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Even in the face of abolitionist and emancipationist movements, there’s no record, at least that I’m aware of, of slave traders or slaveholding societies saying that they had had enough and they weren’t going to do this anymore.

Slaving is as old as human history, and I think we tend to forget that it was a norm rather than an exception, and it took different shapes in different times. This is big picture, but what happens in the 19th century I really think is quite unusual, and I don’t think it’s the natural consequence of either economic forces or cultural forces.

Christopher Brown

In many ways, humanity seems to have become more humane and inclusive over time. While there’s still a lot of progress to be made, campaigns to give people of different genders, races, sexualities, ethnicities, beliefs, and abilities equal treatment and rights have had significant success.

It’s tempting to believe this was inevitable — that the arc of history “bends toward justice,” and that as humans get richer, we’ll make even more moral progress.

But today’s guest Christopher Brown — a professor of history at Columbia University and specialist in the abolitionist movement and the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries — believes the story of how slavery became unacceptable suggests moral progress is far from inevitable.

While most of us today feel that the abolition of slavery was sure to happen sooner or later as humans became richer and more educated, Christopher doesn’t believe any of the arguments for that conclusion pass muster. If he’s right, a counterfactual history where slavery remains widespread in 2023 isn’t so far-fetched.

As Christopher lays out in his two key books, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism and Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age, slavery has been ubiquitous throughout history. Slavery of some form was fundamental in Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, in much of the Islamic civilization, in South Asia, and in parts of early modern East Asia, Korea, China.

It was justified on all sorts of grounds that sound mad to us today. But according to Christopher, while there’s evidence that slavery was questioned in many of these civilisations, and periodically attacked by slaves themselves, there was no enduring or successful moral advocacy against slavery until the British abolitionist movement of the 1700s.

That movement first conquered Britain and its empire, then eventually the whole world. But the fact that there’s only a single time in history that a persistent effort to ban slavery got off the ground is a big clue that opposition to slavery was a contingent matter: if abolition had been inevitable, we’d expect to see multiple independent abolitionist movements thoroughly history, providing redundancy should any one of them fail.

Christopher argues that this rarity is primarily down to the enormous economic and cultural incentives to deny the moral repugnancy of slavery, and crush opposition to it with violence wherever necessary.

Think of coal or oil today: we know that climate change is likely to cause huge harms, and we know that our coal and oil consumption contributes to climate change. But just believing that something is wrong doesn’t necessarily mean humanity stops doing it. We continue to use coal and oil because our whole economy is oriented around their use and we see it as too hard to stop.

Just as coal and oil are fundamental to the world economy now, for millennia slavery was deeply baked into the way the rich and powerful stayed rich and powerful, and it required a creative leap to imagine it being toppled.

More generally, mere awareness is insufficient to guarantee a movement will arise to fix a problem. Humanity continues to allow many severe injustices to persist, despite being aware of them. So why is it so hard to imagine we might have done the same with forced labour?

In this episode, Christopher describes the unique and peculiar set of political, social and religious circumstances that gave rise to the only successful and lasting anti-slavery movement in human history. These circumstances were sufficiently improbable that Christopher believes there are very nearby worlds where abolitionism might never have taken off.

Some disagree with Christopher, arguing that abolitionism was a natural consequence of the industrial revolution, which reduced Great Britain’s need for human labour, among other changes — and that abolitionism would therefore have eventually taken off wherever industrialization did. But as we discuss, Christopher doesn’t find that reply convincing.

If he’s right and the abolition of slavery was in fact contingent, we shouldn’t expect moral values to keep improving just because humanity continues to become richer. We might have to be much more deliberate than that if we want to ensure we keep moving moral progress forward.

We also discuss:

  • Various instantiations of slavery throughout human history
  • Signs of antislavery sentiment before the 17th century
  • The role of the Quakers in early British abolitionist movement
  • Attitudes to slavery in other religions
  • The spread of antislavery in 18th century Britain
  • The importance of individual “heroes” in the abolitionist movement
  • Arguments against the idea that the abolition of slavery was contingent
  • Whether there have ever been any major moral shifts that were inevitable

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Milo McGuire
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


Was abolitionism inevitable?

