Sunday, August 06, 2017

Rights, evolution, and slavery

David Brightly: When someone lacking a theistic grounding for the notion of 'right' says something like 'group X has the right to good Y' what they mean is 'group Z has a genuine right to good Y and it's unfair that group X lacks it'. By 'genuine' I mean backed up by law or social custom to the extent that somebody or some institution takes responsibility for meeting the demands of those asserting the right. The moral content of the claim lies ultimately in appeal to our sense of fairness, which we take for granted independent of any theory as to its divine or other origin. To ask for any more specific ground for the putative 'right' is to misunderstand how the word is used in contemporary political engagement.

VR: Do we have a common sense of fairness? If the people with the biggest guns say I don't have a certain right, do I have that right even though those who think I lack this right have the guns (and the knives, and the whips) and the people who think I have this right do not. Think of the countless black Americans who died in slavery. They, I maintain, had a right to freedom which was denied them, and which they never could exercise, but how can this be true? Social custom and law wasn't there to back up their right, so on what basis can we say, if there are no metaphysically grounded moral facts, that they really had the right be free, but that right was denied them. 

When we had slavery in this country, of course slaveowners appealed to religion, because people were religious. Had they not been, do you think they would have had any trouble appealing to evolution to justify enslaving black people? If you are looking for it, the case for slavery virtually jumps off the pages of the Origin of Species.


John B. Moore said...

It would have been better for the country as a whole if black people had been given the chance to use all their talents and compete on an equal footing as citizens. Slavery wasn't just bad for the slaves, but for the slave-owners also. It was bad for the whole country.

When we talk about the rights of people to not be enslaved, that's really immediate and you get a visceral feeling about it. On the other hand, this right is not really an individual thing in the slave himself, but it's a state of affairs pervading the whole society. It's too narrow to think of rights as things that individual people can possess.

Rights don't come from social custom or law - that's just people's superficial understanding about rights. It would be better to think of rights coming from economics. Things that make us more prosperous are right, and things that impede our developing prosperity are wrong. On the other hand, people often have just superficial understanding about economics too.


Sure, you can find justification for racism in both the Bible and the Origin of Species. The difference is that the Bible tells you what to think and do with unquestionable authority, whereas the Origin of Species just points to physical evidence and suggests something for people to think about further.

Kevin said...

John: "The difference is that the Bible tells you what to think and do with unquestionable authority"

What does the Bible tell Christians to think about racism, with unquestionable authority?

Or is this yet another goofy atheist talking point?

Rasmus Møller said...

John Moore: are you seriously suggesting that human rights and duties are rooted in GDP maximization alone?

Wouldn't that mean that nothing can be called unfair that improves GDP?

E.g. China should be called one of the most human right respecting countries simply because of their very succesful growth policy?

Victor Reppert said...

Race, as we understand it today, is not a biblical concept. The only lineage the Bible cares about is the lineage of Israel, but in the New Testament (and in the Jewish tradition as it develops) that lineage means responsibility rather than privilege.

As for slavery, I recommend reading this essay before sounding off too authoritatively.

Starhopper said...

Up Front: Slavery in the modern world is an abomination, and must be fought with every weapon at our command. It will, unfortunately, never be totally eradicated (like the poor, the slave will always be with us), but that's no reason to cease resisting it, wherever and however it may appear.

That said, there have been legitimate social constructs in the past that to contemporary eyes would be termed "slavery". The best example might be Medieval feudalism. I found it very interesting that writers of that time insisted that there was no one to be feared more the "lordless man". If you did not possess an unambiguous allegiance to a recognized authority, you were likely to be a highwayman or some other form of criminal. In Medieval eyes, the ideal society consisted of one in which everyone had a place, knew his place, and kept to his place. This (theoretically) resulted in peace and prosperity for all.

David Brightly said...

