Moral Argument Is Not Enough: The Persistence of Slavery and the Emergence of Abolition


Slavery seems to us to be a paradigm of a morally wrong institutionalized practice. And yet for most of its millennia-long historical existence it was typically accepted as a natural, necessary, and inevitable feature of the social world. This widespread normative consensus was only challenged toward the end of the eighteenth century. Then, within a hundred years of the emergence of radical moral criticism of slavery, the existing practices had been dismantled and the institution itself “abolished.” How do we explain such a “profound transformation in moral perception” (Davis 1975)? It may seem obvious that the moral agency and character of the leaders and activists of the abolition movement, their supporters, and their governmental representatives were the primary motors of change. That is to say, the various actors involved came to see, recognize, or acknowledge the true (morally evil) nature of slavery and were thereby motivated to act against it. This “commonsense,” “moral explanation” is endorsed by most of the philosophers who have reflected on the morality of slavery. But despite the intuitiveness of thinking that it was the moral agency of the actors, pitted against the evil and injustice of slavery, that brought about the latter’s downfall, I will endeavor to show that such thinking is inadequate both to the facts and to the explanatory desiderata. I contend that it was not ignorance of the supposedly inherent moral status of slavery that maintained people’s complicity with it, but practical barriers to them conceiving it dispensable.