What a Portuguese chronicler may teach us about moral relativism

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.

It’s quoted by Seymour Drescher on p. 60 of Abolition, his book on the history of slavery and antislavery, a fascinating monograph that I already mentioned in my post about slavery and capitalism.

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.

8 thoughts

  1. Ancient world slavery seemed to be based mostly on the principle of “we beat you in a war so we get to do what we like with you – and it’s probably better for both of us if we enslave you rather than massacre you.” Racism based slavery seems to be a more recent invention…

    1. Yeah, I thought about this as I was writing the post, but I didn’t mention it because I wasn’t sure what the implications were for my point and I didn’t have time to think more about it.

  2. I think that it’s too easy for us to look back to previous eras and declare that certain things were, obviously, morally wrong, but that some “ideology” or irrational set of beliefs propped it up.

    Many things from the past that we find repugnant — and which were, even to some at the time, also regarded as pitiful — were adopted, at least originally, in a context in which all manner of terrible things went on. In that context, the practices we now universally abhor seemed on balance far less extreme, and, indeed, might well have seemed quite justified by countervailing acts by enemies, or simply the violence routinely visited upon human beings by nature itself.

    Slavery arose originally in a context of war, as a prize for the victor — or, equally, the revenge of the victor for previous mistreatment. We seem today to be incapable of entertaining the full, brutal context in which many of these practices were applied. Slavery was always applied to “others” — but as we came into contact with more people, the “others” came to be of different races.

    What undermines these practices, in the end, is that the context itself begins to change — the brutality of slavery seems altogether out of sync with the lives and expectations of those who inhabit a more refined sort of civilization. The Portuguese chronicler is at the forefront of such a realization about slavery.

    One good book on the progress of the civilizing influence reducing violence of various sorts is Pinker’s Better Angels. He produces much useful and interesting data to argue his point.

    But I would say that many of the practices we now abhor may not have been so immoral to have embraced back in the day in which they originated — including slavery, I think. If, say, slavery were adopted in revenge, or as a warning to other tribes or nations as to one’s own fierceness as an enemy, in a context in which such an act had an important practical — and perhaps deterrent — effect, it would certainly enjoy far more of a real justification than today we seem to be able to imagine.

    Violence and brutality creates a vicious cycle. We have, by the slow operation of civilization, been largely freed of that cycle. It is cheap moralizing for us, then, to pretend that it was egregious, and obviously so, for anyone ever to have supported slavery.

    1. You seem to be arguing that, in some context, slavery might actually be morally permissible. You may well be right about this, but I don’t think it would be a problem for the argument that I was outlining in my post, because that view is compatible with a rejection of moral relativism.

      1. I’m having some difficulty seeing what you are, in fact, arguing.

        I had thought that the point of the quoted passage was to demonstrate the difference between a practice like slavery, which was by the conventional wisdom of the time, regarded as morally permissible, and the seeming “fact” brought up by the passage, that slavery was clearly regarded as a brutal, inhumane practice by some even at that time, and so should be held not to be morally permissible, period, absolutely. This seemed to be how you were driving the wedge between descriptive moral relativism and “real” moral relativism.

        My point might be summarized by saying that, typically, it’s not just some seemingly arbitrary conventional wisdom, or artificial “ideology”, that supports certain practices like slavery in previous eras. It is a larger context of violence, counter-violence, and general brutality that calibrates our very adjustable human sensibilities to a very different pitch from that we ourselves are familiar with. Our “moral intuitions” in such a context might be quite different from those we now experience, and the moral arguments we would find persuasive in those contexts might differ greatly from those we now respond to.

        I’m not sure I myself would ever say that slavery, or any number of other things, was ever actually “morally permissible”, even if believing that it was so was once morally permissible. And I’d expect that some things — torturing a baby just for fun — really just aren’t morally permissible anywhere, anytime.

        But I think that the number of things that fit into the category of never being morally permissible is probably pretty small, and I think a dispassionate investigation of human history would support this. Human beings, as a species, seem to enjoy, or suffer from, a highly supple moral faculty — something not so surprising, I think, when one considers that this faculty must comport with unstable evolutionary demands. I think the idea that we can entertain and decide most moral issues sub specie aeternitatis is likely an illusion.

        If there are “absolute” moral truths, they’re much harder to come by than people imagine.

        1. I actually had a much more modest goal than what you think in that post. I wasn’t trying to argue that slavery is always morally impermissible. I just used slavery, and this chronicler’s testimony, to suggest that perhaps we sometimes tend to overstate descriptive moral relativism because we neglect to take into account the role ideology can play. (That being said, I also disagree with your view that chattel slavery as practiced by Europeans from the 15th century onward can be justified in the way you suggest, but I don’t have time to argue for this claim.) And my idea was that, if I’m right about this (and I’m really not confident that I am), this might weaken the case for moral relativism in meta-ethics (although I’m not sure about that either), insofar as it rests on a strong form form of descriptive moral relativism.

  3. Moral reasoning is reasoning, not a list of acceptable and unacceptable actions. Two cultures could have identical moral codes, yet come to opposite conclusions on nearly every particular issue because they have different category definitions.

    Most cultures consider it immoral to enslave members of their own in-group. The question is who counts as your in-group. Many, if not most, tribal cultures use the same word to mean “human” and “member of our tribe” (or speak of “people” (human) and “real people” (tribe members)). The idea that slavery is always wrong isn’t a change in what people believe about slavery; it’s a change in who they count as people. We still enslave non-human animals.

    1. Also, the framing of the issue can change. I said most cultures think enslaving “people” is “wrong,” but it might be more accurate to say they think it is cruel. The Romans probably treated their slaves worse than their work animals, perhaps because slaves were subsidized by the government (they were a by-product of military expansion, and so under-priced), but also because being cruel and humiliating someone demonstrated your own power. “Cruelty” was thus “good” to them in that context, not necessarily because they had different ideas about slavery, but because they had different priorities among their values.

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