Friday, March 16, 2012

Materialism and the Evil of Slavery

It has been suggested to me that the president ought not to take his spiritual views into the White House.  Or that the president ought not to make his spiritual views a factor when making policy decisions.  But upon what basis is he to make decisions? Based upon material considerations?

The principle that I ought to treat others as I would like to be treated is not a material principle but a moral one.  This moral principle has both a subject and an object.  Any being for whom the obligation imposed by the principle can be said to constitute a duty is the subject. And the end towards which the duty is directed is the object.

If the object is spiritual than the spiritual views of the subject must somehow be involved.  And if we’re agreed that this principle is a good principle and we don’t wish the President to disregard it when he enters the White House than he has to take his spiritual views along with him as well. 
I propose in what follows to show that this moral principle—namely, that others ought to be treated as we would like to be treated—is the only rational motive for actually opposing slavery and then only if its object is spiritual and not material.  And that, thus, if Lincoln had kept his spiritual views out of the White House he’d have had no motive for opposing the injustice of slavery.

“Why ought we to treat other as we ourselves would like to be treated?”

We have a material object in mind if it’s to avoid friction in our relations with other people and to engender good will from them.  So do we treat others as we would like to be treated because we see others as valuable beings in their own right or do we value them simply for what we can get out of them?  Does my neighbor have any real value other than his value to me?  And if I think he does, in what does that value consist?  Because from just a material point of view his value can be measured in three ways; by the value I (or society) ascribe to the physical material of his body, to the services he can perform, or to the goods he can produce.  A child who can perform no valuable service nor produce any valuable goods is thus worth less than $1.00 at a given moment in time.  Any other material value we might chance to ascribe to the child is based on our calculation of the estimated value of his or her future contributions.

Material objects don’t have an intrinsic value—their value is purely subjective.  If we wish at all to ascribe an intrinsic value to persons we must therefore see them as something more than material objects—as subjects.  But on the other hand if we wish to see persons as nothing but material objects than we have no ground for ascribing to them any intrinsic value. 

So if we think persons have value just because they’re persons we’re admitting a belief (a spiritual view) that persons are not just material objects.  And that may seem like a good enough place to stop.  But the wish to ascribe to persons an intrinsic value does no good unless we can know what a person is. 

If “person” is merely a word used to describe something that possesses certain randomly chosen attributes or abilities, the exact number and quality of which being open to serious and interminable debate, then the question of who is and who is not a person can’t be answered by scientific inquiry upon material facts alone because in that case the material facts themselves are the object of the debate.  Rather than being something “knowable” and attached to individual natures, i.e. “what things are in and of themselves”, personhood would only be an arbitrary distinction made by those whose position of authority enables them to decide for everyone else the attributes by which “personhood” can be known.

And so if personhood is extrinsic, that is “on the outside”, than whatever real value an individual has is only a value in relation to other people. 

Since the individual himself has no value apart from the group than it is the group itself which much be credited with the ultimate value.  As a necessary consequence the individual is expendable to the degree that he, by his actions or by his existence causes the aggregate value of the group to diminish.  (The aggregate value of the group we shall call the “common good”)

Thus no defense remains to those who wish to keep all but material considerations out of government but who wish nevertheless to uphold the intrinsic value and dignity of the individual person.  For if both a person’s value and their status as a person is due to immaterial considerations than material considerations alone will not be sufficient to govern persons effectively—or, shall we say, equitably. 

Even if you agree with all I’ve said above, you may still wish to object that individual value could be recognized by a government relying on solely material considerations as a matter of simple justice.  But justice considered in just its material effects is really just a demand for fairness.  It’s nothing more than the belief that two like things ought to be treated alike.  But why ought that to be the case?  If the common good is the only measure of individual value, then if it’s better for the common good that like things be treated differently than that’s what ought to be done.  It may not be fair to the individual but it’s right so far as the interests of the group are concerned and is thus “fair” on that basis for the individual as well.

So also if in the time of Abraham Lincoln the common good demanded that a disenfranchised minority be held in slavery for the benefit of the majority than that’s what ought to have been done.  It may well have been to the material advantage of the United States to permit the “keeping of slaves”.  But what happened as a matter of history was that the spiritual view of great numbers of Americans enabled them to recognize the immaterial, intrinsic value of black people as persons apart from their utility.  Consequently they were able to take upon themselves the duty of treating other persons as they would like to be treated and they could do it for the sake of something higher and better than what they themselves could get out of it—for something other than material considerations.  Only by embracing this spiritual view could hundreds of thousands of men and women risk life, limb, and property for the liberation of a persecuted few without any hope or expectation of getting anything in return.  Only by virtue of a spiritual view could the love that compels a man to lay down his life for his enemies as well as his friends take root, blossom, and find expression.

Because if human reason is confined to material facts it can make judgments of public policy and matters of life and death only on the basis of expediency, efficiency, convenience or comfort.  And the near universal belief that slavery is actually wrong cannot be defended under such limitations.  If a man’s value is to be judged by the same standards as a horse or any other beast of burden than he may be compelled to work under the same conditions.  A man’s life would be judged not of value but of waste.

It could not therefore have been material considerations but the spiritual views of Abraham Lincoln that helped lead finally to the end of a great evil that might otherwise have been endured for decades longer.

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