Compassionate Conservatism

by Henry on October 24, 2004

“Scott McLemee”: has an astute review of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “The Road to Modernity” in tomorrow’s _New York Times_. I’ll leave her claim that one can distinguish between a ‘good’ Enlightenment (English theorists of moral sentiments) and a ‘bad’ one (nasty French rationalist universalists) to more qualified commentators. What I liked was McLemee’s little sting at the end, which nicely illustrates certain of the limits of Himmelfarb’s brand of conservatism, and indeed “compassionate conservatism” more generally.

bq. When Himmelfarb’s attention turns to colonial America and the early United States the results are less persuasive, and indeed reveal far more than she may intend about the limits of moral sentiment she extols. ”For economic if for no other reasons,” she writes, ”the displacement of the Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the settlers.” As for slavery, Himmelfarb acknowledges it as an evil, but is curiously silent about its cumulative effect, over 400 years, on the nation’s stock of moral capital.

bq. I was reminded of something the ”elitist” Diderot wrote, in a moment of bitter hatred for the slave trade: the Africans ”are tyrannized, mutilated, burnt and put to death, and yet we listen to these accounts coolly and without emotion. The torments of a people to whom we owe our luxuries are never able to reach our hearts.” A more robust sociology of virtue might begin with the realization that the power of moral sentiment so often fails us. Yet when it does, our moral obligations remain. Meeting them is, arguably, one function of the state. But in the eyes of the neocons, I suppose, such thoughts smack of John Rawls — or even, worse, Le Monde.

This seems to me from my limited reading in the literature to be one of the key problems of conservatism – coming up with a coherent and convincing argument about those moral and ethical obligations that don’t spring ‘naturally’ from our pre-rational loyalties to family and friends. I suppose if you were a conservative, you could retort that obligations that aren’t natural are by virtue of that fact not obligations. But this leaves conservatives in a rather awkward position, given that many of the loyalties that conservatives prize (such as patriotism) are clearly artificial in nature (nation states are relatively recent social constructs). Others, such as the belief that slavery is morally repugnant, have changed dramatically over time. I suspect that there has to be a conservative literature out there that tries to grapple with some of these problems – can anyone point me in the right direction?



bob mcmanus 10.24.04 at 1:10 am

Umm, Henry. Libertarians may be deontologically monomaniacal, but conservatives actually trace their lineage back to Aristotle and Aurelius (and Moses). The argument from natural sentiments of benevolence does not run into a lack of justifiable extension, but runs into conflict with libertarianism and self-interest at how to justify restriction.

It isn’t that conservatives don’t understand “Love Thy Neighbour” it is that they don’t really like it much. I might say that Bentham and Mill and Smith did conservatives a great service by showing how selfishness could be reconciled with benevolence. Each following his particular interests serves the whole without deliberately trying. What a deal.


bob mcmanus 10.24.04 at 1:34 am

Am I not understanding? No matter what is actually practiced, humans are hypocrites and sinners, is there now or has there ever been a social ethic, religion, or moral philosophy that stated that the message of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan was wrong? That it was ok to treat the needy stranger at the door of the tent unkindly and without generosity?

I can’t think of one.


Walt Pohl 10.24.04 at 2:42 am

Here’s something that always bothered me. Hatred of slavery was not a rare position during the Enlightenment, a fact that tempts me to believe that the wrongness of slavery is obvious to our moral intuitions. But you never hear (or at least, I never hear) of moral opposition to slavery pre-Enlightenment, which undermines the whole obviousness thesis.

4 10.24.04 at 3:08 am

But you never hear (or at least, I never hear) of moral opposition to slavery pre-Enlightenment, which undermines the whole obviousness thesis.

Schmibertarian arguments aside, you miss the crucial point here: that English Enlightenment rationality was born on clear demarcations of progress (Mill’s ‘stage theory’) nature/culture division and an overdetermination of inductive empiricism which certainly wasn’t didn’t make hatred of slavery ‘obvious’ in any rational sense.


John Quiggin 10.24.04 at 3:31 am

This piece on Edward Coke indicates that opposition to slavery predates the Enlightenment. “As director, he proposed a means by which slavery could be legalised in the new Virginia Colony. Fearing opposition if the issue was publicly debated, Coke was responsible for Calvin’s Case in 1608, which ruled that “all infidels are in law perpetual ennemies”

But I think Mill is right in dating to the 19th century the idea that our natural benevolence to family and friends could be broadened into general altruism.


