The economics of slavery and why morality is so inconsistent:
Slavery’s history makes an excellent tool for exploring the connections between economic theory, which nobody holds sacred, and morality, which most people hold sacred. This is because slavery’s transformation from economically useful practice to anachronism precisely follows it’s transformation from morally acceptable practice to universally condemned evil.
In economic theory the value for any good is determined by supply and demand. Put more simply, the price is set by whatever people are willing to pay for something. If customers will pay 1,000 dollars for a pencil, the pencil is worth 1,000 dollars. If customers will only pay 50 cents, it is worth 50 cents.
If an economist said that the price of gold was high because God made it so, he would probably lose his job. Clearly our economist is making a ridiculous analysis. The price of gold is high for reasons no more profound than the fact many people like shiny yellow metals that are in short supply. However, if a moralist says that slavery is wrong because of God’s will, he is not far from the mainstream. Why do the standards differ?
Let us now apply this economic theory to slavery. From a purely money standpoint, slavery is a net plus for the slave owner precisely so long as the cost of feeding, clothing and holding the slave captive does not exceed the cost of employing a freeman. Conditions for slavery exist in societies with primitive, pre-mechanized, labor intensive industries. In 18th century Cuba, for example, there were huge farms producing sugar cane and other cash crops. These were backbreaking, miserable jobs for which poor people would either demand large payments or expensive benefits. Therefore, by enslaving them, the slave owner can avoid the extra costs free laborers would demand in exchange for their suffering.
Now, let’s try applying slavery to modern Japanese rice fields. First of all, the cost of holding slaves, feeding them and clothing them would have to be extremely low in order to replace modern farming equipment. Even if this were possible, the slave owner would need thousands of slaves in order to produce the same amount of saleable goods as a single modern combine machine. At this point it is clear that even if slavery were legal in Japan, the slave owner would be much better off simply paying one combine operator and buying diesel fuel for the machines.
Historically, it is amazing to note how neatly the increasing moral condemnation of slavery traced its declining economic usefulness. In the time of Jesus, none condemned slavery, including Jesus himself, for the simple reason that it was ubiquitous. Jesus denouncing slavery during his lifetime would make no more sense than a modern moralist condemning harvesting machines. Slaves were simply the accepted way for nations to support themselves. But as the industrial revolution swept over the world, slaves made less and less sense. The first industrial country, Britain, was also among the first to ban slavery. The societies following Britain’s industrial example most closely – France, the north eastern United States, Scandanavia, Canada – had no slavery. Countries that had no need for large scale agricultural labor, usually because of cold weather, also went without slavery.
You can explain this in two ways:
- People from industrialized countries and cold climates are morally superior. This seems silly on its face for a multitude of reasons, including the fact most of history’s great moralists came from countries that were neither industrialized nor particularly cold.
- Morality is merely a tool people use for organizing their societies. Like all tools, a moral has an economic value. When slavery lost its usefulness, the society translated this as “wrong” (negative economic value) and set about eliminating an outdated practice under the guise of new and improved morality.
If you accept answer number two, it allows you to easily explain the continual evolution of morality seen through all societies. In fact, it even allows you to explain the radical shifts in morality seen throughout the Bible.
While it is possible to form alternative explanations for the inconstancy of morality, doing so requires tremendous logical gymnastics. Occam’s razor tends to favor morality as economic tool over divine dictate or universal morality of any sort in this case.
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