Christopher Brown: It’s obviously a big topic and it’s one of these subjects that, by its very nature, can’t be proved or disproved. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what would have happened in the 19th century and into the early 20th century if antislavery movements had not arisen at the end of the 18th century, if the British slave trade had not been abolished in 1807, or if there had not been an international movement to suppress the slave trade through the first half of the 19th century. We don’t know. And it’s important to start from that position.

I’ve taken the view that the things that did happen that led to slave trade abolition and emancipation — given where the world had been in the 18th century — that the changes in the 19th century were not only not inevitable, but they were actually very unlikely. And I ground that in the economic strength of the Atlantic slave trade and the economic value of slavery in the 19th century. Even in the face of abolitionist and emancipationist movements, there’s no record, at least that I’m aware of, of slave traders or slaveholding societies saying that they had had enough and they weren’t going to do this anymore.

Slaving is as old as human history, and I think we tend to forget that it was a norm rather than an exception, and it took different shapes in different times. This is big picture, but what happens in the 19th century I really think is quite unusual, and I don’t think it’s the natural consequence of either economic forces or cultural forces.

Rob Wiblin: Inasmuch as one of the arguments is that it was just incredibly profitable, there was an enormous industry and enormous amount of money invested in this. A modern-day analogy might be to the oil industry, where people make arguments — often reasonable, plausible ones — that we should stop using coal or stop using oil. But it’s not inevitable that we’re going to do that anytime soon because it’s just so costly to do it. And from an economic point of view, there’s a massive industry arrayed against that notion. Do you think that’s a good parallel?

Christopher Brown: It’s not a bad comparison, just in terms of the economic logic of it. I think what also has to be said is, obviously this is changing now, but so much of the infrastructure of our lives takes fossil fuels for granted: it’s premised on the existence and the exploitation of fossil fuels. The same was true with slavery in the early modern era: it was baked into the world that emerged in the Americas in the 1500s. And to get out of that world required a degree of imagination and commitment that was really special.

And we’ll get to this, but one thing I really want to try to make clear is that a certain kind of ideals or values were not enough to make that transition — that it needed to feel useful and beneficial to really important people for that change to take place. In the same way, it’s not enough to say that the exploitation of fossil fuels is bad for the climate, bad for a lot of things — there need to be other reasons for that change. But it’s not a bad comparison, actually.

The distance between our moral intuitions and our moral actions

Christopher Brown: A lot of my work on this subject really begins from reflecting on our moral experience in everyday life. I grew up at a time in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement, where there was a lot of discussion about, “What will it take to get another movement going to sort of push the next level of equality?” And I’ve always thought that there can be too easy a linkage between, “If you just get people to think the right way, then they’ll do the right thing.”

And you can see that at the political level, but you also see it at the individual level. Just coming into my office in New York City today, it’s cold. I walked by homeless people on the street, lying on warm grates. This is true for most days in the winter in New York. I see people on the streets struggling in this way. And we walk by them — or I walk by them, I think most New Yorkers walk by them — often sometimes with the thought of, “That’s really awful. That’s really sad. It shouldn’t be this way. Maybe I should do something.” But then I’m late for work, my child is calling me, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch today. And then we go back to sleep at the end of the day, and we wake up and do the same thing.

And so I think there’s really a great distance between our moral intuitions, and even our moral commitments, and then our moral actions. I think that is something that, in the thinking about antislavery, there had been (and sometimes still is) a too-easy equation of, “Well, once people saw the problem, once they realised the humanity of Africans, once they understood the cruelty of slavery, then of course they would organise and do something about it.” And not only did it not happen that way, but it almost never happens that way.

So when the other thing happens — when there’s a movement of some kind, when there’s a commitment, when there’s a collective effort — that’s the thing that we should regard as strange, and try to make sense of, rather than the routine forms of man’s inhumanity to man, which unfortunately is all too typical, as we know.

Rob Wiblin: And I guess society as a whole only has so much bandwidth to consider various different public policy issues, various different awful things, so most stuff most of the time is mostly getting neglected. So just for that base rate reason alone, it’s the exceptional case where you get some massive moral and public policy revolution.

