ancient slavery and modern misogyny

ancient athens was in some ways a remarkable society, one we hold up as a fine example. one of the first democracies in history, and the residence of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, it serves as a model for contemporary democratic societies. and yet, athens was a slave society: a society in which large numbers of human beings were held as chattel. we believe that such slavery is intrinsically inimical to the democratic values we hold dear—to the democratic values for whose inspiration we look back to that same athens. But the vestiges of slavery are with us still; we are not that far removed from slavery in this country, and in fighting the still-extant consequences of american slavery, it is important for us to understand and evaluate its relation to our democratic values.

some have said that ancient athenian slavery is not really that bad. in many ways, ancient slavery is contrasted with its american version. for example, manumission was more common in the ancient world, and household slaves are often reported to have been valued friends. many occupations we would regard highly today were held by slaves in antiquity, including for example the practice of medicine. however, this is beside the point. agricultural slaves in antiquity were not as fortunate as their urban counterparts, indeed, their lot is generally thought to have been considerably worse than that of slaves in america. more directly, however, the condition of the slaves is not relevant. even the most well-treated slave is still a slave, and it is the fundamental violation of liberty which chattel slavery involves that is the offence.

others respond to this difficulty by pointing at the economic situation in antiquity; by pointing at the ubiquity of slavery in ancient societies; or by the claim that it is inappropriate to apply modern ethical and moral standards to ancient societies.

none of these responses is satisfactory. ancient societies may seem so remote that it is adequate to claim that things were so different, nothing is to be gained by attacking the evils of ancient slavery. and yet, in the contemporary situation we are concerned to condemn the evils of american slavery—despite the fact that slavery in this country was embedded in a cultural context very different from that we have now, on the edge of the twenty-first century.

if we want to attack american slavery as fundamentally incompatible with the ideals of our democracy because it is a violation of the most sacred rights of a human person, then we simply must recognize that athens was also possessed of as great an evil.

however, part of the instinct of those who would excuse athenian slavery is understandable. the social and economic contexts were certainly very different—and it did take our own culture a considerable time to come to the consensus it has on the evils of slavery. indeed, many of those individuals who passively, or more often, actively, supported the institution of slavery, are examples to many of us today: figures such as Plato and Aristotle, for example, are certainly still widely read and respected.

i believe then that we have an apparent contradiction. on the one hand, the people of ancient athens were generally decent and moral people; indeed, i would venture to assert that any educated person can name those from ancient athens whom they take to be models of decent ethical behavior. but on the other hand, the very same people benefited from and supported an institution we know to be one of the greatest evils to afflict humankind. it is this contradiction that i seek to understand.

it might be wondered why i do not consider the case of american slavery itself, since it is closer to our own time, and also of more obvious direct relevance. i believe that the case of athenian slavery is a cleaner example, precisely because of its remoteness. in addition, those who want to excuse athenian slavery are plenty, but those who would excuse american slavery are very hard to find: and indeed, when one finds them, they often seem to excuse american slavery at the same time as also wanting to excuse present-day racism. i hope to understand why one might want to excuse ancient slavery at the same time as being willing to condemn the american version and present-day racism. in understanding that question, i do hope that the understanding achieved will contribute to understanding better the related case of american slavery as well.


the problem i have posed here is very similar to one Cheshire Calhoun examines in her responsibility and reproach. in that paper, Calhoun examines the question of men in a sexist society who do bad things of a sexist nature. often those bad things are indeed the ways the men in question were brought up to behave, and in some cases, they are intended as gestures of the highest respect. and yet, we (enlightened feminists) have come to see that those actions are wrong and harmful. but those who do them have a prima facie excuse (it's how they were brought up, and society in general often sanctions their behavior) and at the same time, they are themselves often people of the highest moral character.

Calhoun ultimately comes to a pair of conclusions that function together. first, she asserts that in circumstances such as these the question of responsibility for actions comes apart from the question of whether one may legitimately be reproached for them. reproach may, in some cases, be unearned by the one reproached. and second, she asserts that whether we excuse a person is contextual and depends on whom we address that excuse to; as a result, there is no way to answer the question is action x excusable?: we can only ask can action x be excused when talking to person y?

i propose to examine in detail Calhoun's treatment, and then see how it applies to the case of ancient slavery. throughout, i will use the labels synchronic to refer to the situations Calhoun is concerned with, and diachronic to refer to the situations i am concerned with.

Calhoun distinguishes two kinds of social contexts: normal and abnormal. a normal context in one in which the society's sanctions and structure are designed to support moral behavior. for example, our society is a normal context as regards behavior like theft or murder. an abnormal context is one in which the broad social values of the society are in fact contrary to correct moral duty; this is the case of our society with regards to sexism, or ancient athens and slavery. it should be noted that societies don't divide into normal and abnormal full stop; whether a society's moral context is normal or abnormal depends on the particular topic at hand. we may be in a normal context as regards one sort of moral issue, but an abnormal context as regards another.

