Justin Weinberg was kind enough to mention Nec Pluribus Impar on his blog and noted that, so far, I had mostly been talking about politics, which reminded me that I wanted to post something about a philosophical issue I have been thinking about while I was reading about slavery. (It was particularly nice of him to link to my blog, since we’ve had our disagreements in the past and I doubt that he agrees with anything I say. Needless to say, it doesn’t mean that I won’t criticize him when I think it’s warranted, as I have done in the past. Of course, I expect that he will do the same, as I don’t believe that I should be protected from criticism for what I say by the fact that I’m a graduate student.) The issue I’m going to talk about is completely outside my area of expertise, so I’m really not sure that it’s particularly interesting, but it seemed interesting to me and I figured that I should write a brief note about it.
Here is how Gomes Eannes de Azurara, a Portuguese chronicler, describes the arrival of a group of slaves in Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century:
But what human heart, no matter how hard, would not be stabbed by pious feelings when gazing upon such a company of people? For some had their heads held low and their faces bathed in tears, as they looked upon one another. Others were moaning most bitterly, gazing toward heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, as if they were asking for help from the father of nature. Others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves prostrate on the ground; others performed their lamentation in the form of a chant, according to the custom of their country, and, although our people could not understand the words of their language, they were fully appropriate to the level of their sorrow. But to increase their suffering even more, those responsible for dividing them up arrived on the scene and began to separate one from another, in order to make an equal division of fifths; from which arose the need to separate children from their parents, wives from their husbands, and brothers from their brothers. Neither friendship nor kinship was respected, but instead each one fell where fortune placed him! … And so with great effort they finished the dividing up, because, aside from the trouble they had with the captives, the field was quite full of people, both from the town and from the surrounding villages and districts, who for that day were taking time off from their work, which was the source of their earnings, for the sole purpose of observing this novelty. And seeing these things, while some wept, others took part in the separating, and they made such a commotion that they greatly confused those who were in charge of dividing them up.
The fact that something like slavery has been regarded as morally permissible is often used to defend moral relativism. But what this passage suggests to me is that, while it’s true that many people have thought that slavery was morally permissible, it probably took the elaboration of a pro-slavery ideology ideology and a lot of indoctrination in order to get there. In turn, this suggests that, if a version of descriptive moral relativism is true, it may be weaker than what many people are often inclined to think. Insofar as descriptive moral relativism is used to defend moral relativism in meta-ethics, which quite frankly I have no idea because again I don’t know the philosophical literature on that issue, this could weaken the case in favor of that view. Eric Schwitzgebel wrote a post a few years ago in which he made a related point.