Christopher Brown: That’s exactly right. The routine, the everyday, is where there are all kinds of conventions that, on careful reflection, really make us ask, “Why do we do that? Why do we believe that? Why do we accept that?”

Let me give you another example from our own time that I often use in class, which I think crystallises something about how this works. It’s not difficult at all to see the moral and ethical problems with eating meat. And there is a great number of vegetarians, and vegans even — some for health reasons, but some because they really don’t like the thought of eating animals unnecessarily.

Someone like me, who eats a lot of meat: I am wholly aware of all of the ethical, really indefensible grounds for consuming meat as much as I do, and yet I do it anyway. Is it because I’m not alert? Is it because it’s conventional? I like the taste? I’m weak? Lots of people do it? There are all kinds of things around me that justify the choice, right?

It’s not hard to imagine 20, 50, 200 years from now — when the variety of food and food science options are so vast, and the problems of raising animals to eat is so difficult — that people will look back on our time and say, “What was wrong with these people? I mean, they were just eating meat all the time, and they didn’t have to? They must not have understood what they were doing.” No, we know exactly what we’re doing. We know exactly what we’re doing.

Signs of antislavery sentiment before the 17th century

Christopher Brown: Well, the first thing to say — and it’s very easy to miss this, but it’s fundamental — is that enslaved men and women did whatever they could to get out of the status of being slaves. They did that individually, and they did it collectively. So I want to be clear that in talking about antislavery today, what we’d mostly be talking about is the efforts by people who were neither slaveholders nor slaves to challenge that system. It’s quite correct to see slave rebellions and uprisings as a manifestation of an antislavery mindset. So I want to be really clear about that.

From a collective point of view, no, there are not movements as such that are aimed at the abolition of slavery itself. Now, there are moments, for example, in the mid 16th century, there’s a great debate in the Spanish court around whether the enslavement of Native Americans in Mexico and Peru and South America and the Caribbean has legal and moral legitimacy. And famously, the friar Bartolomé de las Casas, with several others, challenges whether the Crown has the right to enslave the people that they have conquered. And there are all kinds of limits that are put on in consequence, of the kinds of coercion that can be put in place.

But this is what antislavery looks like prior to the 18th century: specific challenges to specific practices among specific people, in specific moments and places. Rather than the much grander view that slavery itself everywhere as practiced is illegitimate, and therefore should be struck from the face of the Earth.

Rob Wiblin: Just to deal with the slave rebellion issue: as I understand it, there were slave revolts, people attempting to escape enslavement throughout history, but none of them was really enduringly successful until the revolution in Haiti in 1791. Why is it that all of these attempts by enslaved people to overturn slavery, at least in their case, never really presented an enduring or really functional challenge to slavery as an institution?

Christopher Brown: It’s such an interesting question, Rob, because it really goes to our question of what we mean by success. And the Haitian Revolution does set kind of a standard by which all other rebellions against slavery, in the Americas anyway, is measured. Because the insurgents overthrew what was at the time the wealthiest, most prosperous slave colony in the Americas, and perhaps the most prosperous of any that had ever existed. And how that happened has a lot to do with the specifics of that revolutionary moment and the specifics of Saint-Domingue.

One thing to think about is that enslaved men and women were often very successful in freeing themselves individually, and sometimes collectively — by running away, by escaping; sometimes by murdering the families that held them; by establishing redoubts in the backcountry, in the hinterlands and maroon communities where they could establish their own freedom.

The problem is that, in the Americas anyway, the entire world was conceived in a way to keep enslaved men and women under control. And it’s hard to fully reckon with the degree of terror that was inflicted on enslaved men and women from the moment they arrived in the Americas, or from the moment that they came of age in the Americas — to know that if you crossed a line in any way, you could have an arm chopped off, you could have your hamstring torn, you could have an ear lopped off.

And so the question of, “Why not more rebellions?” in some ways I think can be turned around to say it’s extraordinary that there were any at all. It really speaks to that commitment and determination to be free. The period of the Haitian Revolution is very unusual, and so the distinctiveness of those events speaks to the distinctiveness of the moment.