Well, I had hoped to spark a discussion of the linguistic issues around the word 'right'. Let's put to one side what I have called 'genuine rights' which are real enough and objective enough not to be problematic. That leaves 'right' in the sense of 'human right', say, or 'God-given right'. 'Right' is a noun and if such a right is in some sense a thing what does it mean to say 'they really had the right to Y, but that right was denied them?' Can they have the right and not have it at the same time? That sounds wrong. What is denied or withheld is the Y itself. In ordinary talk about rights we gloss over this distinction readily enough. This leads me to suspect that sentences about 'rights' are shorthand for more complicated sentences. My suggestion is that 'X has the right to Y' is equivalent to the moral judgement, 'It's wrong to prevent X from having Y'. So the challenge is to explain whether rights talk adds anything to moral judgement talk. If it doesn't we may as well abandon rights in favour of old-fashioned moral judgements. What we can't do is use one to bolster the other---they are saying the same thing.

David Brightly said...

Victor, some replies to your response to my comment:

I can agree that it was wrong to deny freedom to New World slaves, but what bearing does this have on the ontology of rights? Also, that if the wrongness of slavery lies in the asymmetry of treatment of slaves and slaveholders then Darwin can be used to make a case for a symmetry-breaking significant difference between these groups, but again, how does this relate to the existence of rights, or otherwise?

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic wrote, "the case for slavery virtually jumps off the pages of the Origin of Species."

Really Vic? The case for slavery jumps off the pages of Darwin's work? You mean as strongly as the case for slavery of one third of the human race found in the Genesis flood tale, slaves forever? Or the case for slavery and even for slaves to obey their masters as a behavior "pleasing to God" as found in the Bible?

What have you read about Darwin's views on slavery, or how his contemporaries employed Darwin's views to oppose slavery? Apparently you have read nothing on such topics.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, See

Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

One of the reasons Darwin espoused common ancestry was to help people recognize that Black people were people, and we are all cousins. Compare the creationist view of Agassiz, Darwin's contemporary, who argued that Blacks were created as a separate race from white people.

Here's a quotation from Darwin:

I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have staid in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. … And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty... .
chapter XXI: "Mauritius To England" (second edition, 1845), pages 499-500

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, Darwin, as well as his friends and family, were very much in favor of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended voting rights to millions of formally disenfranchised citizens. He was also a staunch supporter of the abolishment of slavery. Here are a few excerpts from letters Darwin wrote home while on the Beagle Voyage:

"The Captain does every thing in his power to assist me, & we get on very well - but I thank my better fortune he has not made me a renegade to Whig principles: I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian Nations, Slavery."
-- To Revd. John Henslow 18 May 1832 from Rio de Janeiro.

"What a proud thing for England, if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it. I was told before leaving England, that after in Slave countries: all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negro character."
-- To his sister, Catherine, on 22 May 1833 from Maldonado, Rio Plata.

"It does one's heart good to hear how things are going on in England. Hurrah for the honest Whigs. I trust they will soon attack that monstrous stain on our boasted liberty, Colonial Slavery. I have seen enough of Slavery & the disposition of the negros, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies & nonsense one hears on the subject in England."
-- To John Herbert on 2 June, 1833 from Maldonado, Rio Plata.

England passed a law that emancipated all slaves in the British colonies in August of 1833.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, Darwin praised the sympathy we show other human beings, and even said that the human capacity for sympathy and cooperation was one of the reasons our species survived and evolved. Creationists omit to share all those praises of human sympathy that Darwin wrote about. Darwin also warned about the effects of genetically transmissible diseases of mind and body growing more prevalent among humans over time, kind of like the far funnier and more palatable warning seen in the movie Idiocracy. Below are quotations showing both sides of Darwin, the praise of sympathy and the warning of increasing numbers of dysfunctions spreading among humans:

"As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions... This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually through public opinion."
--Darwin, volume I, chapter III: "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals — continued", pages 100-101

Disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man.
--Darwin, volume I, chapter III: "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals — continued", page 105

"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature... We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.
--Darwin volume I, chapter V: "On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties during Primeval and Civilised Times" (second edition, 1874) pages 133-134

Edwardtbabinski said...

