Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thomas Jefferson

I went to Monticello earlier this week, where it's always interesting to see how the subject of slavery will be addressed. Our guide this time seemed to think that Jefferson's owning slaves was worse because he recognized that slavery is wrong. I'm not so sure. But it is curious how he could see the injustice of the institution and yet perpetuate it. I had thought that perhaps he just couldn't imagine doing without the lifestyle that slavery allowed him and, perhaps especially, his family to enjoy. But this (from Wikipedia) suggests that he feared the vengeance of freed slaves:
I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery], in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle [a small matter] which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other
It is one thing, though, to change one's own life, and another to change one's family's life because of a new moral vision. If you went vegetarian, for instance, how would you explain the change to your children? I can imagine children understanding and accepting vegetarianism, but what would they make of your past meat-eating? The possible difficulty of explaining isn't a reason not to change, but I wonder how much is owed to children in terms of an explanation, and what the best way to put it would be. Can an authority admit to being wrong without undermining its authority? Perhaps it doesn't matter.


  1. Interesting question about authority. My gut response is, why not? (I.e. why not allow room for error, change?) I guess questions about explanations owed would depend on the age of one's children, but also on the nature of the situation. (I remember getting into a related discussion in connection with Thoreau and civil disobedience; a student complained that it was easy for Thoreau to go to jail on principle because he didn't have anyone else to look after.)

    (You should look at David Levy's paper on moral authority when the PT issue comes out; his view is that there are contexts in which one's authority is precisely that no one else can judge that what one did was wrong. That would imply that sometimes making judgments about the wrongness of one's own past acts is an exercise--rather than an undermining--of one's moral authority. But this may be authority in a rather different sense than what you have in mind here...)

  2. That's interesting, thanks. There probably isn't really a problem in practice, since children young enough to be thrown would also be too young to notice a problem. If they're young enough, they wouldn't realize that a big change had occurred. If they're old enough to notice, they're also old enough to know that their parents can, in fact, generally be trusted. Teenagers might use any change as an excuse to rebel, but they will find some excuse anyway if they want to.

    I had in mind the kind of problem you get when the Church is found to be fallible, what I think of as a Satanic verses problem. In case I've got the story wrong, or you don't know it, what I have in mind is this: the Koran consists of verses dictated by Gabriel, but what if you have reason to believe that it was possible for Satan to take Gabriel's place now and then? That would put you in a tricky position (assuming you wanted to obey the good bits of the Koran only). Perhaps we all are in something like that position anyway, but an authority's going back on some previous teaching at least underlines this problem. As I said, I don't think this is a reason not to admit when you're wrong, but it might make finding the best way to admit it difficult.

    I don't know how easy it is for anyone to go to prison, but I agree with your student at least to the extent that it would be easier to go if you had no dependents.

    David Levy's paper sounds good. I think it might be possible to exercise moral authority in ways that undermine that authority (in a sense). God could issue new commandments, for instance, but if he kept changing the rules it would tend to reduce people's faith in him, I suspect. His right to issue new rules would not be reduced, just his ability to get people to follow them.