Christopher Brown: It begins as a kind of dissenting group within the Society of Friends, who take the position that, “The violence that slavery requires goes against our pacifistic values. The wealth that slavery enables contradicts our witness on behalf of simplicity. The pride, the control of other people that slavery allows, conflicts with the values that we say we place on humility.”

And Quakers are unusual, because they don’t have essentially a ministry, a priesthood — because anyone can express religious witness, it meant that those dissenters had a voice within the Society of Friends in terms of challenging the broader majority. And they couldn’t be silenced in the way of, “That’s not orthodox; those are not our beliefs.” They couldn’t be shut down in the same way.

And the Society of Friends, over the course of the 1700s, goes through a period of, in some ways, worrying about having fallen away from the ideals of the founding era in the middle of the 17th century. And there’s that fear that the religious practices have become kind of a habit or a ritual, rather than being really deeply believed in. So Quaker testimony around slavery becomes part of a broader examination that’s going on within the Society of Friends of, “Why are we not as devout as our grandfathers and grandmothers had been? Why do we seem to become more like the rest of society?”

As that questioning is happening, and they go through some crises in the middle decades of the 18th century, there are individuals who point to the issue of slavery as one way to restore a notion of their group identity. And this is really important. For Quakers, initially, the sort of testimony against slavery is about establishing an agreement within the Society of Friends about what their values are, about what membership of the Society of Friends requires.

So it’s very much about establishing a group identity, reinforcing a group identity around the fact that, as Quakers, we find slaveholding violates our consciences. This is a place they get to in the 1760s and 1770s. And in fact, what happens is they get to the point where they say, “If you don’t accept this principle, and if you continue to own slaves, you can no longer be a member of the Society of Friends.”

And initially, that’s really focused inward. They’re not campaigning initially to try to transform their broader society — the broader community, the colony, the Empire. It’s about establishing a sense of “Who are we, collectively?” So in the same way that Quakers develop a sense of “We do not serve in war,” they also increasingly take the view that to be a Quaker means not to be a slaveholder, not to be a slave trader.

But they’re a tiny fraction of the colonial population. So the interesting question when you think about filters is: How does that internal witness, that collective identity, then get directed outward to the broader society? And it’s at that moment, when that happens, that there develops a broader antislavery movement in the British and American world.

Moral revolution

Christopher Brown: It’s Quaker publicists and polemicists who really start pushing the incoherence between the natural rights discourse and the commitment to slaveholding. And they’re very creative and very persistent about drawing leading political figures, leading spokesmen of the colonial cause to think about the issue.

There’s a kind of a self-awareness that begins to develop in the political community in the North American colonies — where they kind of hear how the words sound in their own ears, and they recognise that this is an unpleasant contradiction. And they’ve got various ways of excusing it, some of which are racial, some of which are practical, some of which are denial, evasion, the projection of guilt in other places. But there’s a way that it becomes sort of a feature of the broader public consciousness in the decade before the Declaration of Independence.

And it especially becomes part of the public consciousness because polemicists on the other side of the Atlantic, who think the American rebels are full of it, make the point that, “Listen, you guys don’t actually believe in natural rights. If you believed in natural rights, you wouldn’t be slaveholders.” And again, from England, it’s very easy to say, because there’s basically no slaveholding of any significance in England itself. In the way that British writers and politicians think about it, it’s very much of an American practice.

So what begins to happen is that just as Quakers are saying, “You should give a second thought to the political discourse that you’re pushing because of the commitment to slavery here, and maybe political independence should also mean liberty for enslaved Africans,” you’ve got folks on the other side of the Atlantic saying, “You don’t deserve the liberty that you’re petitioning for because you’re hypocrites. You’re not actually committed to freedom. You’re not actually committed to natural rights. You’re just trying to get out of paying your taxes. You don’t want to actually listen to and obey Parliament. You’re trying to overthrow the constitutional order.”

And so what starts to happen in the years before the Declaration of Independence is an attribution of guilt by British polemicists, saying to North American colonists, “I don’t want to hear your liberty talk from a bunch of slaveholders,” and a political elite in North America that starts saying, in almost kind of a schoolyard way, “Well, there wouldn’t be slaves here if British slave ships didn’t bring them here.” And so what starts to happen is this use of the issue of slavery as a way to say something…

Rob Wiblin: To criticise your political opponent.