Henry 10.24.04 at 3:34 am

Bob – I think you’re mixing up current day US conservatism with the conservative tradition of thought (the former obviously sometimes relies on the latter, but there are some very important differences). There is a tradition of conservative thought (Burke, Oakeshott etc) that I don’t agree with, but which can’t be reduced to a higher justification for selfishness.


bob mcmanus 10.24.04 at 3:59 am

“There is a tradition of conservative thought (Burke, Oakeshott etc) that I don’t agree with” It is this tradition I am trying to defend. A “conservative” who somehow considers himself out of the mainline of 4000 years of virtue ethics is no conservative.

I still have a deep problem with general altruism being considered a 18th or 19th century invention. I suspect much of this has to do with convenient factual decisions as to who is human and behavior that contradicts theorey. An ante-bellum Southerner had different standards for blacks and white yankees, but he had general moral obligations to both. Aristotle ( I looked up slavery in Wikipedia) can say that all non-Greeks can be treated as slaves, but I still somehow feel that even in theorey as well as common practice, your average decent Greek felt some moral obligation to an Egyptian while he was visiting Egypt. He could not steal, kill, rape while a guest.

That Jefferson found a way not to practice what he preached says little about what Jefferson preached and a lot about Jefferson. I would extend that back thousands of years.

But then I have to explain what changed. Umm, seems somewhat coincident with the rise of market capitalism, and Wikipedia says that slavery was primarily an economic institution. :)


Omri 10.24.04 at 7:09 am

Well, my answer has nothing to do with Himmelfarb. As a somewhat conservative, I could point out that at the time of the Indian wars, the savagery that was practiced by both sides was completely universal, that like it or not, it is thanks to the conquest of America and the establishment of the Republic that we are secure enough from that savagery to be disgusted by it, and that if we do go to Hell in a handbasket, we actually could regress to the point that we fight savage ethnic wars and capture slaves again. Man is born free, yet everywhere he is found in chains. Slavery is repugnant, yet it was once a universal aspect of human life. Wars of extermination are repugnant, but they too were universal. Somehow the West managed to build a society that put an end to these. But that doesn’t mean they can’t come back. After Cambodia went to Hell, slavery reared its ugly head there yet again (those child prostitutes do fit the definition of slaves – the brothels buy them). After the madness of 1914, Europeans got really into exterminating their fellow human beings. Again. Being conservative means being inclined to believe that it could happen here, and if revering the slave-owning Indian-fighting founders of America helps strengthen the Republic and prevent a trip on the Handbasket Express, then it’s worth it. You can find conservatives who say this more eloquently and logically than I can at 2 AM, but it’s 2 AM. So I don’t have good cites.


Elaine Supkis 10.24.04 at 7:46 am

We put to end, the wars against the native Americans by killing them and enclosing them in camps after stealing all the resources they used to enjoy themselves.

Victory was what ended the fighting. Ie: we came, we saw, we killed, we took.

Since America was founded on two major pillars: the stealing of native lands and killing of natives plus the plundering of Africa and killing or enslaving the population there…

This is a moral burden we are still dealing with, look at our present colonial wars. Again, enslaving while talking about ‘freedom’ and stealing while talking about sharing.


bad Jim 10.24.04 at 8:39 am

Even now, we prefer not to look that closely at the processes which sustain our standard of living. The goods in the stores in the U.S., from the basic level up to very nice but not insanely expensive, are manufactured in China, under conditions we’d prefer not to imagine.

We tend likewise to pay attention to events in Iraq rather than Sudan, probably primarily because we Americans are the agents of events in Iraq, but also because Sudan is part of that sea of multitudes against which we fear that taking up arms would be futile. AIDS in Africa? Didn’t we give at the office?

Maybe we’d pay them some attention if they bombed us or something. Of course, if they did that, we’d respond by killing as many of them as we could, instead of buying shoes from them, as we’re doing now with Vietnam.

We can only hope that they’ll be satisfied when they find out that all we have to pay them back with is Britney Spears and Eminem, Disney and like dreck.


willchill 10.24.04 at 1:14 pm

The best book I have come across which tries to articulate a contemporary conservative theory is Lawrence E Cahoone’s “Civil Society – The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics.” It may be a bit Oakeshott-ian for your taste, but does a good job of demolishing neutralist and egalitarian liberalism, as well as trying to defend various of the awkward paradoxes of conservative values – like the patriotic values you mention.

