Saturday, February 9, 2013

Virtue & Slavery

In Chapter 5 of Intelligent Virtue, Julie Annas uses the question of slavery to illustrate her point that virtue ethics can be the basis for challenging one’s own society and its moral positions.  She gives us two examples: the ancient stoics and the modern anti-slavery movement in Britain. 
The Stoics recognized that slavery was merely conventional and always unjust, as all human beings are rational beings, capable of developing virtue.  The stoics could not advocate the abolition of slavery, as such was not possible given the structure of classical civilization.  However, they did demand that slave owners recognize the fundamental humanity of their slaves and treat them with as much respect and dignity as possible.  Annas thinks that this was a remarkable moral achievement, given the circumstances.  I think she is right on all counts. 
The modern anti-slavery movement, by contrast, was both possible and ultimately successful because of changes in political economy.  It depended, she argues, on thinking in terms of virtue.  That allowed anti-slavery advocates to recognize that they formed a community of virtuous persons.  Here, I think, the connection between moral progress and virtue thinking is much weaker.  While it is doubtless true that modern anti-slavery activists recognized the equality of human beings as rational and morally responsible creatures just as the stoics did, it is less clear to me that they generally held to some kind of virtue ethics.  One could just as easily imagine both utilitarian and deontological arguments against slavery. 
I would also take issue with Annas’ brief remarks about Aristotle’s account of slavery.  She says this:
As far as most people [in ancient Roman society] were concerned, there had always been slavery and there was no reason to think it would not always be there.  Aristotle relies on this thought when he says that is natural; something so ubiquitous that it must have some basis in nature. 
Aristotle says nothing of the kind.  In his treatment of slavery in Book 1 of the Politics, he lays down the conditions that would have to be met for slavery to be just by nature.  The difference in moral and intellectual capacity between the master and the slave would have to be as great as that between human beings and cattle or that between the mind and the body.  Natural slaves would have be, in effect, human bodies without human heads. 
That standard effectively rules out all actually existing slavery and certainly slavery as it existed in ancient Greece.  The Greeks routinely enslaved other Greeks.  Aristotle recognized as clearly as the Stoics that actual slavery was conventional rather than natural and that slavery depended on telling lies about the superiority of the masters over their chattel. 
Aristotle writes very carefully, considering the logical implications of different arguments about slavery while being very coy about which, if any, he agrees with.  The reasons for his caution are laid out well by Annas in her treatment of the Stoics.  It did not seem possible, in the context of classical civilization, to abolish slavery.  His reasoning, however, leaves no doubt that slavery was fundamentally unjust and that the status of master and slave existed by mere convention. 
I think that Aristotle supports rather than constitutes an exception to Annas’ point: that virtue ethics can and inevitably will be the basis for social criticism rather than being merely conservative in his horizons. 

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