Calhoun also is concerned to relate ignorance and responsibility. our immediate intuition is likely to regard people as not responsible for acting in accord with moral norms which they are unaware of. but this is a simplistic analysis, and requires examination into the sources of ignorance, and also the difference between incorrect application of an agreed moral principle and ignorance about that moral principle itself. here the normality and abnormality of the context is relevant. a sexist agent doing a bad thing is acting wrongly, but the standards of that wrongness are based on commonly accepted norms, which are being incorrectly applied by contemporary society. accordingly, as regards the norms themselves, we are in a normal context, but as regards the application, an abnormal one. the sexist actor is therefore not entirely ignorant but only partially so. this plays an important role.

in normal moral contexts, moral ignorance is ignorance of what the moral community in general knows. accordingly, it is inherently exceptional. for the same reason, it is very difficult to sustain. we don't excuse for moral ignorance in normal contexts for the same kinds of reasons that we don't excuse it in legal contexts. indeed, moral rules have a point precisely because we don't excuse on grounds of ignorance: this is the very mechanism by which the normal moral context elaborates and enforces its norms. to maintain such ignorance for long in a normal context would require a general attitude of immorality and corruption.

but in abnormal contexts, these conditions don't hold. ignorance is no longer exceptional, it is the norm. maintaining it doesn't require opposition to the community or a broadly immoral character; rather, Calhoun says it is perfectly compatible with taking the moral point of view and being self-legislating in other spheres of one's moral life (396). that is, the morally ignorant person in an abnormal context need not be morally defective or corrupt.

because of these differences, Calhoun finds it likely that there is some weakening of responsibility. where self-criticism depends on having acquired new tools for moral reasoning, it hardly seems reasonable to blame those who have not acquired these things for failing to be sufficiently reflective. (399) At the same time, people have strong motives for deliberately avoiding reflection, so it might seem that a motivated ignorance is not really excusatory. yet, lacking a motive to be morally reflective is not self-deception. and a motive to be morally reflective is exactly what people will lack when moral ignorance is the norm. (399)

so, if we conclude that people are often in fact not responsible in abnormal moral contexts for such ill behavior, does that mean we should excuse them? in a normal moral context, we can do so (if we should truly encounter such an exceptional case). but in abnormal contexts, Calhoun gives three reasons which argue against excusing the bad behavior.

first, it might seem that we are sanctioning their actions when we excuse them. there is an inherent ambiguity in excusing someone between on the one hand seeming to condone their behavior as not really wrong, and on the other hand, upholding the moral rule but recognizing the actor's lack of responsibility in a particular case. this ambiguity is resolved by assuming that the excuser is a typical member of their society; thus, in an normal context, the excuse will be seen as a recognition of lack of responsibility. but in an abnormal context, it will be seen as agreement (with the rest of society) that no moral rule has been transgressed.

second, if such bad acts are commonly excused, we are likely to make those who actually do act morally seem supererogatory and doing above and beyond what is actually expected of them, when in fact, they are merely doing the basic minimum of human decency.

and third, if we so broadly excuse, we will set up a depiction of the world in which the bad actor is incapable of reflection and self-legislation.

Calhoun comes to the conclusion that we might well reason from lack of responsibility to excuse, but only when these three objections will not be present. so a feminist might excuse his or her sexist colleague when speaking to other feminists, but certainly not when speaking directly to that colleague or to the public at large.

from excuse we move to reproach. in a normal context, reproach is not always necessary; but its presence in general is just what we mean by calling the context normal. if reproach never occurred in regards to some particular sort of ill action, then we could no longer call that context normal. in exceptional cases, however, reproach can be omitted (just as excuse is given).

is reproach required in abnormal contexts? it might well not be deserved: the person reproached might truly not be responsible. but Calhoun is not happy with this, and says in abnormal contexts, it may be reasonable to reproach moral failings even when individuals are not blameworthy. (405) By using the word reproach, Calhoun obscures the truly alarming character of this sentence; what she means to say is that it is sometimes reasonable to blame people who are not blameworthy.