A key insight which I like is that as conservatism gives primacy to respecting the complexity and non-rationality of any given society, it sees its “liberal” moral obligations are no more and no less than those which it is politically willing to contemplate. Hence as Bad Jim observerves, we are not going to rush in to the Sudan or into Chinese sweatshops, but we are going to fret about treatment of embryos. Cahoone says that conservatism stands for an opposition to “attempts to make liberalism consistent, to apply the abstract principles of liberalism to every facet of society.” He says there is no right answer as to when to conserve and when to critique the status quo, and politics is about pragmatism about costs and consequences in the context of the particular politcal values of the time, however inconsistent these may be.

And US slavery is a great historical case in point, as the pragmatic answer from 1776 to 1860 was to leave it alone, and the last thing Lincoln wanted was for the slavery issue to lead to war. American political leaders were much happier pragmatists than they were crusaders on this issue.


Ayjay 10.24.04 at 2:09 pm

To Walt Pohl: one of the reasons that you don’t know about opposition to slavery pre-Enlightenment is that the kind of slavery you probably have in mind, chattel slavery (such as practiced in the American South), did not long predate the Enlightenment, in the West anyway. Some of the same social and economic forces that produced Enlightenment also produced the slave-buying and slave-owning classes.

But even the kind of slavery mentioned in the Bible — which is more like indentured servitude than chattel slavery — always had opponents in the Church, for instance Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers. So there is a pre-Enlightenment critique of slavery, of sorts.


bob mcmanus 10.24.04 at 2:29 pm


Henry may be mad at me for hijacking his thread, but the above link strikes me as an example of moral obtuseness on the part of a large part of the American political spectrum. Mr Adesnik questions Iraqi casualty counts as measured by international bodies. However, he starts by citing the important paragraph:

“This database includes all deaths which the Occupying Authority has a binding responsibility to prevent under the Geneva Conventions and Hague Regulations. This includes civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order, and deaths due to inadequate health care or sanitation.”

And then apparently utterly ignores it. The responsibility for civilian security subsequent to a deliberate destruction of the internal civil security structure of Iraq was a large reason for the lack of European support for the war. Many on the left recognized that responsibility; Republicans apparently cannot even conceive of it.

I might give Adesnik a break, and say he would recognize a coalition responsibility to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. If so the limits of American moral and legal responsibility stop for Adesnik when it gets expensive or difficult.

Yes, Mr Adesnik the coalition was and is responsible for the rapes, murders, and suicide bombings. If we did not want that responsibility, we should either have not invaded Iraq or devoted adequate resources to do it decently.


micah 10.24.04 at 3:13 pm

I don’t see why the problem Henry identifies is limited to conservatives. If you’re a liberal who thinks that morality is noncognitive, then you have to given an account of how moral emotions extend far enough to support obligations to those for whom we have no ‘natural’ sentiments. You might think the problem is that much more difficult for liberals because they think we have much more demanding obligations to others.

Following John’s comment above about Mill, there are contemporary liberals who think that morality is about expanding the range and depth of our loyalties. Rorty comes to mind. His Oxford Amnesty Lecture is called “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” or see his “Justice as a Larger Loyalty,” reprinted “here”:


abb1 10.24.04 at 3:18 pm

But then I have to explain what changed. Umm, seems somewhat coincident with the rise of market capitalism, and Wikipedia says that slavery was primarily an economic institution.

Bob is right, of course: social being determines consciousness.

And consciousness defermines conscience – it makes those ethical obligations spring ‘naturally’. It’s not that the power of moral sentiment ‘fails us’ it’s just that the sentiment may simply not exist at the moment yet, except for an occasional visionary like Jesus, Voltaire, Jefferson or Chomsky.

But this doesn’t sound very conservative, I’m afraid.


mcm 10.24.04 at 5:38 pm

What Micah said.

On the “good” versus “bad” Enlightenment question, I recommend Charles Griswold’s Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Not that Griswold distinguishes between a “good” British and “bad” French Enlightenment, because that would be stupid of him, and his book is intelligent. But he does take up various counter-Enlightenment critiques [which Himmelfarb rehashes in the most reductive version possible, at least in relation to the French] in an attempt to recuperate Enlightenment values).


Jonathan Edelstein 10.24.04 at 7:26 pm

Here’s something that always bothered me. Hatred of slavery was not a rare position during the Enlightenment, a fact that tempts me to believe that the wrongness of slavery is obvious to our moral intuitions. But you never hear (or at least, I never hear) of moral opposition to slavery pre-Enlightenment, which undermines the whole obviousness thesis.