For a fairer view of how Darwin's writings inspired both Social Darwinism and liberal improvements in society see the online article:

"Social Darwinism and the Poor" by Peter Dobkin Hall, School of Public Affair, Baruch College, City University of New York

Ironically it is today's conservative (pro-creationist pro-religious) political parties, like the Republican Party in the U.S., who are pursuing what can only be called "Social Darwinistic" legislation, but without calling it that. smile

Meanwhile, among modern day scientists "Social Darwinism" is out and "Social Neuroscience" is in. They are now studying the full gamut of human genetic and environmental potential, i.e., mental elasticity and social cohesion, via a new discipline known as Social Neuroscience. Look it up.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin's Bulldog”) reacted strongly to Herbert Spencer’s (another evolutionist’s) proposal that all social welfare programs be cancelled. Below is Huxley’s reaction:

'But the time of the Romanes lecture, however, Huxley's views had changed considerably. Herbert Spencer, who had coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," which Darwin later adopted to describe the ongoing struggle for existence resulting in natural selection, had articulated the advantages of applying evolutionary theory to social behavior, espousing an ethic that became known as "Social Darwinism." Spencer and his followers argued that one's moral obligations should be to promote this struggle for existence in the social realm. Thus, he was against any sort of safety net such as the poor laws, for they only contributed to the survival of the least fit. Huxley could not abide such an ethic that was counter to all common decency, that claimed the state had no obligation to the less fortunate members of society. The Romanes lecture was written specifically in response to the extreme individualism and the harsh social policies Spencer was advocating in the name of evolution. In it Huxley claimed that "laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community...Let us understand, once and for all that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."

'Huxley, like many later critics such as G. E. Moore, attacked evolutionary ethics on the grounds of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because nature is a certain way does not mean nature ought to be that way. However, Huxley's critique actually goes far deeper than this.

'Implicit in the various versions of evolutionary ethics was the idea that nature was progressive. Huxley denied this. For Huxley, one of the strengths of Darwin's theory was that in addition to explaining how organisms change and progress, it also explained how many organisms do not progress, and some even become simpler. Thus, why should we assume that applying the principles of evolution to the social realm would result in the progress and improvement of society? Huxley realized that "fittest" had a connotation of "best," but as he correctly pointed out, if the environment suddenly became much colder, the survival of the fittest would most likely bring about in the plant world a population of more and more stunted and humbler organisms. In such an environment, the lichen and diatoms might be the most "fit." Furthermore, the strict definition of Darwinian fitness is reproductive success. However, surely no one would label a mad rapist who successfully impregnates hundreds of women the "best" or "most fit" member of society.'
-- THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY [a biography] by S. L. Lyons, (1999)

Edwardtbabinski said...


'We are told by those who assume authority in these matters, that the belief in the unity of the origin of man and brutes involves the brutalization and degradation of the former. But is this really so? Could not a sensible child confute by obvious arguments, the shallow rhetoricians who would force this conclusion upon us? Is it, indeed, true, that the Poet, or the Philosopher, or the Artist whose genius is the glory of his age, is degraded from his high estate by the undoubted historical probability, not to say certainty, that he is the direct descendant of some naked and bestial savage, whose intelligence was just sufficient to make him a little more cunning than the Fox, and by so much more dangerous than the Tiger? Or is he bound to howl and grovel on all fours because of the wholly unquestionable fact, that he was once a fertilized egg cell, which no untrained power of discrimination could distinguish from that of a Dog’s fertilized egg cell? Or is the philanthropist, or the saint, to give up his endeavors to lead a noble life, because the simplest study of man’s nature reveals, at its foundation, all the selfish passions, and fierce appetites of the merest quadruped? Is mother-life vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it? The common sense of the mass of mankind will answer these questions without a moment’s hesitation. Healthy humanity, finding itself had pressed to escape from real sin and degradation, will leave the brooding over speculative pollution to the cynics and the “righteous overmuch" [a phrase Huxely took from Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Be not righteous overmuch.”]'