Calhoun distinguishes there being a justification for such reproach from it having a point, and argues that even if not justified, it still has a point. first, it has an educational purpose to raise awareness of the moral issue involved; second, reproach motivates others to act morally.

with both the question of excuse and reproach, Calhoun is concerned with moral growth of society. she feels that denying excuse and imposing reproach are important tools in bringing about social change for the better, indeed for transforming an abnormal social context into a normal one.


applying Calhoun's analysis to the diachronic case of ancient slavery seems fairly straightforward. it is certainly clear that the context is abnormal. the pervasiveness and general lack of serious questioning of the institution of slavery show that the context of slavery in ancient athens was even more abnormal than that of american slavery or twentieth century american sexism.

the situation is then not merely abnormal but at the very extremes of abnormality. indeed, it is this very abnormality of the situation that causes us to scratch our heads in befuddlement at how to react to it.

should we excuse from responsibility those in ancient athens who participated in this institution? many simply answer yes. but Calhoun gives excellent reasons why we might not want to excuse bad actors in an abnormal context, even though they are perhaps not individually responsible.

first, we should ask whether our excusing might seem to sanction their practice. indeed, some of the reasons sometimes given for excusing them do seem to be sanctioning. for example, we are sometimes are told that all ancient societies practiced slavery or the economic structure inherently depended on slavery—statements often made in an attempt to excuse the practice. these statements imply if we were in the same situation, we should do the same thing, that slavery is really all right if everybody does it or your economy depends on it. this does indeed sanction the practice.

second, Calhoun asks whether making the excuse serves to turn someone merely doing their basic duty into someone of supererogatory heroism. when we are told that many ancient slaveowners treated their domestic slaves like members of the family, that manumission of urban slaves was common, that there were those who for philosophical or religious reasons chose not to own slaves, we are being led to infer that these people are better than their fellows, are going above and beyond what is required. indeed, when we hold up someone who manumits his slaves as a heroic example, we are making exactly the error that Calhoun thinks excusing the behavior will lead us to make. in fact, the only way we could regard such release as exemplary is if we don't think it is required—if we think that the slave really is property, and the owner is being generous.

so indeed excusing the institution of ancient slavery does turn normal decent action into supererogatory action, and makes merely dutiful ancient Greeks into heroic examples. it also makes merely dutiful contemporary persons into supererogatory ones, when we congratulate ourselves on how enlightened we are. indeed, if one focuses on the normality of ancient slavery, (as with the everyone does it excuses), the excuse serves even more to make us appear supererogatory. and how pernicious this is! for it can cause some to conclude that, for example, american blacks owe american whites some kind of thanks or kind regards for agreeing to set them free, as if it were legitimately the kind of choice one could make. one should not be expected to thank others for not enslaving one.

finally, the third danger Calhoun points out in excusing is that we might seem to be voiding the responsibility and autonomy of each actor in their bad acts. when we say that someone is merely a product of their time, we are making this error. and it should be noted that there is a transtemporal component here. when we excuse ancient slavery because of the abnormality of their situation, we not only say that ancient greeks were unable to be responsible moral actors, we must say the same about 19th century americans slaveowners and 20th century american racists. and then, how can we satisfactorily fight for social change?

so it would seem that we should not excuse the ancient institution of slavery. but should we reproach it? perhaps the appropriate attitude is to simply leave out any moral judgments entirely. Calhoun provides three motives for reproach: education, motivation, and promotion of the social growth of moral knowledge. obviously, ancient greek slavery is dead, and nothing we do will change the behavior of long-dead athenians. it might seem then that since the bad actors in question cannot be taught and cannot be motivated, there is no point in offering reproach.

however, the educational and motivational value of reproach is not confined merely to the person reproached. those who hear discussion of ancient slavery themselves need education about its erroneous character. today, we have a normal context as regards slavery. but in a normal context, reproach is precisely the way we uphold the values of that context.

by offering appropriate reproach for the institutions of ancient slavery, we can sharpen the need to educate members of our own society about the evils of slavery. note how excusing strategies work against this. no matter how kindly a slave-owner treats his domestic slave, the lack of liberty and fundamental violation of dignity are the paramount considerations. by focusing attention on how nicely the slave is treated, and how he might really have had a livable life, we detract attention from the more important issue. again, by focusing on the less horrible life of urban slaves, the truly horrid conditions of those in the fields can be conveniently slipped over.

so reproach can provide education and motivation for people today, but does it contribute to the social growth of moral knowledge? after all, we have already learned what is wrong about slavery; where is the growth supposed to occur? our own social arrangements are not all perfectly fine: we indeed have a society with pervasive evils as well, albeit not as horrible as slavery. when we revoke responsibility for ancient slaveowners, as products of their times, we tell people today that they may uncritically participate in the social institutions of today. so indeed, to excuse ancient slavery can indeed block present-day growth and development of moral knowledge.

we see then that in a diachronic case, all the reasons for avoiding excuses and for giving reproach are still present, despite the initial appearance that they are not. next, I will examine two problems with Calhoun's account, and see what to make of those problems in the diachronic case.


