostly, but of course not entirely) abolished as a consequence of the moral conviction of the dominant world power - the British Empire. Critics of other nations, who wished to retain slavery, claimed that the British were hypocritical (in ignoring other major problems of their own - such as the horrendous poverty and deprivation caused by industrialization) and that the British were using abolition as an excuse to pursue their own economic and political interests.

No doubt all of these accusations were true to a varying extent in different times and situations - the British were (like everyone else) hypocrites, and they did turn abolition to their advantage in some ways or even perhaps wherever possible.

Nonetheless, it was the British who for more than 100 years kept up the pressure to abolish slavery worldwide, and poured resources into the task until it was all-but accomplished.

When the British Empire collapsed, slavery began to return and is now more widely prevalent than it was 60 years ago. Without continual intrusive, coercive repression of the institution, slavery is a 'natural' state to which most societies will recur.

Very few modern people are abolitionists, because they will not pay the necessary price for abolition to be effective - they merely deploy abolition talk to make themselves feel good and to smear their enemies.

mpresley said...

Uh huh. That's it all right. Crude, mpresley, Ilion, TheOFloinn, TomH, and bgc don't get a response from me either, because I'm too busy doing other things.

What you write would be almost funny if you didn't have to say it for those with less...uh...er...insight. Let's break it down. Here's a guy whose written a couple of three books in the past several years, works out with a family on a full time basis in order to make that happen, has to put up with undergraduates w/o losing his sanity, or worse, and then in his spare time (because he's a nice guy and wants to stimulate some thinking) offers a place where those of us with some time on our hands can come to kick it around as we see fit. And it's somehow not personal enough? Oh well, you get what you pay for, I guess. I'm reminded of the old Woody Allen joke: "The food here is terrible, and the portions are so small..." In the world of blogs there's always a McDonalds down the road, if that's what you want.

Edward Feser said...

Thanks, mpresley. I really do greatly appreciate my readers, and wish I could respond to every comment. But I just can't, especially when someone wants me to go way off topic and in detail. Fortunately, most readers have common sense and understand this.

Tony said...

bgc, most of what you write is accurate, but the context is a little too thin. For example, although the British Empire was generally trying to abolish slavery, it wasn't above giving aid to the Confederate States of America in their quest to maintain slavery as a viable institution. America was a kind of separate part of the trouble of world-wide slavery, a part that the British weren't really dealing with.

Not a single one of my ancestors was on these shores before the Civil War, and some of them were oppressed Irish. So, if there are ever "reparations", can I get some?

Ilion, some corporations are non-profit, they don't have shareholders, and thus the money that they hold is NOT money that belongs to individuals. Notionally, cash that a corporation holds does not "belong" to the shareholders anyway, the corporation's creditors may have a greater claim to it (as in a bankruptcy, for example). In the juridic sense the cash belongs to the juridic person the corporation, and that implies an indirect, real but imperfect ownership interest lies in shareholders. Because it is indirect and imperfect, it is essentially incorrect to speak simply as if the shareholders "own" the cash or other assets. Taking cash away from the corporation does reduce the value of the imperfect ownership interest of the shareholders, but it does many other things that have varied effects on those ownership interests.

I think that the idea of "reparations", at this late date, is silly, but the so-called rationale for it is that it is no longer possible to track the individuals who benefited from slavery (and the Jim Crow laws), so you charge it as a tax on the entire population, since the entire society was in a sense responsible and reaped the benefits. In practice, that means well-off black people will pay just as much in reparations as well-off white people, and well-off Chinese Americans whose ancestors lived under virtual slavery themselves.

Terence M. Stanton said...

A.M.D.G.

We've gone to warp speed stage 5 under Dear Leader. It was nice knowing you, America.