Degrees of Slavery and Degrees of Genocide

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This is my sixth post in a series on the morality of slavery. I expect this to be the final post, unless someone raises an important consideration that I need to discuss that I haven't looked at.

I'm in the process of responding to an argument that if slavery admits of the degrees I said it did in my first post then so will murder, rape, and genocide. The argument is intended to undermine my view by showing that it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that murder, rape, and genocide happen all the time and aren't really wrong when they do except in the extreme cases that we usually call murder, rape and genocide. I don't think my argument regarding slavery leads to that conclusion. My last two posts deal with murder and rape, and this post moves on to genocide.

As I said in the past two posts, for each of these moral categories, here are the possibilities:

(1) It's not like what I'm saying about slavery and doesn't admit of degrees.
(2) It admits of degrees but not in the same way that I'm saying slavery does.
(3) It is like slavery in its admitting of degrees.

One problem with genocide that doesn't come up with rape or murder is that it's a relatively recent concept. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first time it appears is in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The United Nations at the time defined it as the destruction of a nation or ethnic group. By 1951 they had settled on the "direct physical destruction of another racial or national group". The original definition allowed a group to commit genocide on themselves, and it allowed that it might not be physical destruction but something more like what happened to Africans taken to the Americas as slaves, which resulted in the destruction of culture.

The O.E.D. lists a 1969 instance of the term 'cultural genocide' to refer to exactly that sort of thing. Yet the O.E.D. and Merriam-Webster both officially define it as "the deliberate and systematic destruction". This doesn't say it has to be physical destruction, and it doesn't restrict it to destroying other groups than one's own. It does restrict it to being deliberate and systematic, which the O.E.D. examples don't do. The O.E.D. says it's extermination of "an ethnic or national group", and Merriam-Webster has the victim being "a racial, political, or cultural group". Brittanica includes religion.

All this is to say that the semantic range of the term is a good deal larger than the official definition allows. These sources are all descriptive attempts to capture how the term is used, and its usage is a little broader than any of the definitions will allow. Some of this involves extended senses, such as cultural genocide. This would also include what some social conservatives have in mind when they say abortion is genocide against black Americans, even though the people making the choices leading to that result are themselves black.

So whether something counts as genocide depends partly on whether you count these extended senses. That seems to me to admit of degrees. It seems more of a stretch to call abortion genocide if it's self-initiated (the coercive factors and Planned Parenthood's obvious attempts to increase the amount of abortions notwithstanding). It's much less of a stretch to think of 18th century human-stealing practices that destroyed the cultures of African tribes without killing off the people as a kind of genocide. That's most certainly something that admits of degrees, because how much a culture can retain its distinctives is a matter of vagueness. Consider the example of ancient Israel when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom, exporting most of the people throughout the empire to mix with other peoples while leaving some in the land to mix with those who were imported. The result was the Samaritans, who retained a highly edited form of the Torah and rejected the rest of the scriptures of the time. They clearly had lost a good deal of Hebrew culture while retaining enough to be noticeably Hebraic in origin. Was that genocide?

Even if you take the definitions as they stand without extended senses, there seems to me to be enough vagueness there worth talking about. Whether something is deliberate can clearly admit of degrees. How much someone wants a goal can be a matter of degree. How much someone is aware of that goal is not all-or-nothing. How closely people connect their own actions with that goal is going to occupy a continuum. It's exactly with evil actions that people are more likely to occupy the gray portions of this scale, because they psychologically will resist identifying themselves with deliberately wiping out whole groups of people. It seems to me that at some point there isn't enough deliberateness left to count it as genocide by the official definition, but it's not because you have a sharp line between genocide and not-genocide. If genocide requires being deliberate about it, then it's possible to be doing something that's sort of genocide and sort of not.

There's also the issue of what counts as destruction of a group. Apparently Hitler committed genocide, though he didn't destroy any group fully as far as I'm aware. The same is true of Saddam Hussein or virtually any other evil dictator whose actions might be thought of as a paradigm case of genocide. Is there some percentage of people who have to be killed for it to count as genocide? Is it based on intent rather than result? I suggest not, because it seems to me that you can attempt genocide and fail. You might be genocidal without having committed genocide. My suggestion is that something can a better example of genocide (better in the sense of better fitting the definition) or a less exact example of it. That means some things will not count as genocide at all, but some things will sort of count, simply because there's no clear line about where enough people have been killed for it to be genocide.