Calhoun's most challenging claim perhaps is that she supports the reproach of individuals who are not responsible. if reproach is a sort of punishment, then surely it is fundamentally illegitimate to deliver it to those who don't deserve it: even if they might be educated, or motivated by it; even if it prompts social change to a better moral universe.

Calhoun argues convincingly for the good that reproach can produce, but she seems to elide the harm that it can cause as well. just as with punishment, reproach serves its good ends by the mechanism of making a real flesh-and-blood human being suffer. perhaps such suffering is indeed warranted sometimes, but not merely because it is useful: it must in some way be deserved too.

Calhoun says it is not productive to address questions of the justification of reproach in some circumstances. but doesn't this possibly miss the point? indeed, this suggests that sexists must come under heavy scrutiny, and be attacked for that for which they are not responsible; but that on the contrary, feminists may freely attack whoever and whenever, provided it serves the laudable goals of education, motivation, and worthy social change.

i cannot believe that Calhoun actually believes such a thing. there is a way to understand the issue of reproach however, which avoids this issue: reproach need not be punishing. reproach may be delivered not as a sharp rebuke, or an accusation of wrongdoing, but as an explanation of the error of one's behavior in a respectful tone.

i once witnessed such a reproach. a middle-aged male speaker referred to the women in the room as ladies in a non-social context. he was criticized for that later; he replied that where and when he was brought up, it was a term of respect. those who reproached him persisted, and explained the reasons why that term is inappropriate in such a setting. he understood, and actually i believe appreciated the intervention.

i disagree with Calhoun when she says that in abnormal contexts decisions about responsibility cannot be both justified and have a point. (406) i believe they must still be justified, and that if we want to serve the point of a reproach, we must still do so in a way which respects the responsibility. i agree with her that it may be reasonable to reproach moral failings even when individuals are not blameworthy, (405) but i would add that in such situations one may reproach, but not blame: and that it is as important to avoid the suggestion of imputing unearned blame as it is to avoid the appearance of condoning illegitimate behavior.

indeed, we must also evaluate the likelihood and prospects of education, motivation, and good social change in the synchronic case. it will not do to say reproach can be educative and then reproach happily at will, giving free vent to angry feelings, ignoring whether in this particular circumstance, education will be forthcoming.

this is greatly heightened by two problems in the case of feminism. first, as Calhoun points out, feminist discourse exults in new meanings, lack of communication, and divergence in language between its own work and traditional moral discourse. and second, feminist discourse frequently expects that one must already understand what is wrong: often the educative task is entirely shirked, expecting wrongdoers to intuit complex social realities which took theorists decades to grasp adequately.

if reproach has a point—if it serves the goals of education, motivation, and beneficial social change—any potential reproacher must measure the reproach against those measures. in addition, Calhoun's worry about condoning behavior seems as much motivated by a desire to avoid appearing wrong as much as to avoid doing wrong. the moral point of view should not consider whether one appears right or wrong, but whether one does right or wrong.

in the diachronic case however, there is no issue of the injustice of poorly delivered reproach. we cannot harm those long dead, and we owe them no moral attention. so when it comes to ancient wrongdoers in abnormal contexts, we can reproach without needing to be careful to temper our words to avoid unnecessary harm. we do still have an obligation to avoid misrepresenting their situation, however; we owe this obligation to those with whom we speak today. but there is no serious danger here in the case of ancient slavery. we must measure our reproach against the likelihood of educating and motivating those alive today, and beneficial social change in our own society; and at the same time, we cannot harm those long dead. reproach of the ancients for their ill acts seems eminently justified and appropriate, and indeed, to be an important tool in present-day moral education and development.


i therefore conclude that reproach and condemnation is an entirely appropriate response to ancient slavery, and that easy excuses of its horrors not only block an accurate understanding of its moral nature, but also can impede present-day morality.

Calhoun's discussion of the synchronic case, while not flawless, offers a very useful framework within which to evaluate general problems of the doing of great systemic evil by people who take the moral point of view and are not corrupt.

the short answer then to the conundrum i posed at the outset is to simply assert: sometimes people of the highest morality are blinded by their circumstances and for reasons not their fault never come to examine the morality of certain of their actions. we can examine those actions, and conclude they are of the most serious moral character, and also, we believe that were those doing them to examine them carefully in the important ways they never did, they would end up agreeing with us about the serious moral evils involved. those who indeed take the moral point of view would certainly not spend their energies trying to excuse their past bad actions, but instead, would spend them on trying to rectify the effects of those actions.


all page number references are from Calhoun's paper:
Cheshire Calhoun. ethics, volume 99, issue 2 (january 1989), 389–406.

things i wrote for my m.a.