Moral revolutions

From the New York Times:

In “The Honor Code,” we accompany Detective Appiah as he tries to figure out who killed three morally repugnant practices: dueling among British gentlemen, foot-binding among the Chinese elite and slavery in the British Empire. In each case he shows how notions of honor sustained the practice for centuries, and how (spoiler alert) it was honor that later killed the practice in just a few decades, making these cases the “moral revolutions” referred to in his subtitle.

I would argues that these "morally repugnant practices" have not necessarily been killed.

First, I would argue that morality is subject to fads, like fashion. Chinese foot-binders of yore, would be shocked and horrified by modern tattooing and piercing (and obesity!). No one expects tattooing, for example, to stay popular forever. Times change. Honor culture has changed as well, vestiges of the old system still survive in low class settings, but the upper classes still have their notions of honor. If you can’t find them, you’re not looking hard enough.

Second, I would argue that when something that has been with humans forever "goes away" you should be very skeptical. Slavery has been with human society since before there was human society. It would be truly astonishing if slavery disappeared. In most Western societies, I believe slavery still exists. What distinguishes modern slavery, from old-fashioned slavery is that modern slavery is administered by government (like many other things in modern times). Slaves are, by definition, dependent on their masters. Dependency and slavery are inseparable. It doesn’t take much looking these days to find people who are dependent on the government. If you are dependent, you are not free – you are a slave. We just choose not to call it that.

13 Responses to Moral revolutions

  1. aretae says:

    You finally phrased it in a way that allows me to specify where the disagreement is.

    You say:
    ” If you are dependent, you are not free – you are a slave.”

    My response:
    Dependency != Slavery. Dependency is ONE of the features of slavery. If a layabout teenager is dependent upon his parents, he is not a slave. He is a ward. The parents may or may not require anything of him. He may at some point in the future be converted into a slave or an independent, but at the moment, he is neither.

    He certainly does not have the freedom that an independent has, but neither does he have the constraints that a slave has. Slavery is better understood as a situation in which someone’s freedom of action and especially freedom of exit is constrained by their employer. So long as there is freedom of exit, it is hard to refer to it as slavery.

    Of course, you may play the determinism card here: some folks can’t. But then we’ve shifted out of the “politically free” discussion into are the “metaphysically free” discussion. And I think you and I differ here.

    My line: Given native Arab/African success in the USA, it seems that culture is about 90% of the issue, and maybe ability (including innate conscientiousness) is the other 10%.

    • Foseti says:

      I’m not sure that I understand your disagreement.

      A slave-owner need not require a slave to work. And surely an exception is necessary for children as they are in a different stage of development. In American slavery, many slaves bought their own freedom – thus making exit a possibility.

      Perhaps what you’re saying is that modern dependents are more analogous to older indentured servants or sharecroppers than to slaves?

      If that’s your contention, I’m willing to agree – to a point. But so what? It’s just hair-splitting. A subset of the population is not free in any meaningful sense and the subset is dependent for its continued exist on another. The form that modern dependency takes is different and you can re-name it as you wish. The over-arching phenomenon, however, has not disappeared.

      • aretae says:

        The disagreement is perhaps over terms, but the terms are important.

        If you were to use the word “dependent” in the place of slave everywhere you use it, I’d have little problem with any of your line on the change. Except…slavery is a MUCH narrower type of relationship than dependency.

        On the other hand, if you used the word “dependent” in the place of “slave” in your arguments, you’d lose (I think) a lot of the moral force that you’re animating your arguments with.

        Slave = constrained, cannot exit
        Dependent = not fully independent.

        While we libertarian types like to argue that independence is good, and we would like to be neither slaves nor dependents…we tend to draw a big dark line between the concepts…or at least venn-wise include slave in the category of dependence.

        Further, I think that the moral objection that 99% of folks have to slavery is contained ONLY in the slavery category, and not in the dependent category.

      • Foseti says:

        The problem with your point is that there have been no “systems of dependency” (can I get tenure for coining that term?) in which exit was entirely impossible.