Some of the classical Hellenistic thinkers, including the Stoics, did condemn slavery on moral grounds. What I find curious is that both the classical and Enlightenment condemnations occurred at a time when the growth of large empires had distorted the market for slaves, fostering a large-scale slave trade and making slaves expendable by historical standards. Maybe “instinctive” moral condemnation is generated, not by the institution of slavery itself (which has many forms), but by the excesses and cruelty that follow from large-scale commercial slavery.

18 10.24.04 at 8:03 pm

Rorty comes to mind

As a liberal, Rorty is an interesting example here because of his dizzyingly lofty opinion of Heidegger (as ‘great philosopher who happened to be a Nazi’ rather than ‘Nazi who happened to be a great philosopher’). Rorty defends this opinion through a ‘life of the mind’ ethic, meaning the author’s socio-political milieu is somehow detached from the texts he/she produces. What we’re left with is very fuzzy ethical practice when intervention is warranted, say during the Cold War or in late 30s Germany.


Simon Rippon 10.24.04 at 11:28 pm

I’m not exactly sure what “compassionate conservatism” is, but I’m inclined to agree with Micah, who points out that “sentimentalist” liberals suffer just as much from the difficulties here. Nevertheless, Henry seems to overstate those difficulties by talking about “pre-rational loyalties to family and friends”. Book III of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature is one account of how, using the psychological mechanism of sympathy, human beings naturally progress from their partial natural sentiments to impartial sentiments of moral judgment. Hume doesn’t think the latter any less “pre-rational” than the former. And they are “calm” and so may be overlooked or mistaken for dictates of reason. But they are, on Hume’s view, just sentiments, and it is a matter of psychological fact that they motivate us as such.

It’s been a problem for Hume and his modern descendants to explain what binds us when the moral sentiments fail to motivate us enough to do the (intuitively) right thing, but that’s a problem for sentimentalist or noncognitivist moral theorists in general, rather than for compassionate conservatives in particular. Even Mill is left grappling with this kind of problem when he asks what proof there is that the general happiness is desirable (and answers that it is in fact desired), and what binds us to the principle of utility (and refers us to sentiments that can motivate us to do so). So it seems like a very general difficulty you’re raising here. Or am I missing something?


Simon Bland 10.24.04 at 11:57 pm

Couldn’t an argument be made for Ayn Rand’s egoism, embodied in Objectivism, being a strong pillar of support for the anti-altruist, or for the conservative aware of his deficiency in non-instinctive sentiment?


Julian Elson 10.25.04 at 12:39 am

I’m not sure if I’m on the right track here, but I think that one of the big differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals believe people should get the best that’s available, and conservatives believe people should get what they deserve.

To put it another way: let’s say that you were put in charge of judgement in the gates of the afterlife. You can arbitrarily send people to heaven and hell, and you can clearly distinguish good people from bad people. There is no cost for doing either way, and people will never improve or degrade in their character after death, nor will, for example, sending good people to hell make hell a better place, or sending bad people to heaven make things worse for the good people up there.

Put a conservative in that position, and I think the conservative will send the good people to heaven and the bad people to hell. Put a liberal in that position, and I think the liberal will send everyone to heaven. To liberals, institutions like prisons are only good insofar as they provide incentives to change behavior and incapacitate potentially destructive people. To conservatives, they’re good in and of themselves, because (rightly) convicted criminals are getting what they deserve.

I think the bigger difference isn’t rationalism vs. sentimentalism, but utility vs. desert, though I admit I’m biased, since I’m a sentimentalist and a liberal.


masaccio 10.25.04 at 2:40 am

Rorty thinks that we do not actually think out our moral sentiments in the usual case, instead we muddle through, using whatever mental tools come to hand:

” … the difference between statements about torture and statements about knives and forks is not about different ‘status’ but their diffenent degrees of importance to the ends that we, the people wno debate these statements, wish to achieve. For us, here and now, torture matters very much and table etiquette does not. Now imagine a really nasty culture, one in which the reverse is true. Is there a way to decide between the relative merits of those two cultures? Sure. It is the same messy, nonargumentative, hit-or-miss way in which our culture emreged from earlier cultures.” Debating the State of Philosophy, 66

When people have a relatively large group of actions to examine, then they can try to offer a kind of post hac justification, but it will always seem like something tacked on, not something organic, especially because they are always free to change their minds.


