Friday, August 15, 2008

Ross, Lincoln, and the Biblical Morality of Slavery

In response to my arguments for Darwinian natural right and Darwinian conservatism, the most common objection is that a morality rooted in human nature fails if it is not supported by religious belief. This is the major objection coming from religious conservatives like Carson Holloway and John West. The same objection comes from philosophical theologians like C. Stephen Evans and John Hare.

Evans and Hare are both leading proponents of the divine command theory of morality, based on the idea that ultimately the only reliable standard of morality is God's command. They criticize my evolutionary naturalism, because they believe a purely natural morality cannot work if it is not sustained by religious belief in God as the source of all moral standards. Holloway and West seem to make the same argument, although they are not quite as explicit in adopting the divine command theory.

All of these critics look to the moral debate over slavery as illustrating the failure of natural morality without religion. I argue--particularly, in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right--that slavery manifested a conflict between the natural desire of the slaveholders to exploit their slaves and the natural desire of the slaves to resist exploitation. Slavery was wrong because it violated the natural moral principle of justice as reciprocity. The resistance of slaves was a reminder to slaveholders that their slaves were not naturally adapted to their enslavement, and that to treat them as slaves was to treat some human beings as if they were not human. But still the self-interest of slaveholders made it hard to immediately abolish slavery without great costs. And the natural tendency to tribalism made it hard for former slaveholders and former slaves to live together as equals. All of these factors--combined with the constitutional status of slavery in the United States--made the debate over slavery the deepest moral crisis in American history.

But according to my critics, such an analysis fails to explain the abolition of slavery, because it fails to see that human beings would never have recognized the immorality of slavery through their natural experience if they had not been taught that slavery was contrary to God's law. According to these critics, we know that slavery is wrong only because we know that slavery contradicts the the moral principle of universal love taught in the Bible. The teaching of Jesus that we should love our neighbors sustains a universal and disinterested love of all human beings equally, and all morality is rooted in this one divine command. The biblical teachings about the universal moral dignity of all human beings as created in God's image and about the Golden Rule as dictating that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us support this universal love teaching. Only in the light of this religious morality of the Bible could human beings finally see the immorality of slavery and then work to abolish it.

I have written about various facets of this topic many times on this blog. But recently I was reminded of it in reading the Rev. Fred A. Ross's book Slavery Ordained of God, which was first published in 1857 and reprinted this year by BiblioBazaar (Charleston, S.C.). Ross was a leading Presbyterian minister and theologian in Huntsville, Alabama, who defended Southern slavery as supported by the Bible. As Mark Noll and other scholars have noted, this was a popular position, because many Christians in the United States read the Bible as sanctioning slavery as commanded by God.

Part of the special interest that Ross's writing has is that Abraham Lincoln wrote a brief response to Ross's proslavery theology. As I noted in my recent posts on Thomas Krannawitter's new book on Lincoln, Krannawitter claims that "Lincoln proceeded to dismantle the pro-slavery theological arguments presented by Ross." But when we look at Lincoln's note on Ross, we see that Lincoln is actually evasive about the Bible on slavery: "The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation--the Bible--gives none--or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning." Lincoln then goes on to suggest that "Dr. Ross" is probably moved by selfish motives that detract from "perfect impartiality." Lincoln thus appeals to our knowledge of human nature as a ground for moral discussion rather than the Bible.

But my critics--the proponents of the divine command theory of morality--would say that we cannot recognize the immorality of slavery by purely natural experience. After all, if the slaveholder is satisfying his natural desires for dominance and wealth by exploiting slaves, why should he not think slavery is moral? To see the immorality of slavery, we must move beyond nature to some supernatural morality--the morality of divine command as expressed in the Bible.

But what about the Bible? Is the Bible clearly against slavery? If we look at the "squabble" over the Bible's meaning, can we be sure that Ross is wrong in claiming that the Bible shows God commanding that slavery is right?

Like my critics, Ross espouses a divine command theory of morality. To say that standards of right and wrong exist as natural facts independently of God's will is, Ross insists, atheism. Ross's alternative is that right and wrong are contingent products of God's will. We know what is right or wrong only because, and to the extent that, we know whether God has declared it right or wrong. And for this, we must turn to the Bible as God's revelation of His will. Therefore, we cannot know whether slavery is right or wrong except by seeing what the Bible teaches about God's will as to slavery.

And what does the Bible teach about God's will concerning slavery? The Old Testament clearly sanctions slavery. The ancient Hebrews practiced it, and God commanded it. Similarly, in the New Testament, the Christians accept slavery as practiced by the ancient Romans. Paul teaches slaves to obey their masters, just as he teaches children to obey their parents, and wives to obey their husbands. Ross goes over all the relevant biblical passages to show the endorsement of slavery.

But what about the biblical arguments of the abolitionists--arguments that appealed to the teachings about being created in God's image, about universal love, and about the Golden Rule? Ross responds to each of these arguments by showing that the Bible clearly teaches that human beings are commanded to conform to relationships of authority in which some people are to submit to the authority of their superiors. Children must submit to parents. Wives must submit to husbands. Subjects must submit to government. Slaves must submit to masters. So the teaching of universal love must be interpreted in the light of these moral obligations to submit to authority. That we are all created in God's image does not mean that we are all the same. Children need to submit to the authority of their parents, because the circumstances of children make them dependent on parental care. Such relationships of inferiors and superiors run throughout society, and they are sanctioned by God.

This leads Ross to denounce the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independence as an atheistic teaching of Thomas Jefferson that contradicts the Bible. The Bible does not teach that all human beings are born absolutely equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This teaching comes not from the Bible but from the "social compact" tradition of John Locke as adopted by atheists like Tom Paine and Jefferson.

To me, this shows how religious morality--especially biblical morality--can be unreliable, which forces us to fall back on our natural moral sense as rooted in our evolved human nature. Against this, my critics appeal to what they take to be the moral universalism of biblical religion. But this appeal to biblical morality is always vague. They never explain exactly how the Bible specifies our moral norms. And in the case of slavery, they just assume without argument that the Bible is clearly opposed to slavery, and so they never respond at all to those like Ross who support their pro-slavery position with meticulous biblical exegesis.

Lincoln saw this problem with great clarity. In the theological crisis of the Civil War, "both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

For just a few samples of the many posts I have written on this topic, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Fred Ross's book can be found at various places online. For example, here.

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