We all know it’s wrong, but how do we know?
In reading ancient history, it often feels like I am reading about an alien people. “There’s no way these people are human!” — but they were. What they thought and how they came to their conclusions is so foreign to me that I could barely imagine communicating with them, even if we spoke the same language.
For example, imagine today the United States went to war with North Korea. Nobody used nukes, and it remained a conventional war. At the end of the war, the United States wins and our reward for victory includes the slavery of all North Koreans. The North Koreans obviously don’t like this setup, so they come up with plans to get out of slavery. Their plans include how to rebel and win the battle next time. Our plans include how to quash rebellion and not lose any future battles. Absolutely nobody stands up and says, “Hey! It doesn’t matter who wins. You can’t enslave humans!” And if anyone did, they would be looked at as if you just forcefully sounded off a tuba in church.
Or to go even further, imagine someone said, “After this bloody engagement is over, we should declare peace and treat each other as equals. No punishment. No retribution. Just move on in peace.” That would blow some ancient minds.
That’s what it’s like reading a lot of history. Nobody even imagined that slavery was unjust. Even those enslaved saw it as part of the structure of the world and later enslaved others. And it wasn’t necessarily foreign people from far away lands that were enslaved. They didn’t even always look that different. Sometimes they were just people a couple hundred miles away on a different island across the bay.
“The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must” — Thucydides
It makes me think: How did we go from slavery as a normal concession of battle — something to brag about — to a basic assumption that it was horribly unethical and a basic affront to humanity? The United States, along with some of its European allies, even ended up going to battle in foreign countries to stop foreign people from being enslaved.
Have you ever asked yourself the question and tried to articulate why slavery is wrong? What do you come up with? Is it anything more than just, “Well… you should be nice to people and not boss them around.” Maybe you come up with the Golden Rule to treat others as you wish to be treated. But where did that come from? This is what cut flower ethics refers too.
Cut flower ethics is the concept that removing our ideas from their roots will cause them to ultimately die, much like flowers we snip and present to loved ones. Without the connection to what fed them in the first place, there is nothing to sustain them. Slavery is one of those things that we all (in the Western world) assume to be inexcusable. But that was not always the case. And it was not simply that there were evil people in the world that the good people needed to fight. Even people of the past we consider on the side of the general good had what we would consider horrible ideas about slavery.
We have been so saturated with some ideas as simply fundamental, that we cannot even articulate why they are fundamental. And if we cannot articulate why they are fundamental, we risk losing the benefits of those ideas. Without the intellectual tools to defend these ideas, they are open to attack and become weaker. They become vulnerable to degradation.
I think about this idea a lot, and it’s probably because it worries me. Societal structures are taken for granted and people don’t seem to understand that ideas — philosophies — are at the root of their existence. But who the hell wants to discuss or receive a lesson in philosophy and how it affects practical matters when your toddler needs a new diaper, you’ve got work responsibilities to juggle while making dinner and working from home, and Netflix just dropped full seasons of whatever show everyone is talking about today? Almost nobody.
If you are still here reading as opposed to binging episodes of The Office, which I would probably rather be doing on most days, let’s chat about it.
So why is slavery wrong?
Most historical arguments against slavery have paralleled larger arguments on the essence of common humanity. Namely, two major concepts:
- The Enlightenment idea that all human beings are by nature capable of reason, thus equally capable of guiding themselves and deserving of individual sovereignty.
- The theological (Judaeo-Christian) concept that all human beings are created in the image of God, which not only makes them equally valuable but sacred as well.
These two concepts are necessary to tie spiritual equality in with social equality.
Antonio de Montesinos of the Dominican order used the combination to deliver a thunderous sermon to Spaniard oppressors of Native Americans in 1511. Using the words of Jesus’ disciple in John 1:23, asking his audience, “…Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?”
Famous abolitionists like the brilliant Frederick Douglas combined the two in order to appeal to the reasonableness of Americans, as well as the emotion derived from religious ideas on how we regard each other as divine. I wrote a brief summary of his ideas here:
Martin Luther Kind Jr. used the very same concepts, the pinnacle of which we hear in his “I have a dream” speech. It’s important to remember that he was a reverend of the church whose appeal to people was that they look deeper than skin color and judge only by the content of our character.
Looking at the two basic ideas themselves and the arguments for which they were used makes it seem easy to get on board and accept them as good places to start. Or at the very least, accepting one or the other.
But here’s the rub: If we accept those fundamental concepts as principles, they apply to everything at all times.
No matter the current goal or context.
No matter the immediate consequences of applying them.
No matter your personal hesitancy to accept them.
They are only fundamental principles if they apply to all situations, all the time.
We have to believe that the greatest good for individuals and society at large is served by applying those principles regardless of our inability to see what the good will be. Christians would call that “an article of faith.” Our fickle reasons for throttling down or restricting those principles only in times that we find their application to be convenient will not work.
Will the application of those principles be immediately good? We have to believe that it will be good as compared to all realistic alternatives. We have to understand that this reflects the inescapable nature of reality and human attempts to subvert it will only lead to disaster.
Just imagine how many disasters would have been averted with that line of reasoning. What if every time we were on the brink of murderous genocide, someone whispered into the ear of the fanatical leader, “Hey… we can’t do that. Those people are imbued with reason and made in the image of God.”? And they agreed!
What if every criminal, just prior to their murderous attack, had someone telling them that they need to put the gun down because they were aiming it at a divine creature with the sovereign right to exist and act in their own interest? And they also agreed!
What if every mandate that came down from the government was halted (or ignored) because someone said, “Hey…you can’t do that. People are sovereign and allowed to make their own risk assessments and decisions as long as they are not causing harm to others.”
I know. It’s tough. Because it also means you would have to allow people to make a lot of their own choices even when those choices annoy you. But you cannot have it both ways. Either these are or these are not fundamental principles.
And I hear you. “Couldn’t we just allow the smart people to guide those who we just know need our guidance?” No. Absolutely not. It does not and never has worked. Unilateral power over human beings always corrupts those in power as well as those subject to that power. And what makes you think you know what’s good for anyone else? Most of us are mistaken when we think we know what’s good for ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I am willing to be annoyed. The alternative, as evidenced by thousands of years of tragedy, is much worse.