Jackmomorn 10.25.04 at 3:42 am

julian elson,
One of the determining characteristics of liberalism, as I see it, is the understanding of randomness. It is not anyone’s fault that so-and-so is born poor in Bangledesh, but neither does anyone deserve to be born Paris Hilton. The ethical system of liberalism comes out of this understanding of radical arbitrariness in our conditions.

The sentimental school of late Enlightenment thought came to this realization at its most radical. See for example Hazlitt’s wild essay on the principles of moral action, in which he argued that even self-interested action had no logical primariness, as the sympathy the present self felt for any future self was based in an arbitrary, habitual act of imagination. Sympathy for the self is only as logical as sympathy for any other possible person is.

What is interesting–and may be a partial answer to the original question–is that Hazlitt arrived at some of this theory by working through Burke’s writings on the imagination…

A well-written book on the question of the British vs. the French Enlightenments is David Simpson’s “Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Turn Against Theory.”


John Quiggin 10.25.04 at 4:33 am

“neither does anyone deserve to be born Paris Hilton”

True, but what can we do to help her ?


artclone 10.25.04 at 7:32 am

I suspect many people living in the pre-Enlightenment years were opposed to slavery – especially those who were slaves.


chris 10.25.04 at 8:55 am

Jonathan Edelstein’s point is important, and fits nicely with Ayjay’s earlier observation about the nature of slavery at different times. (Ayjay omits to notice slavery in Greece and Rome, which was far more commercial than at any time before the 17th century. Finley argued that a social revolution in those societies was a precondition of its emergence.)

In societies where chattel slavery, as opposed to serfdom or forms of temporary bondage, is not the predominant mode of exploitation, where there are only a few slaves around, it’s easier for slave owners to persuade themselves that they are paternalists, looking after the interests of the unfortunate lesser beings (slaves by nature) who depend on them. This sort of self deception becomes harder as the market becomes larger and more obtrusive, leading to questions being asked.

However, I’m not aware (correct me, Jonathan) of any wealthy Stoic who refused to own slaves during his lifetime, whatever gestures he may have made on his death.


DaveC 10.25.04 at 2:37 pm

Conquest and Culture

Thomas Sowell 1998


Julian Elson 10.25.04 at 4:48 pm

Jackmomorn, I assume you’re arguing that desert plays a larger role than I claim in “liberal morality” because of the notion among liberals that luck (such as condition upon birth) does not translate into desert, so it is immoral for people to have such good conditions? Well, it’s true that I overstated my case. Most liberals do think about desert, perhaps more than most conservatives, even.

And folks like Bruce Ackerman and Ronald Dworkin think about equality and desert per se. I’m not really familiar with that stuff, though. Sorry.

I suppose what I was mainly talking about was “liberalism to me.” To me, it means people like Bentham, Mill, Rawls, etc: people who saw nothing wrong with undeserved riches, but saw a great deal wrong with poverty and suffering. To me, someone who says, “let’s put the bad people in prison, not because it’ll have any good effects, but because they will suffer in prison, and, as bad people, that’s their desert,” is not a liberal, nor is someone who says “let’s take away Paris Hilton’s wealth, not to help some other people, but just because she enjoys her wealth, and she has done nothing to deserve it.” A conservative might be comfortable with the first statement, and a radical of some sort with the second.

Now, I suppose there ARE liberals who are comfortable with the ethics of desert, unconnected to utility, as I mentioned before (do Ackerman or Dworkin fall into this category?). I’m not really familiar or comfortable with that style of thought, though. If you want to, you can give me a quick course on it, though.


Jonathan Edelstein 10.25.04 at 7:05 pm

However, I’m not aware (correct me, Jonathan) of any wealthy Stoic who refused to own slaves during his lifetime, whatever gestures he may have made on his death.

I’m also not aware of any, although, to be fair to the Stoics, there were often severe legal restrictions on manumission either by will or during the master’s lifetime. Another phenomenon that existed during the classical era, however, was widespread protest against cruelty to slaves, and this protest did generate results in the form of greater legal protection. The same thing happened in many of the New World countries, which enacted humane treatment laws before abolishing slavery altogether. I’d argue that widespread commercial slavery tends to generate moral condemnation of both the institution itself and the excesses associated with it, and that the latter bears fruit before the former.


