Saturday, November 6, 2010

The New Slavery

As a brilliant inventor and statesman, a progressive farmer, and a tireless advocate for liberty and morality, Thomas Jefferson has a rightful place as one of our nations most respected founding fathers.   But despite his many excellent qualities, he actively and knowingly destroyed the lives of other people for his own personal gain.  Over the course of his life, Jefferson was known to have owned 600 slaves. 

How is it that somebody who was so obviously brilliant and otherwise morally outstanding plays a part in the destruction of 600 people's lives?  A character flaw, perhaps?

As with any other person, Jefferson's benchmark for morality was set by the norms of the society he was a part of.   With a few notable exceptions, that society had no qualms with the enslavement of other people for their own personal gain.  Something which would appear to be unquestionably immoral to an outside observer was thus unquestioned by the society that benefitted from this behavior.   Morality was based not on right or wrong as we would like to think, but rather upon a lemming-like consensus among peers.

You and I are no different.  We base our moral benchmark upon the norms set by our present day society -  not upon right vs. wrong.  Not only does the collective conscience of our society turn a blind eye to our behavior, but it effectively punishes those who would question it. 

The primary difference between Jefferson's moral failure and our own is that his actions had direct impacts on people he knew and saw on a daily basis.  Our moral failures are a bit more nebulous, and thus more difficult to address.  All we can be sure of is that our actions are likely to destroy the life of people unknown, in ways we can only guess at.  In fact, our own lives are likely to be among those destroyed - by ourselves.

Though Jefferson did speak out against slavery and make efforts to end it, he remained a slave owner until his death.  I'm sure the benefits to be realized as a slave owner were very difficult to give up.  I know I'll be the same in this regard, as the benefits of my fossil fuel use are also very difficult to forego.  I'll continue to destroy the lives of people and animals unknown, for my own personal gain and convenience.  But I still plan to chip away at my own dependence.

Truth be told, no human has ever walked the earth without adversely affecting other people or animals.  Our ancestors hunted desirable species to extinction, negatively altering their own environments.  Our agriculture has had negative impacts all the way back to its infancy in Mesopotamia.  It's simply not possible to be a no-impact human.  It is possible to be a low impact human, however.  Modern American society makes each of us far more destructive than our ancestors by an order of magnitude.  Each of us needs to strive for lower impact, both as a moral imperative as well as for the self interest of perpetuating our species. 

The thing is, we'll never know exactly which of our actions were responsible for which effects.  Just as the x-ray of a lung cancer patient has no Marlboro logo which would allow us to determine the exact culprit, no future dustbowl will come with a BP or Peabody Coal logo.  

I believe that the massive and unprecedented heat wave and fires in Russia are a direct and tangible result of my own fondness for driving to the mountains so that I could go skiing.  But nobody will ever be able to pin it on me.  Am I innocent because everyone else was also driving cars too?

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