Making Sense of Moral Change

Christopher Leslie Brown

A conversation about abolitionism, moral progress, and the pitfalls of historical counterfactuals.

Asterisk: Your book Moral Capital is about why the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain happened in the late 1780s and not earlier. Would you mind briefly walking through the thrust of that argument?

Christopher: While it’s not easy to boil down the entire book, essentially, there’s a group of people who gather in the late 1780s and commit themselves to convincing British authorities to abolish Britain’s slave trade. The book explains how that group came together, who they were and why they chose that particular issue. The broad answer is that the circumstances of the American Revolution and its aftermath created an environment with new political, moral and cultural values that did not exist before. I don’t argue that the American Revolution caused the antislavery movement, but that it created the conditions that made the movement possible.

A: The American Revolution politicizes it.

C: Exactly right.

A: In the 1770s, America and Britain both placed the blame for slavery on each other. American patriots blamed British slave merchants. The British blamed American plantation owners. Yet despite that, very little changed in the short term.

C: What that indicates to me is that there was recognition on both sides that slavery was a problem. You can’t put blame on somebody for something if you don’t think there’s something blameworthy happening. So while there’s a collective acknowledgment on both sides that slavery is morally and ethically questionable, that gets weaponized. There’s a schoolyard quality to it: It’s not my fault, it’s your fault. But I think we can recognize those arguments were, in one form or another, guilty consciences at work.

A: That makes me think about a fact I found surprising. You have many examples of people who, when they are exposed to information about the Atlantic slave trade, responded in a way that seems normal to our modern sensibilities. They’re shocked, they’re horrified, they see slavery as evil. But then this doesn’t translate to any action on their part. There’s a disconnect.

C: I think one of the main contributions of the book is to explore the gap between values, ideals and principles and feeling compelled to act on them. That gap is an idea I’m very committed to. It came out of my reflections on what I regard as everyday ethical and moral experience: We may hold certain ideas and values, but it can be very difficult to align our lives with our values. People often only do it selectively or partially.

Ideals are just that — ideals. They’re not about the lives we live every day. We see this in our own lives all the time. We’re exposed to a piece of negative or troubling news and we think “Isn’t that terrible?” But then we go about our days. We go to sleep at night having chosen, for one reason or another, not to act.

In other scholarship on slavery, authors have tended to assume that once ideas and values are established, you can make sense of why people acted. Moral Capital is about showing just how wide the space is between holding a view and acting on it. My own view is that it’s actually unusual when people are mobilized around their notion of what is ethical. I think the more common experience is to find ways to justify things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable because it’s hard to know how to act on them.

A: Antislavery sentiment is widespread by the 1780s — and perhaps even earlier. Can you describe that history?

C: It doesn’t require a great deal of moral or ethical insight to see that treating a human being as a thing, not a person, is wrong. Just about every sort of spiritual, ethical or moral system has described slavery in one form or another as “against nature.”

But historically, people also thought of slavery as a product of civilization and therefore found ways to justify it. They created ways to explain, for example, why specific groups of people should be enslaved, or why a particular system of slavery is justified, even a form of progress over a previous system. Anybody reflecting on this (and this is true in any of the times where slavery has been predominant) can see that slavery is wrong, but they would also see that that’s how the world works.

I’ve always thought that the best analogy is how we regard eating meat. With modern science and the ability to manage food systems, we can nourish ourselves without killing animals. We also know that eating animals is unethical. We’re doing something cruel and unnecessary. But we do it because that’s just what we do. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if 30, 50 or 120 years from now, people look back on this time period and ask, “What was wrong with these people? They must have been like moral infants. They must not have realized this is a cruel way to treat animals.” But we know it perfectly well. It’s just what we do. I see slavery similarly: cruelty and brutality backed by all sorts of justifications that are built into the age.

A: I don’t eat pork or chicken for animal welfare reasons. And the line of thinking that convinced me to actually do this was that if I was alive in the 18th century, I’d want to be the kind of person who’s boycotting sugar.

C: Right. A lot of this functions in part because the cruelty, the brutality — you might even say the inhumanity — is invisible to us. Meat simply shows up in a store or on a plate. We’re not confronted with its creation. That’s one reason why the attack on the slave trade focused on making visible what everybody knew but didn’t want to think about.

A: As we know, at some point, attitudes do begin to shift. The 18th century saw the emergence of new ways of thinking about morality as a result of, for example, the Enlightenment, the rise of humanism, a greater attention to sentiment and even evangelical Christianity. How did these impact thinking about morality? And do you think these developments were genuinely new?