Christopher Brown: Exactly. Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: I see. That’s very interesting. So I guess the issue gets polarised, but polarised in such a convenient way that both sides benefit from saying that slavery is bad in some way. Or they’re both throwing it back and forth, insisting that the other is at fault for this atrocity, basically.

Christopher Brown: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: In so doing, reinforcing the idea that that is wrong. There’s one reason that you think that this wasn’t inevitable: this does just seem like a slightly happy coincidence.

Christopher Brown: It had never been done before. The institution of slavery had never been used this way before. It had never become a kind of arrow in the quiver of political debate. And obviously it draws on an old notion that there is something morally reprehensible about slaveholding and slave trading. The tendency, though, had been to think of that as being — at least in the Atlantic world — as the way it had evolved, kind of how the world worked.

And what starts to happen, because of this political dispute, is that on both sides of the Atlantic, you have propaganda saying, “No, it’s actually your fault. It’s not just how the world works. This wouldn’t happen if you didn’t own slaves. This wouldn’t happen if you weren’t slave traders.” So by redescribing slavery as the fault of particular groups — that this is something that is blameworthy — it opens up the possibilities.

Do we necessarily become more compassionate as we become richer?

Rob Wiblin: On this planet with our common culture, this is the track that we got onto as we got richer. This is how people decided to use their wealth, or this is what became morally fashionable within elite culture and among the most powerful countries.

But it doesn’t have to be the case that as people get richer, this is how they decide to use that slack. As you’re pointing out, it’s like the Nazis in a sense were very rich, and as they became more powerful they didn’t decide to use it for compassionate ends. I suppose also you’ve got ancient Romans, who were richer than other surrounding societies, and they used it to operate coliseums and all kinds of barbarities. So if there’s a trend from wealth toward compassion for all, at least it can’t be so overwhelmingly powerful that we can’t imagine a counterfactual world where things might have gone in a different direction.

Christopher Brown: Yeah. And there’s the historical point, but then there’s some of the consequences of the historical point. I think it’s very easy to believe, and comforting to believe, that the course the world is on is of improvement. And I think that with growing wealth, with growing technology, we will figure out new ways to solve problems. We’ll address problems that have never even been recognised as problems, because they seemed beyond our capacity. I think those things are true. But you’re still dealing with human beings and human nature, and we as a species have the capacity for great kindness, individually and collectively, but also extraordinary cruelty. And we find all kinds of ways and reasons to do that.

And what makes it even more complicated is sometimes, we are cruel in our kindness. I’m thinking especially about what happens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The identity that Western Europe acquires as the part of the world that abolished slavery then becomes the alibi, maybe even the apology, for colonising the less developed world. “We’re here to stamp out slavery in Africa. We’re here to bring economic development. Oh, it just so happens to serve our economic interests as well.” There’s a whole series of ways that slavery gets disguised in the 19th century, where you have functional slavery without legal slavery. And at the same time, there is a kind of a celebration of, “See? We abolished it. There’s no more slavery anymore.” Even though things that are almost indistinguishable are operating under the same cover.

So I just think that there’s a certain amount of vigilance that we need — guarding against our worst instincts as individuals and as societies — and a certain amount of humility about, when we are sure of our moral purposes, where our blind spots lie. What is it that we are not noticing? What damage might we be doing in the service of improving things? One aspect of the record of the modern era is of great damage done in pursuit of worthy causes. And there’s also extraordinarily worthy causes where there is real progress, there is real change.

One of the things I sometimes say in class is that the fact of the matter is, on the subject of slavery, there is no question about human progress over the last 200 years. This is indisputable. There is no place on the planet right now where slavery is legal. There are lots of places where slavery operates, but everybody who’s doing it has to do it underground. So this is an unqualified good. This is real progress. And yet at the same time, I can tell you that in the name of abolishing slavery, a whole lot of other stuff happened that brought new evils to the world.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Christopher’s work:

Historical views of slavery:

“Heroes” of the early English abolitionist movement:

Theories about shifts in values:

Other 80,000 Hours podcast episodes:

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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