Dubious 10.26.04 at 6:37 am

On the ‘compassionate conservative’ question, I think that’s a phrase to signal that Bush is jettisoning the small government wing of the party and trying to lock in the ‘Reagan Democrats’. That is, he’s trying to assemble a new coalition around social conservative, economic populism.

I think it’s true that conservatism (of many stripes) is more supportive of traditional forms of merit, more comfortable with hierarchy and more willing to band together with the in-group against the out-group. Witness the Republican party’s traditional unity vis a vis the Democratic party. This fraternity can sour into the cardinal sin of conservatives: xenophobia, whether sexual, religious, ethnic, whatever. This is true all over the world, as far as I can see.

Left-liberals, on the other hand, seem more likely to concentrate on newer forms of merit that are more obviously political for not having emerged from the general cultural background (e.g. sensitivity, proper recycling, etc). There is tension between anti-hierarchical liberal thought and vanguardism, which exacerbates the lack of unity. The anti-hierarchism shades into the liberal-left’s failings: reflexive guilt and self-hatred (on behalf of the well-to-do vanguardists) and envy (from the base).


Tom Doyle 10.26.04 at 9:00 am

I suppose I’m a liberal. And if I was in charge of afterlife, everybody would go to heaven, even those previously sent to hell.

However, the notion of my political adversaries sending souls to eternal torment is not something I want to entertain. I might come to believe in it, and in the end there’d be hell to pay.


jet 10.26.04 at 4:16 pm

Kind of an unimportant point, but not only was slavery competely irrelavent to economic growth in 19th century in the US, it was probably an impediment to 19th century growth as farms without slavery cost less to operate (do to much cheaper immigrant labor). All the major economic gains were made in the North where slavery was illegal. So now we have slave holders not only being morally repugnant, but stupid.

It also doesn’t make much sense to say that slavery was ignored for the 60 years running up to the war. If you observe the politics for those 60 years slavery was always a major theme.


Dubious 10.26.04 at 4:38 pm

Maybe someone who is more of a specialized economic historian can address this better than I can, but I think the consensus now is that slavery was a profitable, economically rational institution (for the plantation owner, obviously… slaves didn’t quite agree, I imagine). The higher productivity and lower ‘wages’ of slave labor more than compensated for the increased spending on overseers. See Robert Fogel’s work, etc.

I think it makes more sense to see incredibly callous greed as the prime mover here, with racism mobilized to assuage the conscience, rather than racism being so great that it was stronger than greed.

I’m on shakier ground, but I think that strong arguments can be made that cotton-slavery (unlike Williams’ sugar-slavery) was in fact very influential in fueling the industrial revolution in the North. Cotton was an enormous mover in the early industrial revolution.


Xboy 10.26.04 at 8:13 pm

I suspect many people living in the pre-Enlightenment years were opposed to slavery – especially those who were slaves.
Yes, everyone agreed that it sucked to be a slave. But condemnation of slavery as an institution was spotty before the Enlightenment. And some kind of slavery, serfdom, or servitude was just the way of the world. The Israelites wept in captivity, but when Cyrus freed them they went home to Zion and got some slaves of their own. In Louisiana in the early 19th century, there were as many “free men of color” slave-owners as white.
The dawning of Abolitionism in the 18th century was made possible by the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Aristotle could only imagine slavery being abolished if all the scut work somehow did itself. To him that was an obvious absurdity, but by 1800 there were people who were inventing the technology to make it possible.
Of course there were others who didn’t see how mills and railroads and cotton gins could ever change their traditional plantation ways. That’s why the US had to fight a Civil War before slavery could be abolished.


Josh 10.28.04 at 12:31 am

As far as opposition to slavery before the Enlightenment goes, the record’s mixed, and sometimes unclear. Locke condemned slavery — but also drafted the constitution for a slavery-based society in Carolina. Grotius opposed the slave trade of his own day, I believe (though my memory of the details is hazy), but also argued that slavery was in some cases justified (as a result of conquest, or ‘voluntary’ slavery, i.e. when people freely sell themselves into slavery — this was something that bothered Rousseau greatly). From Grotius’s discussion, it seems as if there was a tradition of condemning slavery in natural law theory, but I don’t really know anything about the authors to whom he refers here(from Chapter 7 of Book III of the Laws of War and Peace):
‘BY the law of nature, in its primaeval state; apart from human institutions and customs, no men can be slaves: and it is in this sense that legal writers maintain the opinion that slavery is repugnant to nature.’

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