Monday, June 11, 2007

Slavery, Southern Conservatism, and Darwinian Natural Right

"Slavery is a conservative institution."

"Human slavery is bad ground for conservatives to make a stand upon."

The first quotation is from Thomas R. R. Cobb's Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States (1858). The second is from Russell Kirk's Conservative Mind (1953). A Darwinian conception of natural right supports Kirk against Cobb.

Kirk's remark comes in his section on the "Southern conservatism" of John Randolph and John C. Calhoun. Kirk argues that their Southern tradition of conservatism has never recovered from their imprudence in defending slavery. Elsewhere, Kirk praises Abraham Lincoln for his prudent statesmanship in his handling of slavery and the Civil War. But Kirk never explains exactly why the proslavery position was imprudent. I would say that Lincoln was a prudent statesman because he never lost slight of the evil of slavery as violating natural right, while Calhoun defended slavery as a "positive good." This moral blindness on Calhoun's part crippled him in a way that prevented him from being a truly prudent statesman.

Calhoun's "positive good" defense of slavery is elaborated in Cobb's book, which is the only legal treatise on slavery written by a Southerner. Cobb was a prominent lawyer and law professor in Georgia who helped to write the Confederate Constitution. As a summary of the proslavery position, Cobb argues that slavery conforms to both natural law and divine law. Slavery is natural because negroes are natural slaves who are physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to whites, and thus the enslavement of negroes improves them and makes them happy. He finds a counterpart to negro slavery in the slavery of ants. "It is a fact, well known to entomologists, and too well established to admit of contradiction, that the red ant will issue in regular battle array, to conquer and subjugate the black or negro ant, as he is called by entomologists. And, that these negro slaves perform all the labor of the communities into which they are thus brought, with a patience and an aptitude almost incredible." Cobb does recognize the humanity of the negro as "a man, endowed with reason, will, and accountability." And yet he accepts the arguments of the scientific racists who claimed that the black race was naturally inferior in its physical, intellectual, and moral traits.

By contrast, Charles Darwin was a fervent opponent of slavery who rejected the attempts of the scientific racists to justify slavery as natural. Pierre Huber was the first naturalist to observe and write about slavery among ants in 1810. In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin reported his own studies of ant slavery and offered a theory of how it could have evolved by natural selection. But he did not see this as a natural counterpart to human slavery.

In my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, I have suggested that considering the similarities and differences between ant slavery and human slavery illuminates the biological nature of slavery. The similarities indicate that slavery among ants and humans is rooted in a natural inclination to social parasitism in which slavemakers exploit their slaves through coercion and manipulation. The differences indicate that the uniquely human opposition to slavery is rooted in a natural moral sense that resists exploitation, because human beings are naturally inclined to detect and punish exploitation. In The Descent of Man, Darwin gives his account of how that natural moral sense evolved as part of human nature.

Some of the opponents of Darwinian moral naturalism insist that morality requires a transcendent source in religious belief. But in this debate over slavery, we see that such religious belief--at least as coming from Biblical revelation--does not provide us reliable moral guidance. Cobb was able to show that the Bible--both the Old Testament and the New Testament--sanctioned slavery. (Recent books by Mark Noll and Eugene Genovese have surveyed the history of Southern proslavery arguments based on the Bible.) If the Bible cannot resolve such a moral debate, then we have to appeal to our natural moral experience that does not depend on religious belief. Darwinian science indicates how such moral experience might be founded in our evolved human nature.

The prudent statesmanship desired by conservatives requires some standard of natural right as providing the moral compass for political judgment about great questions such as slavery. Darwinian natural right sustains such statesmanship.

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