Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Slavery and Double Effect

Wednesday, 20 November 2002

I've had some correspondence on the Lies, Damned Lies and Doubly Damned Lies item I posted a couple of days ago and I've been prompted to rethink my position. After dragging out a couple of texts from my philosophy studies I think I've got a handle on the moral difference between slavers and the operators of the Nazi death camps. The key is the principle of double effect.

For those who are unfamiliar with this principle, a simple illustration will help. Suppose you are trying to overpower a crazed gunman and that in the course of the struggle, his gun goes off, killing him. Clearly, you are not to blame for his death, as your intention was to protect others and his death was accidental. This should not be confused with the situation where you pull out your trusty .357 Magnum and pop off a few rounds in his general direction, accidentally killing a couple of pensioners who were too slow to duck. This is an instance of collateral damage and although it may exonerate you from blame for the accidental deaths of the pensioners, there are some hair-splitters who insist that this is contingent on at least one of your shots actually hitting the crazed gunman.

Unlike the death-camp operators, who plainly intended to kill their victims, then extract the economic benefit afterwards, the slave shippers and plantation owners were clearly seeking the economic benefit first, and the alleged suffering and occasional deaths of the enslaved were not intentional, but merely a by product of the perfectly justifiable (in economic terms) aim of minimising the operating cost of a business enterprise by obtaining the cheapest labour possible. So the principle of double effect clearly applies here and we can safely exonerate the slavers from the alleged immorality of slavery.

In fact we can go further: the development of the nascent sugar-planting and cotton industries and their expansion produced a great deal of economic benefit in other areas - such as the expansion of the Grand Banks cod fisheries (see Cod by Mark Kurlansky). In the long run, the African slave trade was beneficial to the slaves and their descendants as it introduced them to elements of Western European culture such as Christianity, the Enlightenment Rationalist Tradition and sexual coupling in the face-to-face boys on top mode. (Although the last of these may be accounted a mixed blessing: it was face-to-face sexual coupling which opened the way to the girls on top mode which subverted male copulatory dominance by relegating men to an inferior, passive role and opened the way to western feminism. It is no coincidence that the societies where feminism has made the fewest inroads are those in which the predominant form of sexual coupling is the older "doggy-doggy" style).

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