C: I do. When I wrote the book, I was more skeptical about this line of thought than I am now. I think that there is a notable impact of those emerging worldviews that deepened the antislavery biases that already existed.

First, there’s a push against certain legal explanations of slavery. Specific legalistic ways of thinking about the grounding for slavery come under withering attack in the second half of the 18th century. That makes a difference. Second, there’s a new value assigned to emotional response — a newly positive association with deeply intense feeling, as opposed to regarding emotions as something to control or contain. Those cultural developments are significant.

A: Can you expand a little bit on this new relationship to legalism?

C: One justification for slavery in the Americas was that those who were enslaved had been captured in a “just” war and that slavery was therefore a “just” substitute for death. That rather than being killed on the battlefield, lives were turned over to their captors. Essentially, that the enslaved had been spared. This is a notion which is in Roman law historically and was prominent especially throughout the Spanish American context.

One of the things that happens in the middle of the 18th century is that this idea of slavery as a substitute for death or captivity grows to be regarded as ridiculous. It becomes treated as a fiction — and a convenient fiction at that. That’s a big piece of the change.

A: This change that’s happening in the late 18th century seems to be coming from every direction. There are people whose antislavery sentiment is an expression of enlightened, humanistic thought about human society. There are people for whom it is an expression of their desire to either prop up or attack the British Empire. And still for others it’s because they’re deeply Christian.

C: One reason why antislavery becomes a movement is because it has value for very different groups of people who, in one way or another, see it as a vehicle for advancing broader issues that concern them.

With the exception of Anthony Benezet, I don’t think there is anyone who, in their opposition to slavery, did not have some other purpose in mind that mattered as much or even more to them. That doesn’t make them insincere. It just means that when people are doing things, they’re usually bringing all of themselves to it.

A: What do you see as the common threads between all of these different ideological and cultural factions?

C: First is the fundamental discomfort with the enslavement of other people. There’s an important cultural difference between Europe and the Americas. European settlers in America are conscious about developing societies that are different from European societies. That divergence ends up having political implications for both sides, especially once the relations between become so fraught.

The other thing I think is worth saying (although this is more contextual than it is circumstantial) is that the slave trade just explodes in the middle decades of the 18th century. I’m not a big believer of threshold explanations. I don’t think you can say that at a certain level it necessarily becomes a moral and political issue. But there’s no question that the movement against the slave trade emerges at the trade’s height, not at a point where it was declining in some form or fashion or was becoming less useful strategically. It emerges in the context of a flourishing commerce.

A: At the core of the movement to abolish the slave trade are the Quakers. They provide a lot of the motive force and a lot of the organizational force. What makes the Quakers so special?

C: One thing that makes the Quakers special is their independence. The Quakers develop a set of practices and values that are quite distinct from their neighbors. They take pleasure in this distinctiveness and they enforce it. A key feature of Quaker distinctiveness is that they never develop anything like a theological orthodoxy. That’s different from most other Christians and other religions in the Western world. For the Quakers, there’s no one set of beliefs that one has to subscribe to.

Instead, Quakers hold a set of values — like peace or the universal access to the Inner Light. 1 As a result, it’s easier for changes to emerge from within Quaker life than it is in other systems where hierarchies serve as gatekeepers to what can be said. There are always dissenters in every tradition, but Quakers make more room for dissenters than others do. In addition, the Quakers, from their founding, have a real ambivalence about wealth and hold a hostility to violence and to war. Slavery produces an enormous amount of wealth. And slavery can’t operate without the regular practice of violence.

But, as most people know, Quakers were slaveholders. Quakers owned slaves from the very moment they arrived in the Americas. But when purists within the Society of Friends began to take the view that slaveholding is un-Quaker, they were able to exercise influence, which is unusual in other religious denominations. It became a kind of purity test for the Quakers. Initially, what Quakers were concerned with was reinforcing the specifics of their religious witness. Withdrawing from the slave system was a way of reinforcing what it meant to be a Quaker. Then they decided, for reasons that have to do with the political culture around the American Revolution, to carry that witness out into the world. But initially, Quakers were trying to reinforce a collective identity.

A: And this goes back to another major theme of the book: that there is a false dichotomy between sincere activism and self-interested activism. Abolitionists were quite sincerely horrified by slavery and motivated to end it, but their fight for abolition was not entirely altruistic. They were also benefiting, socially, from the fight.

C: This is one of my deepest convictions. I don’t think it gets enough attention. There’s been a way of writing about abolition, at least until Moral Capital, as if people woke up in the morning as abolitionists, went about their day as abolitionists, and fell asleep as abolitionists — that they maintained a consistent antislavery identity. But that’s not how anybody lives their life. People had to come to the issue for one reason or another, and it had to relate to the other things that mattered to them. The issue of slavery was connected to the other things that abolitionists were interested in. With the exception of Anthony Benezet, 2 I don’t think there is anyone who, in their opposition to slavery, did not have some other purpose in mind that mattered as much or even more to them.

