Green on Slavery

Bob Murphy has several times asserted that the conception of rights that has been put forward here would have made me a supporter of slavery in 1859.

Let's have a look at what T.H. Green, an early forwarder of this understanding, had to say about slavery:

"The claim of the slave to be free, his right implicit to have rights explicit, i.e. to membership of a society of which each member is treated by the rest as entitled to seek his own good in his own way on supposition that he so seeks it as not to interfere with the like freedom of quest on the part of others, rests, as we have seen, on the fact that the slave is determined by conceptions of a common good to himself with others, as shown by the actual social relations in which he lives. No state law can neutralise this right. The state may refuse him family rights and rights of property, but it cannot help his living as a member of a family -- acting and being treated as a father, husband, son, or brother -- and therefore cannot extinguish the rights which are necessarily involved in his so acting and being so treated. Nor can I prevent him from appropriating things and from associating with others on the understanding that they respect each other's appropriations, and thus possessing and exercising rights of property. He has thus rights which the state neither gives nor can take away, and they amount to or constitute a right to freedom in the sense explained." -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 115

Thus we see that, far from offering any support of slavery, this view offers a solid argument against the institution. What is true of this understanding of rights is that it (correctly) views rights as only making sense within an historical tradition. There was no, and could not have been any, anti-slavery movement in Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome because their traditions contained no idea equivalent to "all men are created equal." Only within a tradition containing such an idea could the inconsistency of the institution of slavery with that principle be articulated.


  1. Can Bob then counter, your views would have made you a supporter of slavery in the Roman Empire?

  2. Only within a tradition containing such an idea could be inconsistency of the institution of slavery with that principle be articulated.

    To the uninformed, this might sound like a type of relativism. So how is it not?

    1. Compare: "Quantum physics could not have been developed without the advances in classical mechanics that took place in the 19th century."

      Does that sound like scientific relativism?