The Moral Ark

Article excerpt

Two hundred years ago, when Britain was debating the abolition of slavery, a Member of Parliament said that slavery was "not an amiable trade but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a good thing." Today, we find this sort of attitude to slavery unthinkable. But what about that mutton chop? Is an epochal moral shift under way in our perspective on human-animal relations?

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DEBATES about slavery convulsed American society in the nineteenth century, in ways that mystify us now. What reasonable person defends the institution of slavery? But as historian William Lee Miller reminds us, slavery was central to the fabric of American society:

Recognition of the "moral repugnancy" of slavery was widespread by 1800, except in the US, where it was embedded in the nation's home soil. Not until David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison burst onto the scene around 1830 did a genuine abolitionist movement emerge.

At the time, Americans fell into one of three camps. White Southerners (and Northerners with strong ties to the slave economy) overwhelmingly supported slavery as "the way things are"--a system completely integrated into the culture, society, and economy of the South. There were internal disagreements about the welfare of slaves, and about measures to curb slavery's worse excesses, but "extracting it from the nation's life" was inconceivable.

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A second large group, mostly white Northerners, was uncomfortable with slavery and hoped for its eventual decline. In the meantime, these "gradualists" sought to contain slavery, by preventing its spread to new states in the West, and by compensating slave owners willing to abandon the system. They also supported the transportation of blacks back to Africa, enabling America to start over with a clean (i.e. white) slate. Slavery was regrettable, but it was not a moral emergency, and could only be dealt with gradually and diplomatically.

A third group was made up of the "radical abolitionists." They included mostly blacks, and a tiny number of whites, many of them Quakers. Radical abolitionists denounced slavery as a moral catastrophe, calling for immediate emancipation, integration, and compensation (not for slave-holders, but for emancipated slaves). Reflecting at a later date, many abolitionists described a moment of conversion, an awakening to the overwhelming evils of slavery, and the need to devote their lives to its eradication.

In the South, radical abolitionists were often murdered outright. In the North they were a tiny and despised minority. When abolitionists fanned out across the North in the 1830s they wore "storm suits," a set of old clothes designed for public appearances where hostile crowds would pummel them with eggs, rocks, and nails. Not only was the cause unpopular, but abolitionists were vilified on a personal level as meddling do-gooders.

And yet, in the course of their lifetimes, the cause succeeded. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, just 32 years after Garrison's ringing condemnation of the gradualist stance in the first issue of the Liberator: "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. ... I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch---AND I WILL BE HEARD."

Looking back on this period we can only wonder at the moral blindness of our forebears. Even setting aside the evil minority driven by greed or sadism, what about the normal, law-abiding, decent people who tolerated slavery for so long? Could they not see?

ON THE other hand, perhaps every generation suffers from moral blinders. Some would argue that our exploitative treatment of non-human animals is, in effect, a system of slavery--one so woven into the fabric of society that we resist seeing its moral evils. These modern-day abolitionists draw explicit comparisons between human slavery and the breeding, bondage, torture, and exploitation of animals. …