Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jefferson's Biological Science of Equality, Race, and Slavery

I have argued that Thomas Jefferson's affirmation of human equality of natural rights and his condemnation of slavery as a violation of those natural rights can be confirmed by Darwinian biological science.  My reasoning for this is elaborated in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, and some of what I will write here comes from that chapter.

A common objection to my argument is that it commits the naturalistic fallacy by mistakenly trying to derive moral values from scientific facts.  Some people see Jefferson himself committing the same fallacy in assuming that the moral principle of human equality could be studied by science as a biological fact, which creates a contradiction in Jefferson's writings insofar as his natural science of racial inequality contradicts his moral teaching about human equality as a "self-evident truth."  This position has been argued, for example, by Daniel Boorstin (1948) and Jean Yarbrough (1991).

Against this position, I have contended that there is no naturalistic fallacy in seeing natural moral judgment as based on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural moral laws.  I have elaborated this thought in some posts herehere, and here.

The same sort of reasoning is implicit in Jefferson's writings about equality, race, and slavery.  Although readers of the Declaration of Independence have often criticized it for not condemning racial slavery as violating the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal," and endowed by their creator with natural rights, Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration actually contained a passage condemning the King for supporting the British slave trade:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another" (Jefferson 1984, 22). 
Jefferson reports that this clause was struck out because some of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia wanted to continue the foreign importation of slaves, and because some people in the northern colonies had engaged in the commercial shipping of slaves.

Notice that slaves are identified as "men," and thus entitled to the "rights of life and liberty" that belong to all men.  Notice also the reference to the "market where MEN should be bought & sold."  Since female as well as male slaves were sold on the market, this must imply that "men" is being used in a generic sense to include women as well as men.  If so, then the affirmation in the Declaration that "all men are created equal" must include slaves and women.

Enslaving human beings is said to be a "cruel war against human nature itself."  This appeal to human nature as the moral standard for natural rights appears often in Jefferson's writings, where one repeatedly finds language about "the rights of human nature" and the abolition of slavery as "a complete emancipation of human nature" (1972, 87; 1984, 116).

But since human nature shows great variation across human individuals and human racial groups, we might wonder whether that natural human variation denies any idea of natural human equality.  If some individuals and some races are naturally superior to others in their physical and mental capacities, then why doesn't that natural superiority give them a natural right to rule over those that are inferior?  If there really are natural slaves and natural masters, then why isn't there a natural law of slavery as being best both for the slaves and for the masters?

Beginning a few years after Jefferson's death in 1826, some proslavery Southerners began to argue that far from being a "cruel war against human nature itself," slavery could be according to nature if a naturally superior race enslaved a naturally inferior race, and such natural slavery could be a "positive good" for both slaves and masters.  After all, Aristotle had argued for there being natural slaves, and modern biological science seems to have confirmed that some races are naturally fitted for being enslaved, just as some ants naturally enslave other ants (Calhoun 1992, 467-69, 473-76; Cobb 1999, 8-52).

In his famous "Cornerstone Speech" of 1861, Alexander Stephens, the newly appointed Vice President of the Confederacy, rejected Jefferson's principle of natural equality--including the equality of races--as an error that had been refuted by modern science.  He declared that the Confederacy had a better foundation:
"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.  This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science" (Stephens 2003, 91).
Although Stephens thought this new science of racial inequality denied Jefferson's teaching of equality, some of the proslavery thinkers found support for their position in some of Jefferson's writings--particularly Query 14 of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, where he studies the races as "subjects of natural history" and concludes with the "suspicion" that the blacks are "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."  A few years ago, when Paul Finkelman edited a collection of documents representing "proslavery thought in the Old South," he began his collection with some passages from Query 14 of the Notes on Virginia, which he described as Jefferson's "discussion of slavery in which he set out many of the arguments that Southerners would develop into a full blown proslavery defense in the first half of the nineteenth century" (Finkelman 2003, 47).

This is why Jean Yarbrough criticizes Jefferson for failing to see how his biological science or "natural history" of race in Query 14 of the Notes contradicts the self-evident truths of the Declaration.  She complains that Jefferson should have seen that the self-evident truths of the Declaration depend on axiomatic moral values that are incompatible with, and morally superior to, any scientific understanding of the natural facts of human nature.