        I think 99% of folks think that the government is trying to help the dependent, so it’s good. Whereas an old slave-owner was trying to profit from the dependent, so it’s bad. I have no use for that argument – I don’t think the government actually helps, I think it perpetuates and I don’t think that profit necessarily implies immorality.

        I’m trying to understand the distinction between slavery and dependency and I’m failing. A Southern white guy does it and it’s slavery, whereas the government does it and it’s dependency is all I can come up with. I find that unsatisfying.

      • aretae says:

        In the case of slaves…slaveholder decides whether you can exit.

        In the case of dependency…you decide whether you exit.

        That’s fundamentally the question. Could you risk death, capture, torture…and try to exit as a slave? Sure. But that’s not the same as turning around…saying “bite me”, and leaving.

        The real, present, immdediately available option to exit is the relevant distinction.

        At the 90th %ile or below, slavery had none.
        At the 90th %ile, the 19th century woman had none.
        At the 90th %ile, the modern arabic woman has none.

        At the 90th %ile, the modern dependent upon the state can exit of his/her own volition at any time. Not even in the same category of arrangement as slavery.

      • Foseti says:

        Great points.

        I think you’ve got me on the merits in this case. I’m willing to go as far as to say that we need different words to describe these situations. However, I’m willing to go no further. I still agree with the proposition that all societies have “slaves.” We’ve simply reformed the institution. For example, we no longer allow anyone (other than politicians seeking votes) to profit from “slaves”. They now have to be wards. If this is improvement, I stand in awe at the slow speed of improvement.

        Similarly, I suppose one could argue that modern marriage is not really “marriage” as understood by people even 70 years ago.

      • aretae says:

        Only good points because you were so clear in your original phrasing so as to allow me the luxury of distinguishing two nearby concepts. It’s not like we haven’t been having this disagreement for a year…so it’s clearly not all me.

        I think that there are two concepts to worry about….and that the modern progressive and you are each focusing on only half the picture.

        The modern progressive asks questions about autonomy. What range of individual choices are largely unconstrained by others?

        You ask questions about dependence. How much of your own survival needs do you handle yourself?

        From a your question, the slave and the dependent are in near-identical situations. From the progressive point of view, there isn’t even a similarity. Rather unsurprisingly, I argue that we should look at both components.

        As a note, I like to argue with others of my libertarian and Objectivist friends that language is not subject to redefinition by whim…though as my linguist sister points out, language is thoroughly socially constructed. Fire doesn’t mean something cold, no matter what you want to mean…and selfish mostly means bad stuff no matter what the Objectivist linguistic squadron tries.

        In communication, you confuse folks if you assert that slavery is primarily about dependence rather than about autonomy.

        Your response: dependence leads to loss of autonomy.

        This is relatively true, but AFAIK, historically it is only roughly as true as the poverty of the responsible party. When a responsible party is very rich, he often does not require much loss of autonomy from the dependent…while a poorer responsible party often requires a lot.

        The modern state being rich means that wards of the state are not asked for much, nor CAN they be unless the state becomes poor.

  2. Samson says:

    How can they argue that dueling is morally repugnant if, as Mark Shea is fond of saying, consent is the sole criterion for “good”?

    Chinese foot-binders of yore, would be shocked and horrified by modern tattooing and piercing

    Or circumcision (as I’ve previously brought this in the context of circumcision discussions – not that I want to initiate one of those…).

    • Samson says:

      *brought up

      • aretae says:

        Easy call on Dueling:

        Dueling is normally an activity of impatient, testosterone-fueled young men. It is no more reasonable to expect cows to jump over the moon than to expect young men to avoid stupidly getting themselves killed in a hormone-induced haze. Roughly akin to drunk driving prohibition.

      • Samson says:

        But drunk driving prohibitions are meant to protect the rest of the public, not the driver.

  3. icr says:

    A better example of public slavery is the former Soviet
    Union and its satellite states. Exit was more difficult than it was for slaves in the Old South.

  4. […] – “Women with Careers“, “Moral Revolutions“, “Review of “The Vampire of the Continent” by Ernst Reventlow“, […]

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