Utilitarianism and Human Rights

                  One of the more common responses to the question of whether there is an objective moral authority (such as God) is the objection that a society’s rules are really developed because of their utility in maintaining that society rooted in a Darwinian explanation of how they arose. They not only advocate this view, but promote it as being better ethically than the old-fashioned Christian views of objective morality. And yet, these same persons hold strong views about “social justice” (forgetting of course that everyone is for social justice, the distinctions within our society about social justice comes down to identifying and defining the concept,[1] not whether we are for it or against it). Two of the big issues involved in many “social justice” movements are the very real evils and ills of slavery and colonialism; and yet, one can ultimately either believe in utilitarian ethics on the one hand or that slavery and colonialism are wrong on the other, one cannot ultimately hold to both.


Utilitarianism and Slavery

                  Before the industrial revolution, slavery was a very useful institution. It is often forgotten that slavery was, in its initial development, a solution to serious problems. For example, one of the world’s most prolific causes of slavery was the problem of what to do with prisoners of war. One could kill the POWs or follow an old custom of wiping out all the men and boys of a city, but of course, cities have alliances with other cities, including familial and tribal ties that might lead to retaliation. One could let them go, but that gives the city the opportunity to rearm. You cannot afford as a city to maintain the costs of housing POWs indefinitely – there are no machines to make it easier to produce extra food, for example, and no pipes making it easier to transport extra water. Worse manpower will have to be diverted to guard the prisoners, making necessary production of the necessities of life even more difficult. Since wars happen regularly, the sheer number of prisoners could bankrupt a city-state, the solution then is slavery, it is more humane (at least initially) that wiping out a city, but it is relatively cost efficient.


                  The utilitarian faced with the usefulness of slavery in the ancient world might instead argue that it might have been a necessary institution, but in this country things were different. And yet, this fails to recognize the difficulties perceived by many southerners, including Thomas Jefferson; once slavery had begun, there was a high, and perhaps dangerous costs of ending the institution. One of the instigating factors in the ever more restrictive slave codes, for example, was the fear that the Haitian genocide[2] could be repeated here, even if people who have a personal stake in their work with machines improving their abilities to work are more productive than slaves, the danger to society in releasing slaves gives one pause. Slavery might be dehumanizing, but then, a utilitarian has no grounds to appeal to this factor in their deliberations. At best he can argue it is an institution which is no longer as useful in the modern day—but to do so is to also admit, circumstances may arise when this particular institution might regain its viability or necessity.


Utilitarianism and Colonialism


                  If the difficulty of opposing slavery from a societal utilitarian ideal is difficult, opposing colonialism is much worse. Britain, one of the most prolific colonial powers is the prime example. The British Empire was one of the most prolific colonial powers, boasting that the sun never set on their empire. This empire was a major part of British manufacturing power, providing raw materials at cheap rates during a time when Britain was the greatest manufacturing power in the world. This in fact kept them competitive with the United States, as our nation was naturally blessed with untapped natural resources not natively available in Britain. It also furnished and afforded Britain both the means and the need to develop what was at the time the greatest navy in the world. Her dominion also allowed her to develop a larger civilization than the size of her island allowed, and during the first world war, British troops were sustained by colonial troops; this was also the beginning of the end for the empire as dominion troops began to question why they were interested in fighting in a European war. Churchill begged for colonial troops to join the War against Germany in Europe, and former colonies were slow to answer. The process of the breaking up of the British empire was ended after the second world war, and it also brought a close to the strength of British manufacturing. and the loss of the empire was a factor in the British Navy becoming less of a factor in the Cold War period than it was during the World Wars.

Nor can they argue that this was still good because it benefited the former dominions, in the first place, from the standpoint of a utilitarian, this would not necessarily be a concern for the British people. In and of itself, the question for utilitarianism is not whether the system is kind or brutal, but whether it is effective or ineffective for preserving and growing a society. Whatever else might be said of colonialism, it certainly was effective for the British, and perhaps for many of the former dominions as well; it is difficult to argue that Kenya or Zimbabwe are better off now than before. Thus, the benefits to India and Australia do not necessarily outweigh the harms to so many others.


So where does this leave us? I am not arguing in favor of either slavery or colonialism; both were hideous institutions. Rather, the moral calculus of the utilitarian, who tries to build that ethic by appealing to an assumed Darwinian process is what must go, along with resultant growing resurgence of a new eugenics movement in the ethics departments of American universities. While such an explanation is interesting, it breaks down when we start examining it; Darwinian views of society cannot explain ending slavery in the West or ending colonial oppression. In fact, the utilitarian builds a case that could, potentially, see these two evils revisiting the west in response to some future crises.

Nor can anyone truly argue that this is true of Christianity as well (playing a game of “tit for tat”). While some Christians historically participated in both, neither is possible from a strictly Christian worldview. Christianity values not just societies, but individuals as the handiwork of God, made in His image. Jesus is recorded (in Matthew 19) as noting that the Old Testament law itself allowed divorce; this was not because divorce was morally good, but because Israel, being human, would not receive the covenant if allowances were not made; instead the law mitigated some of the damage of the institution. Because Jesus argued this from a “state of creation” argument, it would seem that this would apply to slavery, as well (since just as man was made in a united pair, man was made free). It is difficult to reconcile the racist undertones of colonialism or 19th century slavery with Paul’s epistles. Thus, Christians participating in the cruelties of colonialism or in slavery were what I have elsewhere termed “inconsistent monsters,” because their actions are inconsistent with the nature of Christian theology and thought.

[1]Many on the left, for example, are strong advocates of a Socialist state in the name of social justice, but libertarians, following Ayn Rand, will argue against socialism, because the system is “unjust;” often comparing socialism to slavery.

[2]The Southern response, of course, was not a rational one. If you are afraid that you’re slaves will grow angry, rise up, and murder your family, then how is it rational to use increasingly repressive measures which will only stoke the anger which would begin the violence you are trying to avert? Or as Jesus noted it is wiser to make peace with one who has something against you rather than to have him take you to court, an seize your properties.