Shane Frederick Ph.D.

Cognitive Reflections

Suppose You Were a White Southerner Before Abolition

What would your position on slavery have been?

Posted Jul 20, 2020

When Robert George posed this question to his students at Princeton, all claimed that they would have been abolitionists. However, before crediting their claims to moral courage, he challenged them to point to a single instance in which they supported an unpopular cause at great personal cost. When they could not, he rejected their claims as nonsense, predicting that “only the tiniest fraction would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves.”

His question deserves both scrutiny and elaboration. Am I supposed to imagine myself being transmogrified or merely teleported? I might interpret this question as a history quiz: What was the typical position on slavery among people living in the South at that time? In that case, “I” presumably would have supported slavery because most people did.

Of course, as the quotes around the second “I” signify, my identity does not survive this trip; my brain would be emptied and then refilled with whatever beliefs and attitudes were common then. Most of his students [1] appear instead to construe the trip as teleportation, in which they retain their current beliefs and attitudes, and perhaps even their knowledge of all that will later transpire (the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act, etc.). [2]

Though I share his skepticism that his time-traveling philosophy students would swell the ranks of Southern abolitionists, I can imagine being emboldened by the certainty that I’m on the right side of history. [3] Thus, I presume that some would, which raises the question of who would? [4]  

The most straightforward conjecture is that those who are currently most outspoken about perceived racial injustices would be the same people fighting against injustice then. But the opposing conjecture seems plausible too; since most students are already quite energized about these issues, those who openly avow disinterest or who challenge aspects of promulgated narratives are demonstrating a willingness to be unpopular, and, thus, could be regarded as abolitionists in the making.  

Since we can never run this experiment, I’ll settle for the next best thing: a referendum. Please feel welcome and encouraged to register your “vote” in the comments section and I’ll tally the results in a future post. It might be helpful to imagine a specific set of people—say 10 of your friends—and speculate about which of them would have opposed slavery if “they” had been born two centuries ago, or if they (no quotes) were teleported to that period in our history.

[1] I’m curious how his black students respond, since the thought experiment requires transmogrification from them.

[2] Possibly, many do adopt the transmogrification interpretation, but are simply unwilling to say the words: “I would have supported slavery.” lest their understanding of history be misinterpreted as an endorsement of it. I can imagine someone poised to utter those five words fearing what might lie ahead. “Wait everybody, why are you castigating me? My answer merely reflects the metaphysical ambiguity of the question. I was actually indicting the immorality of past people, which you should regard as virtuous...”

[3] Even assuming a teleportation interpretation, considerable ambiguities remain. For instance, would the temporally displaced student be permitted to reveal her unusual situation? I’m trying to imagine it: “I’m from the future. I have the benefit of perspectives you lack. Here is a screenshot of a recent poll showing that nearly all Americans support interracial marriage. Here is the product of such a union being sworn in as President of the United States. Here is a video of an airplane. It can travel 20 times faster than a horse. I flew in one yesterday. You all really need to listen to me.”

[4] One could further ask what would happen to the beliefs and attitudes of his teleported students, having found themselves thrust amid those whose views bear no similarity to theirs or to any views they’ve ever heard. My guess is that they would never own slaves themselves but do little to publicly oppose slavery, except perhaps sharing their moral misgivings with a handful of their least racist friends after their fourth mint julep.