Yarbrough says that the Declaration's "self-evident truths are those necessary principles which do not depend upon experience or scientific validation for their existence" (1991, 92).  "For once we know what a man is, i.e., a rational being with the capacity for moral action, it is self-evident that blacks are men.  Any attempt to prove or demonstrate this proposition would negate its self-evident character" (1991, 95).
"Underlying the Declaration's principles is the argument that, despite the evident intellectual, moral, and physical inequalities which Nature and Nature's God have scattered among human beings, all people are equal in the most decisive respect, namely, the possession of certain inalienable rights  For these rights are rooted in certain universal passions, which reason helps each individual to direct and secure.  Thus, no one may justly deprive another of these rights; nor may he rule over another without the other's consent" (1991, 95).
But then when Jefferson expresses  his "suspicion" that blacks are "inferior to whites in the endowments of both the body and the mind," Yarbrough says that "the self-evident moral propositions of the Declaration are seriously undermined" (1991, 98).  Here she contradicts herself.  If the self-evident truths "do not depend upon experience or scientific validation for their existence," then they cannot be undermined by any conclusions someone might infer about racial differences from experience or scientific study.  On the one hand, Yarbrough argues that the moral values of human equality of rights are axiomatic or necessary truths that have nothing to do with the empirical facts of human nature; and so that blacks are equal in their manhood is self-evident, because they satisfy the definition of manhood as having rationality with the capacity for moral action.  On the other hand, Yarbrough worries that any empirical claim that blacks are inferior in their capacities for reason and morality undermines the principle of human equality, because "scientific proof that blacks as a race are by nature intellectually inferior to whites might render their membership in the human community precarious" (1991, 103).

In The Federalist (number 31), Alexander Hamilton speaks about the self-evident axioms of Euclidean geometry--that "the whole is greater than its parts; things equal to the same are equal to one another; two straight lines cannot enclose a space; and all right angles are equal to each other."  So, that "all men are created equal" might be axiomatically true, in the sense that all men are equally men--a tautological truth.  Or we might say that men equal in their membership in the human species are equal to one another.

But then sorting animals into their species is an empirical question.  So, for example, following Linnaeus, Jefferson has to decide what traits separate the human species from the orangutans, who are close relatives of human beings.  If the distinctly human traits are rationality and moral emotions, then it's an empirical matter to identify the minimal levels of intellectual and moral capacity required for membership in the human species as the natural ground for human equality.

Due to their capacities for moral judgment and moral passions, human beings cannot properly be treated as domesticated animals or natural slaves adapted by their nature to serve their master's will, because insofar as human beings demand reciprocity in their social relations, they will never become mere extensions of a master's will.  Unlike domesticated animals, human slaves will judge the exploitative character of their enslavement, and their moral passions of resentment will motivate them to resist such exploitation.  Natural equality does not mean natural identity of capacities or achievements.  Natural human equality requires only an equality in those minimal moral dispositions that incline human beings to resist exploitation by other human beings and to demand a social order based on reciprocal and mutually beneficial exchange.

As the most dramatic expression of that moral resistance to exploitation, human slaves will run away from their masters or engage in violent insurrections.  One can see this in the history of the first slave societies, such as ancient Mesopotamia, which has been the subject of a previous post.

Jefferson saw this, because he indicated that even if it were shown that blacks were naturally inferior in the "endowments of the head," they were clearly well endowed in "the heart"--that is to say, in that "moral sense" of right and wrong that is as much a part of human nature as tasting and feeling (1972, 93, 143).  Although they are unequal in many respects, blacks are equal to whites in their moral sense, and thereby equal in their moral claim to their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Wills 1978, 218-28).

It was commonly observed, however, that black slaves were utterly shameless in stealing from their masters; and many masters confessed that they took it for granted that a large portion of a plantation's production would be lost to theft by their slaves (Genovese 1976, 599-609).  Many slaveholders took this as evidence that the blacks lacked any sense of morality.  And yet Jefferson argued just the opposite:
"That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense.  The man, in whose favor no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favor of others.  When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mesre arbitgrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience; and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of propert y were not framed for him as well as his slave?  And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who would slay him?" (1972, 142)
Jefferson added: "Notwithstanding these considerations, which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity" (1972, 142-43).

Far from showing their lack of a moral sense, slaves show the clarity of their moral judgment in taking the goods of their masters.  The slaveholders themselves recognizes that the laws of property, like any social norms that claim moral sanction, must allow "reciprocation of right."  Laws that deny reciprocity by promoting the interests of one group at the expense of another are grounded in force, not right.  The fundamental purpose of the laws of property is to enforce the rights and duties of reciprocal exchange.  Therefore, since the master deprives the slave of all property--even his self-ownership--the slave is justified by the moral logic of reciprocity in taking the master 's property whenever he can.

The precise moral logic of the slaves was evident in the fact that they distinguished between "taking" goods  from the master, which was permissible, and "stealing" goods from other slaves, which was prohibited.  They recognized the importance of respecting property rights among themselves as a condition of social order founded on reciprocity.  Yet they reasoned that if slaves were the absolute property of the master, as required by the logic of slavery, then slaves could not be properly said to "steal" from their masters.  After all, a slave who eats some of his master's corn is only transforming the master's property from one form to another, just as when a slave feeds the master's corn to the master's chickens (Genovese 1976, 602).