That doesn’t make them insincere. It just means that when people are doing things, they’re usually bringing all of themselves to it. They’re bringing their social networks, their personal experience, their hang ups, their preoccupations. The search for the perfectly selfless person really misses what is in fact a complex set of motivations that move people to act. Everyone operates between these poles of selflessness and self-interest. It’s in that space that motivations emerge and decisions get made.

This diagram of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship was created in 1787 and widely copied and distributed by abolitionists. The image illustrates how enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas and depicts a slave ship loaded to its full capacity — 454 people in the hold. Thomas Clarkson commented that the “print seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it, and was therefore instrumental, in consequence of the wide circulation given it, in serving the cause of the injured Africans.”
British Library

A: This is actually something I think about a fair amount in the context of effective altruism. Like any other community of people who are trying to do good in the world, you can get more respect and status if you’re living out the community’s values.

C: Yes. I think Thomas Clarkson 3 is the most important person in England for the antislavery movement from beginning to end. When the movement is established, he’s 23 or 24 years old and he thinks this is how he’s going to make his name for himself. This is how he’s going to distinguish himself.

If you decide to lead a movement, you have to think of yourself as someone who can lead a movement. You have to have grandiosity and a notion of having a capacity for unusual efficacy and leadership if you’re going to do something like that. I don’t see how you can be a major actor in the world if you’re not on an ego trip.

A: There’s a great line you have about Clarkson, that he’s obsessed with finding proof of his own genius. 4 I know a lot of people like that, and many of them have done an enormous amount of concrete good.

C: Exactly. Part of what I’m trying to do is to recognize — even destigmatize — that sort of self-absorption because those are the people who make unusual impacts in the world. They’re often not pleasant to be around, but you have to recognize the balance of virtues and vices. Even thinking about it on a local level, imagine someone who says, “I can run for mayor and change the city,” or, “I can take over as principal and make it the best high school in the district.” To say that is to say that you have something special that other people don’t have or won’t act on. Those two ideas can’t be separated. That sort of self-importance often rubs us the wrong way, but one of the purposes of the book is to make clear that heroism is grounded in some of the mucky stuff of being human.

A: And if you are an enslaved person, I cannot imagine that you care what motivates Thomas Clarkson.

C: I think that’s right. Although there’s one thing I think often gets a little bit overlooked, and I didn’t make enough of this in the book: None of these people took an interest in or really asked enslaved people what they wanted for themselves.

This image, from Thomas Clarkson’s 1808 book The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, illustrates the intellectual streams which flowed together into the abolitionist movement. The top right of the map shows Quaker activists, including Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Lay, while the top left shows Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau. Clarkson himself can be seen at the bottom right.
Liberty Fund Network

A: Even Benezet?

C: He’s at the outer edge of it. It’s a good point. Let’s just put it this way — he didn’t write about it. He did not try to ventriloquize and say, “Here’s what enslaved people are saying.” He did not write “Here’s what I was told.” He was an advocate with a constituency, but speaking and pushing for what he thought. None of the abolitionists actually thought that slaves should be not only free, but fully equal and able to do whatever they wanted. Nearly all of the perspectives on abolition still expected enslaved persons to work — just without slavery. Antislavery did not mean pro-Black or pro-African, and certainly not anti-racist. You can oppose slavery and still believe in racial inferiority, as just about everyone did in some form or fashion on the European side.

A: Changing the subject — The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade is founded in 1787, and the slave trade is abolished in 1807. And then it’s another 10 years before activists start even trying to get emancipation for existing slaves. Why is there that gap?

C: There was an expectation that once the slave trade was abolished, it would lead to a steady decline of slavery itself. That didn’t happen. Initially there was a fear that British slaveholders in the Caribbean were smuggling in enslaved men and women by other means. So there developed a proposal to create a national census or registration, so authorities could make sure that the slave population wasn’t increasing.

Then you had a phase of amelioration: that slavery needs to be made kinder and more gentler. Then when the Caribbean slaveholders didn’t cooperate with that idea in any meaningful way, you start getting pushes for first gradual emancipation, then immediate emancipation.

Some thought that abolishing the Atlantic slave trade would be a first step toward emancipation, but that was not how the vast majority of the abolitionists talked about it. Many of them weren’t thinking about it that way. What they thought it would do is start a virtuous cycle that would lead to the changes they hoped for.

