This seems to be a primal aspect of human nature: we always believe ourselves to be ethically correct. It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle, and it would be even more surprising to find any society or group of people that openly declares itself to be amoral.
This fact provides a stunning contradiction that ought to be endlessly fascinating to ethical philosophers who wish to deeply challenge their own belief systems. Every past as well as current society believes itself to be moral, and yet when we discuss history we can easily identify various past societies that seem to have been highly immoral. If we examine the ways in which these bygone societies convinced themselves of their high ethical principles, we can glimpse the powerful engine of delusion itself, and discover the mechanics that make it so effective in clouding intelligent minds. We may even discover that some delusions still drive our thinking today.
One great example is provided by the nation that briefly called itself the Confederate States of America, a nation that was defeated in the United States of America’s Civil War between 1861 and 1865. I’m beginning a road trip this week to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to take part in the 150th anniversary of the most dramatic extended battle of the entire war. This anniversary provides a nice opportunity for us to pause and look closely at the philosophical underpinnings of the entire secession movement in the Southern states. This philosophical system can be broadly represented by the voice of a once-great politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was a legendary United States Senator, and was the Vice President of the United States for two terms. He died before the Civil War began, but his inspiration was present for the entire period of the war, and he was taken seriously as a brilliant scholar, a passionate orator and a principled ethical thinker by both his compatriots and his enemies.
John Calhoun defended the institution of human slavery with words like these:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.
John Calhoun’s defense of slavery does not represent his loftiest attempts at political philosophy. During his own lifetime he was known more for a more positive approach to representative democracy that stressed the dangers of simple rule by majority. Identifying the slave-holding Southern states as a minority interest within the USA’s federal government, he constructed a system of political thought that stressed the importance of a “concurrent majority” — a majority based upon consensus — rather than a numerical majority. If Calhoun’s words about slavery appear frightening today (indeed, the fact that the person who wrote the words above was once Vice President of the USA may seem even more frightening than the fact that torture enthusiast Dick Cheney was also recently Vice President of the USA, or that Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan nearly ascended to the office just last year), his words about the democratic process may appear more soothing and more familiar. It is true that we should expect a wise democratic government to rule by more than a simple numerical majority, and the question of how a nation may obtain a majority of consensus as well as a numerical majority is one that vexes us still today.
As I study the life and words of John Calhoun — a man who was vastly respected during his lifetime as a man of principle, a man who is now remembered along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay as a representative of a golden age of oratory in 19th Century America as well as a representative of a sublime religious and cultural awakening within the southern states that once rivaled the northern-based American Transcendentalist movement for intellectual prestige — I am most impressed not by his words themselves, but rather by what he represented to the people who stood on his side.
These were not stupid people. These were not thoughtless and uneducated people. These were not brutish or callous people, though when we look at the effects of the African slave trade today we can clearly see that slavery was brutish and callous to its victims.
I’m not sure how much value can be obtained by studying the ethical philosophy of John Calhoun today. But I think great value can be obtained by studying the fact that John Calhoun existed, and the fact that the Confederate States of America, so often maligned in historical memory today, did strongly believe itself to hold ethical principles of the kind presented by John Calhoun.
We should study John Calhoun today — not in order to rediscover the values he represented, but rather in order to question the values we ourselves now hold. Do we also sometimes cling to lofty words when we need to justify brutal behaviors? If we assume that 19th Century Southern society and the Confederate nation of 1861 to 1865 existed without valid moral principles, but that we ourselves hold excellent moral principles today, we are probably letting ourselves off much too easily.