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01 Aug

“Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery

Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar

On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force. (It only applied in India after the 1843 Indian Slavery Act.)

There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.

This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).

The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)

Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.
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06 Aug

Daniel O’Connell and Free Speech

Daniel O'Connell [The O'Connell Centennial] (c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Daniel O’Connell [The O’Connell Centennial]
(c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Given his political philosophy, it is not surprising that Daniel O’Connell was a champion of free speech. The history of the eighteenth century in Ireland was a history of speech restricted, with all political writers from Molyneaux and Swift to Wolf Tone facing possible accusations of treason. Religious freedom was still being fought for.

O’Connell’s passion for free speech extended, as it should, to those he disagreed with. Not that he was necessarily entirely polite to them, if the following account by Wendell Phillips (1875) is to be believed:
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15 May

A Giant Among Men: Daniel O’Connell’s philosophical influences

 Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation

Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation.
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The satirical picture above (1831) from the National Portrait Gallery London depicts Daniel O’Connell approaching the Irish Channel, with Anglesey (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) and Stanley (Chief Secretary of Ireland) attempting to restrain him by a large document headed PROCLAMATION. O’Connell holds a paper on which is written “Repeal of the Union”, in his other hand a paper bearing “Agitation within the letter of the law”.The implication is that O’Connell “is a monster produced by human machinations” (more details available from the British Museum).

Depicting O’Connell as Frankenstein’s Monster is appropriate, philosophically speaking: the DoIP notes that in his early life O’Connell had been “receptive to the leading radical philosophies of the day, including the revolutionary humanism and egalitarianism of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft” (p. 255).  These two philosophers were, of course, the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Godwin’s Political Justice greatly influenced the young O’Connell regarding the nature and purpose of government. Godwin confirmed O’Connell’s abhorrence of political violence. O’Connell came to see the end of government as the happiness of the many, and since everyone was governed, everyone should participate in governing. O’Connell’s political path was set during his law training in Dublin and London from 1794-7: “in the spring of 1797 he was already a democrat in politics and a Deist in religion” (Thomas E. Hachey, Lawrence J. McCaffrey (eds) Perspectives On Irish Nationalism, University Press of Kentuckyp. 105.)

O’Connell had been converted to Deism by his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason. He rejected it after a decade as a “miserable philosophy” and returned to Catholicism. He remained radical however, seeking Catholic Emancipation from the Penal Laws (successfully, in 1829), and then repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. He insisted however that “no political change whatsoever is worth the shedding of a single drop of human blood”.

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