Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Christianity Was A Necessary Condition For Ending Slavery

I'm not sure on this one, so I'm open to counter-examples.

First, note that there is a difference between necessary and sufficient. I'm suggesting that Christianity was a necessary, but not sufficient condition. Slavery was ended by British Evangelicals who made a tremendous political stink about the practice. That story can be seen in the movie Amazing Grace.

In any case, I saw this suggested in a Peter Kreeft book. Thinking about it, I couldn't think of a counter-example from a major league society. And, no, I don't want to hear about some Caribbean tribe of 140 people living in peace and harmony with nature. I'm talking nations on the order of Greece, Rome, Babylon, the Aztecs, the Ashanti and so forth. As far as I know, they all had slaves.

Going further, one might be able to suggest that given enough time, one of these groups would have eliminated slavery. Fair enough, but if you want to make that point, you  need to show the first principles that would have led them to do so. Slaves are awfully convenient, particularly for those in power. Who wouldn't want a few concubines laying around the house to keep you amused when you get home from work as the CFO of Babylonian Rubber and Tire Company?

So go for it, folks. I'm not emotionally invested in this, so any argument in the comments can be completely collegial.


Ilíon said...

"... Slavery was ended by British Evangelicals who made a tremendous political stink about the practice."

Well, not exactly. That was the *second* time Christianity stamped out slavery.

Ilíon said...

"... one might be able to suggest that given enough time, one of these groups would have eliminated slavery. Fair enough, but if you want to make that point, you need to show the first principles that would have led them to do so."

Exactly: only Biblical religion has "the first principles that would have led [a society] to do so"

tim eisele said...

Specifically, it appears to have been the Quakers who primarily got the ball rolling to finally abolish slavery, and they gradually recruited other Evangelical groups to join them.

While certain Christian principles doubtless helped, it looks like the real kicker was the Industrial Revolution and the development of a capitalist economy making it possible to make a lot of money *without* slaves. You mentioned that "Slaves are awfully convenient, particularly for those in power", but compared to steam engines (that can be turned off when needed) and wage employees (who you can release back into the labor market if you no longer need them), slaves are really kind of a massive inconvenience - a major investment that has to be fed and housed even during the times of year when their owners don't have much for them to do. And on top of that, they are poorly trained to operate machinery unless the slaveowners train them themselves, and will be unenthusiastic for the training because they will be doing it under duress, and not of their own free will as a way of bettering their prospects.

So on the one hand, we had the Quakers and their allies pushing to abolish the slave trade, and on the other hand we had the growing number of people who were actually becoming wealthy without needing or wanting slaves, and could therefore support them. Both were necessary.

K T Cat said...

Great comment, Tim, but you're focused on slaves as economic instruments. Why get rid of slaves as vehicles of pleasure?

K T Cat said...

One more objection to Tim's argument. Would you take a miniball in the gut for an economic argument? Wasn't the morality of the issue a prerequisite for the Civil War?

Ilíon said...

Tim's comment may be a great comment, but it's not really right. Centuries before the Industrial Revolution, the practice of slavery had been suppressed in Christendom (and no where else) precisely because it is contrary to the first principles of Christianity.

tim eisele said...

Well, mainly because as long as the slaves were *both* economic instruments and "vehicles of pleasure", the people who opposed it as immoral had to oppose pretty much everyone in positions of power. But once the people who wanted slaves for economic reasons were no longer an obstacle, it became possible to go after the ones who wanted slaves for purposes of pleasure (who I expect were always regarded by most people as being sexually immoral, and so they wouldn't get a lot of popular support).

And as for "wasn't the morality of the issue a prerequisite for the Civil War?", well, of course it was. The Quakers had to get the moral ball rolling, and persuade everyone else to keep pushing. Didn't I write "Both were necessary" up there?

And Ilion: while it might have been suppressed, it sounds like it wasn't completely eliminated, and kept popping back up again. And its resurgence in the New World pretty clearly showed that there were a lot of nominal Christians who still wanted to do it, and that Christianity alone was probably not going to be able to stamp it out without a fundamental change in the way business was done.

K T Cat said...

Didn't I write "Both were necessary" up there?

Dude, I was at a pub for lunch, reading it on my phone. I must have missed it. If you'd come along, it would have been a much simpler conversation.


Ilíon said...

Who said that the Christianization of a society is sufficient to stamp out sinful attitudes and acts among the members of the society? Certainly not the OP, nor I; but it is a necessary condition for stamping out sins such as slavery.

tim eisele said...

Well OK, Ilion, if you say so, although I think that leading off with saying I wasn't really right is a funny start if your intention is to not actually contradict what I actually wrote. But I'll let it go.

I did get to wondering about the legal status of slavery in China through history. While there was always some level of slavery in China, it sounds like it varied a lot, and there were periodic movements to discourage or outlaw it. Which of course failed miserably, since the economic advantages of slavery still existed at the time. But still, I think that is some evidence that even non-Christians could potentially develop a moral aversion to slavery.

K T Cat said...

Thanks for the China research, Tim. I was wondering about that. I understand them least of all. Still, if it didn't stick, how deep was the moral aversion?

Second, a definitional point. Is communism slavery? You don't get to keep what you earn and if you don't work, they imprison or shoot you.

tim eisele said...

Yes, I agree that there are a lot of situations that, while they aren't officially slavery, are certainly no better than being enslaved. I think the main distinction is that if you are a slave you are in a special category, and can see other, non-slaves around you with an obviously better deal. If you are oppressed by a communist government you can at least feel like everyone around you is in the same boat, and you are all in it together. Which is maybe slightly better? Less personal, at any rate.

Incidentally, I had a quick look at Japan's history with slavery too, and it turns out they officially banned it in 1590, at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (although, again, there were still indentured servants and convict labor that were not very distinguishable from slavery). One could argue that they got the idea of banning slavery from contact with the Portuguese in 1543, although maybe not for the reason one would expect - the Portuguese were buying a lot of Japanese people as slaves, and the Japanese resented this enough that they decided to ban the whole practice.

They still needed to wait for the development of machinery good enough to replace slaves before they could completely eliminate human slavery, though.

Ilíon said...

Is it not interesting that when the question is: "[Is it the case that] Christianity Was A Necessary Condition For Ending Slavery" -- or, as I'd put it, "Is it the case that it is necessary for a *society* to be Christianized before it will/can consider suppressing slavery?" -- that Tim wants to bring up individual (non-Christian) *rulers* who attempted, without success let it be noted, to suppress slavery in the societies they ruled, as though this answers the question in the negative.

tim eisele said...

Well, Ilion, it is equally interesting that you can't seem to get your head around the idea that (a) in every society I can think of, there has always been general agreement that it sucks to be a slave, and (b) opposing slavery therefore pretty much naturally follows from the golden rule, which apparently exists in some form in pretty much every ethical system in the world. And so any society that isn't actively founded on evil has ethical grounds for opposing slavery, not just the christian ones.