Slavery and old time religion

25/01/2012 § 2 Comments

There have been good discussions on ethics and vegetarianism on TVHE and Offsetting Behaviour recently. I don’t have anything to add to the central topic, but this footnote from Offsetting caught my eye. Eric is trying to work out why eating animals is okay but enslaving humans is not:

You can maybe square this by saying people get massive disutility from being slaves while animals don’t know that they’re slaves. But humanity has a long history of slavery, and most slaves, as best I’m aware, didn’t commit suicide. So by revealed preference, lifetime utility was likely still positive. And then we’re stuck again.

I think I can explain the lack of suicide in a way that doesn’t require a positive lifetime utility: old time religion.

Let’s focus specifically on Christianity. It gives you something to hope for after this life. This life may be full of pain and woe, but you will be rewarded in the next life. In fact, the Beatitudes (Blessed are the X, for they shall f(X)) promise that the worse things are now, the better they are going to be. And, following Pascal’s logic, the afterlife is infinite while this life is finite. Therefore, possible reward outweighs any cost you must pay now.

To lock things down in this life, however, early exit is not allowed. Catholicism, for example, holds that suicide is a mortal sin. Sin separates you from God and ruins your afterlife. Therefore, you must live out your years if you want your eternal reward. Utility over the span of a natural lifetime might be negative, but the slave doesn’t suicide because of the promise of future reward.

I’m not sure how to incorporate this into an economic framework. We could say that we don’t have enough information to value the lifetime disutility of slavery — it is potentially nearly infinite. We could also say that religion is providing comfort in the present, so that the sum of disutility from slavery and utility from religion is positive. That is, you shouldn’t have baby farms unless they are religious baby farms.

Just moving away from flippant theorising for a moment, let me refer the reader to Ta-Nehisi Coates. We are in the sesquicentennial of the US Civil War (1861-1865). Slavery is thus being discussed in the States, and Coates is a thoughtful writer on the topic. Today, for example, he wrote about the capital value of slaves and its influence on rhetoric. I was raised in Virginia, and our history classes took a rather Southern view on slavery. Coates provides a different perspective.

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§ 2 Responses to Slavery and old time religion

  • Ok, restrict my claim then to atheistic slaves or animists who didn’t believe in second period punishment. I can buy it for Christians, maybe. But beliefs are also price sensitive. If life really does turn to hell, you might start wondering more about whether there really is a second period or whether it’s a finite game.

    But you do make a nice point. I should have Christian slaves.
    (no I shouldn’t!!)

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