So I think I've ruled out (1). Genocide doesn't admit of degrees. What about (2) and (3)? I didn't discuss the vagueness in what counts as a group and what kind of group can count as a victim of genocide. One reason is I don't know what to do with that. Some people think the destruction of certain well-specified groups is morally worse than simply killing the same number of people but not from a specific group. I tend to agree. Some think it's entirely irrelevant what group the people belong to. I can't think of the deliberate destruction of cultural traditions along with all the people of a certain ethnic stock as morally irrelevant, as if the sheer amount of people is all that counts.

At the same time, I don't think destruction of a group trumps other moral considerations entirely. If the Navajo were entirely wiped out in the next 50 years, that would be a huge tragedy, and the U.S. government over the centuries would have at least contributed toward that and thus been somewhat morally responsible for genocide. Yet wouldn't it be much worse to wipe out thirty times as many people without wiping out any culture? Killing massive amounts of people without targeting any culture or ethnic groups seems to me much worse than simply killing a much smaller group who are all of a similar culture, nation, or genetic stock. Both moral considerations count, but once you get so many people involved the massive numbers will become the more important factor, morally speaking.

So we might wonder if vagueness of genocide results in something that's less bad as if becomes less of a fit for the term 'genocide'. It doesn't seem to be that simple. Something can be less genocide but much worse morally speaking because of what makes it less genocide. At the same time, something could be much more genocide while being less bad morally. The cases I just discussed show that. In this respect, what we have is more like (2), I think. Genocide admits of degrees, but it's not the kind of degree like what I've said about slavery, murder, and rape. In those cases, the most obvious kinds of degrees involved lead to something's being not as bad morally, and that's not the case with this aspect of the vagueness of genocide.

Other elements of vagueness will be more like (3), however. Whether something is deliberate does affect moral responsibility. The degree of destruction involved does make something morally better or worse. Whether something is physical or merely cultural destruction does seem to me to affect how bad you consider the genocide to be. Cultural genocide doesn't seem to me to be quite as bad as actually killing everyone. It might be that some kinds of groups are worse to kill off than others, though I'm not confident that I could identify any examples that many would agree on.

So genocide has elements of (2) and (3) to it. In both cases, saying that genocide admits of degrees isn't a problem consequence of my view that slavery admits of degrees. In the aspects that fit (2), this is because the reasons they're like (2) are just independent of moral considerations, and in the aspects that fit (3) it's exactly the kind of thing I'm saying is true of slavery. So to say that slavery can't admit of degrees, on the ground that genocide will also have to, should only make sense as an argument against my position if genocide shouldn't admit of degrees. The kinds of degrees I see in slavery show up here also. So the argument against my view fails.

2 Comments

Welllll, okay? Forgive me for not reading the whole thing but I have given this some thought in the past. Degrees is an interesting angle but my thinking has been situational ethics of sorts, which I hate, so don't take this wrong. The argument goes that Pres. Lincoln may have avoided a civil war by allowing the South to continue in their "sin" a little longer. They say it would have died on its own. So for the greater good, couldn't slavery be considered a necessary evil until intolerance phased it out? It's a question. Abuse was rampant, at least if you read Uncle Tom's Cabin! But the Civil War? We think times are bad now! I guess I'm thinking in degrees...the war was a couple degrees worse.

You really do need to read the whole series to have any idea of what I'm talking about, or at least the first two that state my basic views.

What most people on the popular level mean by situation ethics is a pretty simplistic version of ethical relativism, which I think is not just false but stupid, and I don't think anyone really believes it. Degrees of wrongness don't imply that, because I'm talking about objective wrongness, with some things being objectively worse than others and some instances of the same act or practice being objectively worse than other instances of the same act or practice.

As for American slavery, I think that was one of the greatest evils ever committed. There are important considerations against Lincoln's decision to oppose the confederacy. One of them is the constitutional right of a state to secede, and the other is that the war and the Reconstruction probably put things in place that we still haven't recovered from, whereas we don't know what things would be like otherwise. Even so, could Lincoln have known how things would turn out?

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