The “Enlightenment” and slavery
It is fairly commonly believed by many atheists that the abolition of slavery was an inevitable product of the “Enlightenment” and progressive thinking. Yet this overlooks the fact that many key figures of the “Enlightenment” were firm advocates of slavery.
Rodney Stark in his provocative book, For the Glory of God, outlines a series of influential Enlightenment figures who fully accepted slavery. Stark describes these characters as a virtual ‘Who’s Who of the Enlightenment’ (and hence not a straw man caricature).
Stark notes that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke ‘openly sanctioned human bondage’ and Locke invested in the Atlantic slave trade. Voltaire supported the slave trade and believed in the inferiority of Africans. Comte de Mirabeau accepted slavery and David Hume did not favour abolition. Edmund Burke dismissed abolitionists as religious fanatics and explained that ‘the cause of humanity would be far more benefited by the continuance of the [slave] trade and servitude … than by the total destruction of both or either’.
As an interesting aside, Burke’s rationale for the continuance of slavery rests on a consequentialist ethic. This again demonstrates the inherent problems of consequentialism as an ethical system which I’ve previously outlined in critiquing Sam Harris and Peter Singer.
Now this is not to say that all figures of the Enlightenment favoured slavery, there are notable exceptions e,g, Samuel Johnson, Condorcet and Diderot, but ‘most accepted slavery as a normal part of the human situation’. Stark writes,
It was not philosophers or secular intellectuals who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was a sin… It was the natural theologian William Paley, not his atheist opponent David Hume, who considered slavery as an ‘odious institution’ and did so on the basis of Christian ‘light and influence'”.
Therefore it is incorrect to propose that slavery arose as a product of Enlightenment thinking. Instead, as I proposed in my recent One Minute Answer on this topic, moral opposition arose because of the influence of Christian theology.