The image of a kneeling slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” was designed by Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery firm as a seal for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, and soon became an international symbol of the abolitionist movement. It appeared in books and pamphlets, on jewelry, snuffboxes, and ceramics, and in a series of medallions made by Wedgewood made for members of the society.
Library of Congress

A: I wanted to get to the topic of historical contingency. This is something you talk about a lot, and of course it’s very relevant for anyone thinking about how — or if — we can influence the long-term future. What do you think happens with the abolitionist movement if there is no American Revolution, or if the American Revolution gets pushed back?

C: I don’t think abolition would have been politicized in the same way without the American Revolution. That’s really the main issue. There’s a certain kind of conspiracy of silence around slavery in the British Empire because it benefits everyone except for enslaved people. It’s only when a divide forms within the political elite over what’s happening in America that it becomes useful to project and assign blame somewhere else. I think it’s contingent in that sense.

It’s possible there could have been a push for gradual reforms, but the sensitivity of slaveholders in North America and the Caribbean would likely have been too high. The idea that anyone in London could have any say over slaveholding would have been too threatening. Given the way that North Americans responded to the Tea Act — which, it’s worth remembering, actually lowered the duties on tea — you can only imagine what their reaction would have been if the British government had started putting rules down about how Americans could treat enslaved people. The movement was premised on a division.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible that some of the Northern states might have acted on their own. Massachusetts, in particular, very well could have decided that they were going to outlaw slaveholding.

A: And then by 1850s, ’60s, ’70s, places in Spanish America and the rest of the world are beginning to outlaw slavery — how does that fit into this story?

C: Today, no one argues we should restore slavery. It’s illegal everywhere on the planet, even though it operates in the shadows. There’s a consensus by the 21st century that slavery is beyond the pale. But I don’t think that was inevitable. I’m not saying that it was unlikely or highly contingent, but I think it’s incorrect to think about abolition in the Americas or today’s global consensus against slavery as if it’s part of the natural process of modernization. Marx, for instance, treated slavery as a stage in economic development that advanced societies would grow out of. I don’t think any of that is true.

I think slavery could have lasted well into the 20th century, despite the advantages of industrialization and mechanization. I don’t think abolition would have occurred without the pressure and power of the British government’s backing. No countries abolished slavery independent of the example or the force of the British Empire. Britain in the 19th century was the most powerful and influential nation in the world.

A: So these late 18th century British activists really do have this globally outsized impact.

C: The movement became an international force after 1815, following Napoleon’s defeat and Britain’s emergence as a global superpower. Britain abolished not only their own slave trade, but the global slave trade. Absent that, there’s likely no domestic movement for the abolition of any of the other slave trades — for example in Portugal, France or the Netherlands. Those governments are forced to do it because they’re faced with British diplomatic or military pressure. That’s why the British case is so important.

A: This implies then that there is also the potential for changes in the US to be overly impactful.

C: We obviously have the largest global military footprint. Our economy has an outsize impact. In one way or another, every country has to maintain some relationship with the United States and American norms. It was the same with Britain in the 19th century. In the same way that the United States “exports democracy,” Britain exported antislavery — even if that was somewhat contradictory to the reality on the ground.

A: Is there anything else that you think is relevant that I should be asking you that you want to bring up?

C: Counterfactuals are tricky things. I know effective altruism is in part a forward-looking enterprise. On the one hand, I do believe that historians have a special contribution to make in thinking about how the world that we inhabit might evolve. On the other hand, I also really believe our gifts are retrospective, not prospective. One of the purposes of retrospection is to attend to the individual and the specific.

I believe, philosophically, in the butterfly effect. Small differences can make large changes. I really do believe that. I think if Thomas Clarkson had died of smallpox when he was six, we might still have had an antislavery movement in Britain, but it would have evolved differently. It would look different.

I do believe that the peculiarities of individuals make a massive difference. But I don’t think you can say how things would have played out in the counterfactual. There’s no way to know.

  1. Quakers believe that silence and stillness enable people to access what they refer to as Inner Light, which shows them truth about their lives and how they should act to align themselves with God’s will.
  2. Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) was a American Quaker abolitionist who founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, one of the world’s first antislavery organizations. “Human equality to Benezet was an ontological fact rather than a philosophical doctrine or maxim. He faithfully exhibited in practice the social and moral obligations that followed from these values.” Moral Capital, 397.
  3. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was an early organizer against the slave trade in the British Empire. He helped found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade and was instrumental in the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended British trade in slaves.
  4. Moral Capital, 439.

Christopher Leslie Brown teaches history at Columbia University. He is the author of Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, which was awarded the 2007 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

Published November 2022

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