Changing Moral Sensibilities

These days statues of formerly illustrious figures are being toppled because they were slave owners or slave traders. Slavery is seen as something terrible, and anyone involved with it is regarded as morally corrupt.

And yet slavery has existed throughout human history. Why was that? Is it that only recently there has been a moral awakening, in ways there seems never to have happened in ancient Greece and Rome?

One explanation is simply that in the past life was much more difficult than it is now. Most people had to work all their lives, and only a few people lived lives of leisure. And these busy societies were slave societies, whether or not they used that term. But now, thanks entirely to technological innovation, most people don’t have to work. A lot of people can be kept unemployed all their lives. It’s the result of an economic transformation, not a moral transformation. Moral change has been driven by technological change. We no longer need slaves the way they did in Greece and Rome.

Political change also followed technological change. The larger the idle class, the more widely that decision-making is shared

It’s been a sudden transformation that’s taken place in Europe and America. Two or three centuries ago America was a colonial backwater of the British crown. The northern states were the first to industrialise, while the south remained a slave-owning agricultural region. The American civil war of 1861-65 was between northern and southern states, and centred around slavery. The industrial north defeated the slave-owning south.

WW1 was arguably a European civil war. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was a war between newly-industrialised Germany and a largely agricultural France. Prussia won, just like the American north won. And if armies on both sides numbered in millions of men, it was because millions of men no longer needed to work, and could be sent off to fight in trenches – inconceivable in wars a century or two earlier..

Such wars are inconceivable now because there now exists an economic parity, If Europe conquered the world, and established colonies all over it, it was because technologically-advanced European armies, with their cannons and muskets, were invincible. Such disparities no longer exist, Or they don’t exist in the same extremes that they once did.

Why was it that northern countries were the first to industrialise? The answer perhaps was that life was harder in the north than in the south. The easier life was in the south, the less the incentive to innovate. If life was already pretty good, why strive to improve it? Before Britain and Germany industrialised, it was countries like Spain and Portugal which were idler and wealthier, and could extend colonies all over the world.

In busy, hard-working societies there was little leisure time, little time in which people could do as they pleased. In idle, leisured societies, people could do what they liked, and think what they liked. And so people became culpable for what they did, precisely because it was freely chosen. And that’s why there’s so much moral condemnation flying around, with statues of people being torn down. Bristol’s slave-owning Edward Colston (1636 – 1721) is now seen as a monster who freely chose to enslave people, when he could easily have done otherwise. But Colston lived in a slave era not much different from ancient Greece or Rome: if he had not been a slave trader he would have been a slave. He is being judged by the standards of a time quite different from those in which he lived. The same is happening with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,

What’s called “woke” these days is perhaps nothing more than the new moral sensibility that comes with economic development and the freedom it brings. But if the newly “woke” were to somehow be transported back to ancient Rome, they would be laughed to scorn, and themselves promptly enslaved. We should be profoundly glad that we no longer live in such a world. But our modern “woke” can’t see this. They see no difference between then and now.

Our modern “woke” see life as a playground in which we can play any game we like. And for many of them that’s exactly what it is. But until very recently it was not like that at all. Until very recently life was one long round of toil for everyone except a lucky few. And if all had shared equally, there would have been no philosophers, no writers, no inventors: all would have shared the same misery. For all these things are the product of inequality, not equality.

About Frank Davis

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9 Responses to Changing Moral Sensibilities

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great post, Frank! Thanks.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’m reblogging if that’s OK

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Reblogged this on Life on an alien planet and commented:
    This is a great post by Frank Davis to my mind! It’s worth reading several times I think – loved the diagram…..enjoy!

  4. Doonhamer says:

    Slave, serf, indentured worker, work house resident, owing your soul to the company store, “trainee”, “apprentice”. wife? one of many?, concubine?
    Take your pick.

  5. Mark Jarratt says:

    A return to your usual fine form. The “woke”, an overused term yet pertinent, remain enslaved: by their own narrow myopic ill educated world view, one aspect of which is to place the risk averse morally limited elevation of so called “public health” cultism above all else.

  6. waltc says:

    Today’s woke would gladly enslave anyone with the newly-wrong “identity” or incorrect attitude (or at least put them in a penal colony to split rocks for no pay).

  7. Rose says:

    SaNOtize initiates trials of nasal spray against Covid-19 in UK
    11th January 2021

    “Canada-based SaNOtize Research and Development has initiated the clinical trials of its nasal spray against Covid-19 at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Surrey, UK.”

    “SaNOtize Nitric Oxide Nasal Spray (NONS) is designed to exterminate the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the upper airways and stop its incubation and spread to the lungs.

    The treatment is based on a natural nanomolecule called nitric oxide, produced by the human body with proven anti-microbial properties against SARS-CoV-2.

    In lab tests at Utah State University’s Antiviral Research Institute, the spray proved to be 99.9% effective in killing the virus within two minutes.”

    “At present, the SaNOtize NONS is in Phase II clinical trials throughout Canada approved by Health Canada as well as in other countries.

    University of London Institute of Cardiovascular Research at Royal Holloway director and Neurology professor Pankaj Sharma said: “The fact that a relatively easy and simple nasal spray could be an effective treatment is welcome news and offers a significant advance in our therapeutic armoury against this devastating disease.”
    https://www.clinicaltrialsarena.com/news/sanotize-trials-nasal-spray/

    The date of guilty knowledge has now past, Deborah.

    “ASH has sent a registered letter to all the UK’s leading hospitality trade employers, warning them that the “date of guilty knowledge” under the Health and Safety at Work Act is now past, and that employers should therefore know of the risks of exposing their staff to secondhand smoke. Employers who continue to permit smoking in the workplace are therefore likely to be held liable by the courts for any health damage caused.”
    https://ash.org.uk/media-and-news/press-releases-media-and-news/ash-and-thompsons-tell-employers-dont-say-you-werent-warned-over-secondhand-smoke/

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