Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Ethics of Slavery: Just a Cultural Thing?

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 14, 2010

It has been said that so many people were okay with slavery in the United States because it was simply their culture. Everyone just accepted that slaves were the norm. Is this really so?

It seems obvious enough that most African Americans would object to slavery. Unfortunately, they weren’t the ones in power so they didn’t get to write history. But also, I argue that there are many people — who, perhaps because of social pressures or because of the bad documentation (e.g. lack of radio and television) of the era — who supported emancipation, but no one knows that they did.

The situation in the mid-19th century can be compared to our situation today, regarding gay rights. A majority of Americans believe that gay marriage should be illegal. But there’s still a good 30-40% (depending on what poll you’re looking at) who support gay rights. There may be similar statistics for the pre-Civil War era.

Opposition to gay rights is something of a cultural thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the statistics regarding support of gay marriage were completely flipped in 30 years. It’s only a matter of time before people realize the error of their ways.

If you are opposed to gay rights, and you object to my previous statement, then I’m sorry, but you are objectively wrong. There is no legitimate reason to hold a prejudice against homosexuals.

So the point is, even though the majority of people believe that gays should not be allowed to marry and that nearly all states do not allow gay marriage, there are still those who take the other perspective. Many of these people might be culturally influenced, but many others may have simply realized that prejudice against gays is morally wrong. I believe that a similar situation may have occurred in early America. But in that case, the Southern economy heavily relied upon the institution of slavery, so there was far more pressure to believe that slavery was acceptable.

If a majority of people truly believed that slavery was okay, then what does that say about morality? Who is to say that today’s message of equality is not morally wrong, and the racists are the correct ones? This is where Utilitarianism comes in.

People often base their decisions off of moral instinct. But if we use an ethical system with a strong logical foundation, we can accurately assess whether political issues such as gay marriage are right or wrong. Religious people may object to this, since Utilitarianism (as well as Deontology) is non-religious and may get different conclusions from what ethics-heavy religions dictate.

Once you bring Utilitarianism into the picture, the answer is obvious. Slavery is pretty good for the slave-owner, but much worse for the slave. It minimizes utility, and is therefore unacceptable. Preventing gays from marrying is preventing them from getting the various benefits of marriage; furthermore, allowing gays to marry in no way harms anyone else. Therefore, the Utilitarian choice is to legalize gay marriage.

Cultural feelings about morality may change, but logic does not. John Stuart Mill would have agreed that slavery is wrong. And, in fact, he did.

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3 Responses to “The Ethics of Slavery: Just a Cultural Thing?”

  1. Hi! Can one request what exactly is this template a person using within your website? many thanks.

  2. Kafiya said

    At times I wonder what caused people to rise up againist slavery. Was it because of the horriable conditions slaves lived in? If so, I wonder if people back then would have opposed slavery if slaves were given rights and treated better in society.

    • I suspect that if slaves were treated more fairly then it would have taken much longer for them to attain freedom. It’s not really the lack of freedom that gets to people, but the poor living conditions. If slaves had just as good living conditions as everyone else, they would have no desire for freedom. (Of course, it’s impossible for slaves to have as good living conditions as everyone else because then they wouldn’t be slaves.)

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