Updated: Sep 1, 2020
America owes the descendants of slaveholders reparations for the wealth they would now have had their ancestors not been deprived of their property. Change my mind.
Slavery was a fact of life for 10,000 years. If you believe in morality-by-majority-vote, slavery was ok until the majority decided otherwise in the 1800's.
Those who invested in slaves did so in good faith expecting they would be able to use them to increase their wealth. If society decides ex post facto that slavery is bad and confiscates slaves or sets them free, aren't slaveowners or their descendants owed compensation as a sort of fifth amendment eminent domain compensation, just like the little old lady whose house the state appropriates to build a highway?
If you object to this line of thinking and say slavery was always wrong you are making a plea to something called "objective morality" - the idea that some things are right and some things are wrong no matter when or where. This idea is familiar to monotheists like Jews and Christians but vaporizes in a secular society.
This was admitted in a recent interview between Sean Carroll, an atheist theoretical physicist, and his atheist host, philosophy student Coleman Hughes, while discussing the question "Where Do Morals Come From?" Carroll stated, "for thousands of years people have tried to find an objective grounding in morality and haven't succeeded."
Not all atheists are so quick to concede the point. For example, in his book, The Moral Landscape, atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris attempts to define morality as that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures (Harris, p. 12). Philosopher William Lane Craig, however, sinks that boat by pointing out the circular logic underlying the basic premise.
This problem is central to many issues facing society. Without objective reality, anything goes, so long as it is accepted by the majority of people within a given culture at a given time. Thus, murder, rape, female genital mutilation, child marriage, honor killings, slavery, genocide, and a host of other horrors is a-ok if accepted by the majority at the time.
But as Coleman Hughes himself expressed in that podcast:
"There is something about that that is so upsetting... I... feel at a loss how to communicate with them about basic facts... I [don't] know how to bridge that gap. What would you say to someone who is a [sociopath or nihilist who says] 'I'll just steal and get away with what I can while I'm here... It's just a contest'?"
To this Carroll tellingly replies that the majority invents laws based on whatever their agreed-upon morality happens to be and jails the people who can't be convinced to play along. So we see the falsehood in "you can't legislate morality." On the contrary, all laws are the legislation of someone's morality - the question is whose?
If majority morality really is all there is, we cannot pass judgment on other cultures and people who lived in different times. We can't even feel a sense of injustice if we find ourselves deprived of life, liberty, or property because of the law. Morality is like a sports competition. We may feel bummed that "our team lost", but we can't feel wronged.
Without objective morality nothing is actually right or wrong, there are only differences of opinion. Why then are we moved to tears by great sacrifices and great tragedies? Is our sense of justice simply socially inculcated?
My daughter and I were driving together over the weekend and I mentioned the impact Ashley's Sack had on me when we visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. We both choked back tears just at its mention, overwhelmed in an instant with the depth of human tragedy and the violation of our shared humanity.
Under majority morality, nothing has lasting meaning. Ultimately, the life of Charles Manson and Mother Theresa are morally equivalent. Ashley's Sack is just an old feed sack. It's just one nine-year-old girl and her mother among billions. Move along. Nothing to see here.
Something within us however demands that objective morality exists. And objective morality requires that God exists.
That is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. The implications of God's existence are messy, confusing, and filled with more questions than answers - religious malpractice has brought about significant suffering and catastrophe throughout history.
On the other hand, objective morality gave birth to the notion of inalienable rights, freedom of speech, sovereignty of the individual, and the right to vote - ideas that have arguably done more to reduce suffering and increase prosperity than any others in history.
The road of subjective or majority morality justifies none of these ideas and is a dead-end.
Our society is a house divided. We want it both ways. We want the stability that objective morality provides without the consequences, duties, and responsibilities that flow from it. The Moral Argument for God, which is basically what I'm advocating for is further explained here, here, here, and here.
So, no, I don't believe slaveholders or their descendants deserve reparations. Nor, incidentally, do I believe reparations should be paid to the descendants of slaves many generations later. We are not capable of righting the injustices of past centuries in this way without creating further injustice, division, and resentment. We are barely capable of providing justice when a victim and perpetrator are living and all the facts are known.
The debate will continually return to this point. Dr. Henry Edward Manning was right when he said, "all human conflict is ultimately theological." We need to take seriously the question of objective morality and its implications for our politics, economics, commerce, families, and other social institutions.
What are some examples of societies that rejected objective morality in favor of subjective morality? What actions followed?
What are some examples of objective morality "malpractice", that is societies that claimed to be based on universal principles of good and evil, but corrupted them and committed atrocities any way?
What role does morality play in society and how do we effectively engage in learning, discussing, and agreeing on it?
Harris, S. (2010). The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. New York, NY: Free Press.