Thus, again, the slaves expose the contradiction of slavery in treating the slave as a mere extension of the master's will, which denies the humanity of the slave and thus also denies that the slave can have any moral duties towards the master.  The slaves show that they are not the inferior beings they are supposed to be; they do this by acting according to the principle of reciprocity as the foundation of human social life in which no human being can be the mere extension of another's will.

Although Jefferson correctly recognizes this as an expression of the human moral sense, he is mistaken, I believe, in regarding this as purely an act of the "heart" rather than the "head."  Certainly, the moral principle of reciprocity does rest upon passions or sentiments such as anger, indignation, and gratitude.  But still, reason prompts and directs those passions.  The subtle logic of the slaves in distinguishing "taking" from masters and "stealing" from other slaves, for example, manifests an intellectual capacity for moral judgment that is uniquely human.  So although all blacks do not have to be absolutely equal to all whites in their rational faculties to be equal in their moral sense, blacks must at least have that minimal ability for rationally judging principles such as reciprocity and for feeling the moral sentiments that enforce those principles.

If there were human beings--perhaps an entire race--that lacked that minimal level of rational and emotional capacity, so that they could not grasp the moral logic of principles like reciprocity, such people would be natural slaves.  Jefferson's argument seems to be that, with the possible exception of those who suffer from some abnormal mental disorder, all human beings have the minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that support a human moral sense.  Human beings recognize the exploitation in slavery as violating the moral principle of reciprocity, and in response to such exploitation, they feel moral passions such as anger and shame.

Jefferson repeated this thought in the last letter he wrote, only a few days before his death on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  Speaking of the Declaration, he wrote:
"May it be to the world, what believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings land security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God" (1984, 1517).
Using an image from Algernon Sydney's Discourses Concerning Government (1990, 511), Jefferson here indicates that human beings are not like those few species of animals that are naturally fitted for being domesticated by human beings for serving their human masters.  Although "monkish ignorance and superstition" have for long persuaded human beings that the great multitude of people are naturally born to serve a small ruling class, whose rule is favored "by the grace of God," now "the light of science" is opening the eyes of all to the scientific truth that human beings are not born to live as domesticated animals or natural slaves.

As already indicated, however, there was a long tradition of scientific racism in the nineteenth century that seemed to show that the "light of science" was actually proslavery.  Scientists such as Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott argued that measurements of the cranial sizes of human skulls showed that the white race had the largest brains of any racial group, thus explaining the superior intellectual and moral capacities of the white race.  Nott used this as evidence that the Caucasian and Negro races were actually two separate species (Morton 1839, 1844; Nott 1981).

Contrary to what is asserted by modern scholars like Boorstin and Yarbrough, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass did not believe that the moral values of human equality could be held to be true without any grounding in the scientific facts of human nature, because they recognized that if the racial science of Morton and Nott was valid, the argument against slavery would be weakened if not completely refuted.  Fundamental to the critique of slavery, Douglass believed, is the premise that "human rights stand upon a common basis . . . because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature."  This premise would be denied by the scientific claim that blacks and whites belong to separate species of unequal abilities.  Douglass observed: "Let it be once granted that the human race are of multitudinous origin, naturally different in their moral, physical, and intellectual capacities, and at once you make plausible a demand for classes, grades, and conditions, for different methods of culture, different moral, political, and religious institutions, and a chance is left for slavery, as a necessary institution" (1955, 2:295, 2:307).

Charles Darwin's evolutionary science confirmed Douglass's affirmation of the unity of the human species and Jefferson's account of the universal moral sense in a way that refuted the claims of scientific racism supporting slavery.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown how Darwin's opposition to slavery influenced much of his thinking about human evolution in Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution (2009).  I have written a post on their book.


Boorstin, Daniel. 1948. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Henry Holt.

Calhoun, John C. 1992. Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun. Ed. Ross M. Lence.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Cobb, Thomas R. R. 1999. An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America. Introduction by Paul Finkelman. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Douglass, Frederick. 1955. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1972. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. William Peden. New York: Norton.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America.

Morton, Samuel G. 1839. Crania Americana. Philadelphia: John Pennington.

Morton, Samuel G. 1844. Crania Aegyptian. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 9:93-159.

Stephens, Alexander. 2003. "The Cornerstone Speech, 1861." In Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Paul Finkelman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Sidney, Algernon. 1990. Discourses Concerning Government. Ed. Thomas G. West. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

Wills, Garry. 1978. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. New York: Doubleday.

Yarbrough, Jean. 1991. "Race and the Moral Foundation of the American Republic: Another Look at the Declaration and the Notes on Virginia." Journal of Politics 53: 90-105.

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