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Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust.

In his highly detailed and intriguing philosophical work Vessels of Evil, Laurence Thomas brings the subject of chattel slavery into sharp relief against that of the Holocaust. Today we know of the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, and we are rightly repulsed by the evil which it represented. Everywhere the images and the echoes of the Holocaust summon visions of man's great inhumanity. But what of chattel slavery? It is Thomas's thesis that chattel slavery, in its own way, represents another such inhuman institution.

His aim in this work is to do quite a number of things: to advance philosophical theses concerning moral psychology, to offer an account of human nature compatible with an understanding of how such institutions as the chattel slavery system could have occurred, and to present a view of human nature which might provide an account of how such impenetrable evils as slavery and the Shoah could have happened, as well as providing points of comparison and difference between these two systems. This last enterprise paves the way for the final and most speculative part of his endeavor: a comparison of the fates of blacks and Jews in society - for there are important observations on the bearing of suffering by each group which call for explanation.

In Thomas's view many of the Jews who have managed to survive and overcome the traumas of the Shoah have prospered in material terms, despite their great suffering, whereas blacks as a social subgroup have, in his term, "languished" as a consequence of chattel slavery. It is clear from the beginning that Thomas, in drawing any comparison between the Holocaust and chattel slavery, does not wish either to offend or to draw what he calls "invidious comparisons." For many, the Shoah is so painful an experience that they would deem it sacrilege to compare it to any other horror. Thomas argues, however, that we ought to discuss and find explanations of how such evils could have occurred, for only then will we have a chance of averting their possible recurrence.

At the heart of Thomas's point is the belief that to explain these evils we must relinquish our "folk-psychological" conceptions of the evil individual, as well as those we maintain on related categories of moral evils. For Thomas, the notion that humans are evil by nature, which derives from a Kantian conception of persons, is essentially wrong, as indeed are the standard concepts of types of evil disposition. In the Platonic conception, persons were evil either through ignorance of the good or through sheer wickedness. It is obvious that these characterizations are insufficient to make sense of the kinds of evils of chattel slavery or the Holocaust, for they involved the actions and the omissions of quite ordinary people who, in other contexts, would have claimed through the strength of their own moral motivation to have been able to resist wrongdoing. Yet as the situation of the Holocaust or chattel slavery showed, various kinds of evil actions were done not through mere wickedness, but by moral indifference and by moral negligence. In the former case, we simply turn away from evil that we see around us, but by moral negligence we refuse to help those we could reasonably help at little cost to ourselves.

Couple this with the fact that, as Thomas suggests, we do not have an evil disposition by nature as Kantian and Kantian-like theories assert but rather a moral orientation to goodness which is fragile, and we can see that all of us are capable of being beguiled by evil. This fragile moral orientation makes susceptibility to evil possible for any of us under appropriate contexts. We can think here of the famous "obedience" experiments in psychology by Stanley Milgram. Such things make possible for all of us the unwitting rapprochement with evil and the inclination to moral drift, wherein standards of conventional morality can find higher and lower thresholds.

The evils of chattel slavery and of the Holocaust lie in just such devaluing of persons gradually or completely. In the case of the Holocaust, the Jews were treated as irredeemably evil, and as such were viewed by the Nazis as incapable of moral worth and as having no entitlement to basic human rights. It is this that made the Holocaust so morally appalling. What of the telos of chattel slavery? In Thomas's view the slave owners treated blacks as "moral simpletons." This conception seems to imply that such persons were capable of useful tasks, but lacked the moral autonomy to direct their own lives. Thomas roots the notion of "moral simpleton" less with the work of individual racialist theorists such as Gobineau or Chamberlain and more with a negative appraisal of black persons which has pervaded Western history generally.

As Thomas puts it, that conception of black persons was essentially a cruel one, for through it their suffering was essentially due to natal alienation. The concept of natal alienation, which has a provenance in the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, plays a powerful explanatory role in Thomas's theory of the essence of the evil of chattel slavery. But Thomas's concept of natal alienation should be seen as distinct from Patterson's. Natal alienation, for Patterson, is a condition experienced by slaves in any system of slavery, and Patterson argues that nothing in slave experience implies that slaves ever internalized their degradation. Thomas, on the other hand, writes that natal alienation implies the internalization of values and ideas inimical to the interests of the slave. He suggests that natal alienation implies, inter alia, lack of a secure knowledge of one's historical and cultural traditions. Individuals thus have the experience of both not being accepted as full members of society within the dominant culture and simultaneously experiencing a further form of exclusion through natal alienation. This is one of the cruel legacies of the chattel slavery system.

Much of this leads to the most intriguing and pessimistic aspect of Thomas's work. Even though both groups, blacks and Jews, have endured enormous tragedy and survived, the following question arises: How is it that blacks as a social group have not be able to prosper? Thomas suggests that blacks might not be able to flourish in society as it is. Three philosophical arguments seem to underlie his case. The first is the depth of natal alienation: Blacks do not have a secure narrative of themselves, and in some senses must create one. But how and with what components? Compare this with Judaism, which provides a set of traditions, canonical texts, and practices over which Jews are sovereign. The Jews were not natally alienated (in Thomas's defined sense) by their experiences of the Holocaust. Second, African Americans operate in a society which is not free of racial strife and competition. Freedom from some of these ill effects might allow the development of a secure self-conception incorporated with other generally held community values. Third, black persons face collectively a prisoner's dilemma: They may have interest in their general experience of suffering and the legacy of slavery, but collectively this is not sufficient bonding to generate sufficient contributions by individual black persons that will ensure adequate group benefits. What can be made of these arguments? Briefly, I believe that all three are powerful prima facie claims, but two of them are refutable. What follows can only be a sketch of what one would need to consider in a more detailed answer. While it is true that none of the proposed solutions to the creation of a narrative is a perfect solution (for instance, one which reconstructs black experience from Christianity and the lives of social heroes such as King, Du Bois, Garvey, etc.), these can, it seems to me, be valuable components of a narrative which African Americans can create and integrate with the rest of American values and with the Diaspora experience. Indeed some of these experiences will be co-extensive with general American experiences, since one cannot live in any society without internalizing some of its values. Nor is it clear that a moderate Afrocentric appreciation is without value. Thomas thinks that this has little real value in forging an African American reconstruction of experience and identity within contemporary American society. In this matter he is at one with the philosopher Anthony Appiah's skepticism concerning any singular notion of "African identity," since the concept of African identity is itself an invention, or so Appiah claims in In My Father's House.

The claim that black persons as a social group cannot solve collective action problems of the sort which they confront in the economic sphere speaks not to the inability of black persons to escape problems rooted in natal alienation, but rather to the general problems faced by those attempting to solve collective action problems generally, in all spheres of social life. Students of rational choice theory acknowledge that the problem to be solved in all collective action dilemmas is to generate enabling contributions by all to ensure the production a collective good without free riding. That African Americans have solved some of these types of collective action problems in other contexts is borne out by the experience of the Civil Rights Movement, which counts as a powerful example of social action which solved a prisoner's dilemma situation. While the problems Thomas discusses may not be so grave as he makes out, his arguments pose a powerful moral challenge to preconceived ideas.

Reviewed by Howard H. Harriott University of South Carolina-Columbia
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Author:Harriott, Howard H.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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